The road to El Silencio is bumpy and covered with gray rocks. It is lined by dense rows of African palm sparsely interspersed with the teal and pink homes of plantation workers. Young men on tractors bob up and down towing behind them beds filled with palm fruit. After an hour on the rocks through the palm tunnel, you cross a river and the landscape opens up like a scene from Jurassic Park. (Coincidentally, as we jounced in, John Williams' score played on the radio.) A vulture scavenged over the stumpy open field to the right, and to the left small forest-green humps of mountains shaped the horizon. There was the land of El Silencio.
Over spring break, as part of a seminar called Sustainable Development in Costa Rica, we (10 students and Associate Professor of Anthropology Monty Roper) traveled to El Silencio--a small rural cooperative-based town that opens its homes and workplaces to tourists looking to experience Tico culture--to research the costs and benefits of development on the community.
While the cooperative, which effectively governs the town, relies heavily on African palm for income, it has created a diverse set of projects both to earn colones and draw tourists. Contrasting the surrounding palm monoculture, these projects include a cattle ranch, an organic garden, and an animal rescue center that houses spider monkeys and red macaws, among other species. Ideally, tourists come to be "volun-tourists" and work on one of the projects while living with families in town.
Tourists have become an everyday occurrence in El Silencio. Not only do four or five minibuses of rafters come through and get snacks at theAlbergue, but also people like us stay in town for weeks at a time, becoming fleeting parts of the community. They play volleyball with community members, go for dips in the river, and eat and watch TV with hosts.
Tourism has caused some tension in the community. According to community members we interviewed, some associates of the co-op are more agriculturalists and think they would be better off if they scrapped tourism--and the wealthy gringos who impact youth behavior--and focused more on palm. Others hold that tourism is one of the best projects for the co-op and that they should spend more to improve the rescue center, hotel, and other tourist draws.
As development in the region continues, the bumpy road from Quepos will be paved to accommodate the heavy trucks of a large cement producer--a condition to attaining rights over sand from the rivers. The paved road will mean more traffic through El Silencio, and more tourists--whether this is for better or for worse is the crux of the co-op's tension.
After two weeks of research, our class returned to Grinnell to contemplate what we saw and heard, and to assess El Silencio as if we were "development experts." We created a development diagnostic of the community, identifying current strengths and weaknesses related to various aspects of the community, and also developed recommendations for the town based on our research and broader development theory.
In completing these assignments, the tensions I observed between different development approaches remained pressing yet somewhat hard to grasp. While the objective goals of development--long-term increases in health, wealth, and education--will drive the process, the intangibles will determine its success.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2008