Gentrification in Costa Rica

Throughout our journey in Costa Rica we had the privilege of seeing and experiencing wonderful people and places.  However, an underlying theme kept popping up.

We visited Cabo Matapalo on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.  It was great.  We met a fabulous guide, Rodolfo.  He described how his family owned a large tract of land (finca) in which they grew many fruits and vegetables for sale.  However, his family sold the land to pay for school for his seven brothers and sisters.

“Do you look at the land now and regret that.   There seem to be smaller lots and more resort style tourists moving in”

“No, because I have so many more opportunities now. Also, many of the new land owners coming from rich countries allow the land to return to a forest state which provides more habitat for native wildlife.”

It seemed like he was ok with the changes; however later we passed a house and scowled: “Some of the people move down here for Costa Rica, yet they change everything, they pull out native plants and trees and plant things that are harmful.  Look here this vine is killing everything it grows on.  And there, look, there is no path for arboreal mammals to move from tree to tree.  Why move here if you want to change everything about it.”

And later we had this exchange: “People complain why I charge so much.  I ask them to go shopping.  They comeback and tell me everything is so expensive.  Right I say, that is why I have to charge a lot for my services.   I have to live.  The change is like upgrading from 3G to 4G, it costs more, and you can’t stay at 3G if everyone else goes to 4G.”

Towards the end of our time with him he also noted: “There are less and less Ticos here.  I don’t even say ‘Hola’ when walking down the street anymore.  And granola?  No one would have wanted granola 20 years ago, now our stores stock food that is not typical.  This also drives prices up.”

He was describing a process of gentrification.  Many of the for sale signs we saw throughout the country said just that: “For Sale” by USA firms such as Century 21 or Caldwell bankers.  Many did not say : “Se Vende Lotes”.  Many of the hotels, AirBnB were owned and operated by ex-patriots, all with stories of finding their way to Costa Rica and falling in love with it and staying.

“I finished my last tour with the Grateful Dead, and decided to come here.”  “I’ve always dreamt of the of the Jungle, and when I came here, I found what was in my dream.”  We heard a similar story from another Cabo Mantapalo resort owner: “I was hired for a director position, and decided to take a vacation before getting behind a desk.  I got here, and decided I didn’t want to leave.”  Similarly in Dominical: “I left home at 16 to surf. I came to here, and never left…that was 30 years ago.”

The themes were similar.  People fell in love with Costa Rica and wanted to stay.  Who wouldn’t want to stay in this paradise?

The statistics back up our limited experiences. “The immigrant population tripled more between 1984 and 2000 and continued to increase later, although, at a slower rate.  The research refers and states that Costa Rica had about 411,408 people born abroad in 2015, 40% more than in 2000. The foreign-born population covers all people who have ever migrated from their country of birth to their current country of residence.” (Source) The mix of this immigration is significant as well.  Three-fourths of those immigrants come from Nicaragua who flood the market for low skilled service jobs for the wealthier immigrants from the USA, Europe, and Asia who are attracted by Costa Rica’s beauty, climate, and political stability.  This influx is changing that stability of traditional economies in many ways.  The pressure is clearly pushing many regions of Costa Rica from a self-sustaining economy to a service economy.  As Rodrigo so astutely observed in our time with him, that is bringing both advantages and disadvantage.

We went to local’s market on Friday night.  We expected local goods and wares for locals. Instead of a farmer’s market-like environment, there was jewelry and handicrafts, homemade soaps (proudly bragging they were now in the airport), and ice cream.  All but two vendors were Tico, the rest had relocated there from up north.  Moreover, the market resembled Telegraph Ave in Berkeley rather than a local market where people bought and sold items they both grew and needed.  We saw mostly tourists, talking English, who were shopping for souvenirs rather than weekly needs.


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