Posted: November 14, 2011

Last month I traveled to The SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies in Costa Rica, where I spent 10 days photographing students living and studying in the field. Having only lived and worked at the field station in Bhutan, I was excited to see what life was like at an established SFS Center in Central America.

Upon arriving at the Center I was greeted by a friendly group of students who were picking oranges for fresh-squeezed juice in the morning. Elsewhere other groups of students, called ‘pandillas,’ were busy cooking breakfast, feeding chickens or performing other various chores around the campus. The center was bustling with activity and I immediately felt welcomed into their diverse and close-knit community.

During my first few days I photographed daily life at the Center – lectures at the outdoor classroom, field research exercises in the orange and mango groves around campus, and afternoon siestas on the cozy hammocks outside the dormitories.

The highlight of my trip was accompanying the students to the rural village of El Sur, a community-based ecotourism project located on the border of Carara National Park. The tiny community of 10 households was incredibly hospitable to our group, leading us on a beautiful hike through the rainforest, demonstrating how their traditional sugar cane mill works and preparing us delicious meals and coffee each day.

The students participated in a community outreach project, teaching local children to sample and identify aquatic macroinvertebrates in the river that ran through the village. We waded waist-deep into the river with nets to collect samples that would be examined later under microscopes. Despite being completely soaked from the river and torrential rains, everyone was in high spirits and had a great time getting dirty in the field.

It was fascinating to learn about this small village’s efforts to balance economic growth with biodiversity conservation. After losing a significant amount of farmland to the neighboring national park, the villagers adopted new strategies to develop sustainable community-based tourism, attracting visitors interested in education, research and conservation. Volunteers from abroad now live in the village year-round working on community development and infrastructure projects. This community’s story reminded me of the many villages across Bhutan that face the same challenging question – how do you modernize without compromising cultural heritage and the natural environment?

Other highlights included visiting a family-run organic coffee farm in Atenas and a cold, rainy misadventure with one of the interns to the top of Volcan Irazú, the highest active volcano in the country. Overall it was a fantastic trip and I am grateful to have spent it with such a great group of students and staff. Despite the obvious differences between the Bhutan and Costa Rica programs, I’ve found that SFS students are similar no matter where they are stationed – they are intelligent, engaged, easy-going and adventurous.

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