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Letter from Costa Rica.

We are not often exposed, in this country, to acts of principled selfdenial on the part of those far less fortunate than ourselves. America is a country seemingly obsessed with rights, demands and redress. Greed is presumed good, or at least neutral, when accompanied by a relative lack of wealth. So while the poor are, by virtue of their state, free of any need to justify avarice, many of us make special pains to do just that. Accumulation pervades life in the developed world so completely that much can be determined about our worldview by how much and how gracefully we consume.

The narrowness of this universe occurred to me after I spoke with a friend and colleague, a subsistence farmer in a remote corner of Costa Rica, about his decision to decline a hotel developer's offer of $600,000--more money than he, his children or his children's children combined will likely ever accumulate--for a piece of land he and his family have tended since his birth. This particular corner of Costa Rica, graced with black sand beaches and spectacular old growth rainforest, is undergoing a speculative land boom based on tourism. I have worked for two years to prevent the cutting of this forest, and the offer to buy out Miguel Sanchez hung over our efforts like a dagger.

Sanchez explained his decision this way: "I have lived in this forest since I was born," he said. "I have no desire to live anywhere else. Money can be evil. People will ask me for money, and then they might not wish to pay me back. Where I once had friends, I would have enemies." The forest is more important than the money, and besides, (and this he said with a broad smile) "who would help you guys work to protect it?"

A related topic of conversation prevails in Puerto Jiminez, the nearby town of 2,000: a new pulp mill, planned by Stone Container Corporation for construction at the head of a pristine bay called the Golfo Dulce. Stone, a pulp and paper giant based in Illinois, is just one of many commercial enterprises heading overseas to avoid environmental regulations and take advantage of cheap labor.

The Golfo Dulce mill is intended to be the largest in Central America. Thousands of acres of farmland and secondary forest are already being replanted with gmelina, a fast-growing Asian softwood. Some farmers have been forcibly removed. River beds are being scoured for gravel for roads and the building site. The mill will fill the valley with noise, bring enormous tankers up the Golfo Dulce, and likely destroy the delicate mangrove swamps, coral reefs and populations of marine mammals that inhabit the 20-mile-long bay. The Bay, and the Osa Peninsula that flanks it to the west, have been nominated to become a United Nations World Heritage Site.

As with all "development" projects, Stone's mill has a powerful constituency: politicians who will be paid off and workers who are already paid off, (even though the tree planting jobs will largely disappear after the first few plantings, since gmelina regenerates itself). Part of the justification for the plant is the economic revitalization of the region, one described as "declining" by American business magazines who have never been to the peninsula. Miguel Sanchez and the hundreds of other local farmers and fishermen who are fighting the mill would disagree.

Miguel is characteristically terse about his convictions. He knows that cleared forest means less rain, less water in the river that runs by his farm, and less comfort from the blazing Costa Rican heat. I thanked him rather casually for his decision to forego a fortune, reluctant to respond with the enthusiasm that I habitually greet lesser gestures in this country. I would have betrayed too much of America's skewed moral universe, where peole of astounding wealth regularly swoon over each other's negligible acts of charity. He wouldn't have understood, I suspect. For Miguel, it was a logical and practical decision. Because of his oasis in the forest, he already feels wealthy beyond words.
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Title Annotation:narratives of farmer that refused $600,000 offer from hotel developer for his land and other Costa Ricans resisting environmental ruin from economic development
Author:Carothers, Andre
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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