Sustainability park in Costa Rica helps raise communities out of extreme poverty

A sustainable and inclusive park in Costa Rica has given new hope and prospects to people living with the social and environmental consequences of extreme poverty.

The 32-hectare Parque La Libertad(link is external), situated south east of the capital San José in Patarrá, Costa Rica, serves three neighbouring communities where young people are vulnerable to joining gangs and taking part in drug-related activities and which suffer from environmental issues including polluted waterways and scant public plumbing. Almost 50 per cent of the population is under 40 and there is a 54 per cent school dropout rate.

Created by the Ministry of Culture and Youth in 2008, the park offers access to cultural and recreational activities, technology, and a clean environment, along with technical and other training opportunities, all with the aim of promoting social, economic, and environmental change hand in hand with local people, and all tightly aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Scaling up action for sustainability

The park’s Environmental Management and Education Programme (CEGEA)(link is external) was nominated for the 2018 UNESCO-Japan Prize on ESD. UNESCO promotes ESD through the Global Action Programme, which through initiatives like the park, aims to generate and scale up action in order to speed up progress toward sustainable development.

The initiative has three main aims:

  • rehabilitate and reforest at least 5,000 metres of green space;
  • create pathways through the park to be used for educational visits; and
  • reinforce sustainable values while supporting the three communities through educational and social programmes.

Executive Director of Parque La Libertad, Dora Maria Sequeira Picado, said: ‘We draw people from three counties which have around 265,000 people in total who live in impoverished conditions. What we see in particular is how poverty and exclusion put a blindfold over the eyes of young people so they can no longer see a positive way forward. When they leave school, they undermine their options and their future, making it more likely for them to join drug gangs and other criminal activities almost as if it is the only career choice available.  It is the Park’s mission to provide a variety of opportunities that counter the appeal of the street and drug use or trafficking, and lead to social inclusion and personal development.

These at-risk communities also have a lot of environmental and health problems related to waste disposal and clean water.’

“What we want to do is give children and adults other training opportunities that will enable them to get  jobs in order to ensure a decent life while promoting the sustainable and intelligent use of natural resources,” said Dora. “We have started improvement projects such as literacy and environmental awareness education with the people from these communities while at the same time developing an education for sustainable development programme in schools as part of 3rd and 4th grade science programmes. Children outside school can join the Scout Movement which reinforces everything we do with the school programme and involves the parents too.”

Scout Anthony Rojas, 14, a said: “A few years ago I was not really aware of anything related to waste management or caring for the environment. When I joined the scout group I started learning and I felt encouraged to be part of the change: recycle, plant trees, and overall take a good care of my community and nature.”

Providing soft and hard skills for employment

Other activities designed specifically to attract young people include urban sports such as parkour and skating combined with classes such as photography and graphic design, which provide soft and hard skills for employment to counteract at-risk conditions.

The challenges for local women are different as they suffer not only from poverty but a high level of domestic violence.

“Many women who visit the park not only don’t know how to read but are also trapped in violent circumstances for economic reasons. We strengthen them to break the cycle of poverty and violence and give them entrepreneurial skills such as digital literacy or craft-making so they can get jobs or improve their situations at their current jobs,” said Dora.

“We try to deliver the sustainable development message through practical experiential learning that will be meaningful to people. For example, with women learning how to make crafts, we work with recycled materials and talk about the importance of not throwing things in the rivers or we bring in objects made from recycled plastic or wood.”

Ana Lupita Ureña, a resident of the neighbouring community of Patarrá, works as an eco-crafts workshop facilitator

“I worked with different crafts for many years and 8 years ago I joined Parque La Libertad´s Environmental Hub and since then my life took a complete turn. Thanks to the computer literacy classes, recycling, and other skills courses, I gained new knowledge that helped me create a new niche of eco-crafts while sharing the importance of recycling for the preservation of nature. Being a facilitator has not only allowed me to contribute to my household income, but it has also given me the opportunity to improve my personal and family life.”

Fostering biodiversity

The park itself offers a rich biodiversity and ongoing work to make it truly sustainable. It includes gardens designed to attract native species of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

“When we first started the programme, we worked with the natural history department of the National Museum to study the flora and fauna in the surrounding area, to determine what we should plant and grow in the park. Additionally, an initial count identified 87 species of birds,” said Dora.

The park now has 100 different types of birds, some of which are migratory, others indigenous and it is twinned with the US-based Cornell University’s BirdSleuth ornithology label. It is also home to silver foxes, raccoons and snakes and visitors of all ages take part in educational walks to learn more about them.

“The interesting thing is that we are seeing birds that are not common to the area so we now have to find out whether they are attracted by the extra food and shelter of the trees or if climate change is the reason they are moving to higher ground from the coastal areas they normally prefer,” she said.

Future plans to raise money in order to make the park more financially sustainable include selling the workshops developed there to other government institutions to further share experiences and best practices in the teaching of ESD.

“And we need bigger programmes to cater to the ever-growing needs of the population. We want people not only to break away from poverty but to stay out permanently. And we also need to further improve the infrastructure. Part of the education process is to provide a dignified space for everyone to learn in. We are sending the message that as citizens and human beings they deserve good living spaces and working conditions, but you have to put your heart and your effort to achieve a decent life for you and your family,” said Dora.