Category Archives: Estibrawpa

Dispatches From the Field #1

The journey to the village of Yorkín begins at 6:30 in the morning when you catch the bus in Puerto Viejo, the rambunctious little beach town with an international flair where the smell of ganja flows freely through the air. This area of Costa Rica, the Talamancan coast, was originally settled by Caribbeans from the island nations and also from workers traveling north by boat after working on the Panama Canal. It wasn’t until much later that people from the rest of Costa Rica arrived to the area. However, both these groups were preceded by the indigenous populations who have some of the oldest mitochondrial DNA in the Americas. It is about an hour bus ride from Puerto Viejo to the municipal capital of the Talamancan Indigenous Reserve, appropriately named Bribrí. WP_20140731_001At the bus stop there is a small restaurant (closed on Sundays) a small tienda, and panaderia where you can get a cup of coffee, pastries, or a baguette. From Bribrí you take a rickety yellow school bus over a bumpy road to the little hamlet of Bambu, which has a smattering of small houses and an even smaller tienda. From Bambu, you walk down to the river where you are met by a member of the community of Yorkín who captains a motorized dugout canoe (the canoes have only had motors for about 10 years when Estibrawpa, the ecotourism project, had saved enough money to buy them, making the trip up the river much faster. Now it is only about 40 minutes).WP_20140731_003

From the riverbank it is about a 10 minute (often) muddy slog to the area of the village in which most of the ecotourism activities occur. I was thrilled when they showed me the casita in which I would be living; one bedroom with a bathroom and a veranda where I hung a hammock which was given to me by a man I had befriended on my previous visit, which was made by a friend of his out of nylon cord which seems indestructible in the jungle environment.WP_20150808_008

WP_20150808_009

I was told that for the first week I would be helping with a construction project, building a new office near the river. The leader of the job is a 70-year-old patriarch who climbs around the construction site like someone half his age. He told me he spent two years studying construction in school somewhere in the Talamancan area. It is amazing the work that they can do with only simple tools; hammers, nails, squares, hand saws, and a plumb bob. They use no scaffolding and climb around on three by fours like Romanian gymnasts. I spend my day much in the same way as I’ve spent on other construction sites; fetching tools, cutting boards to size, and basically guessing what needs to be done next. Like any worksite, conversations and banter occur constantly. It is during these times that I’m able to learn much about the community. For example, the job boss is 70 years old, has 10 children, and 30 grandchildren. He had his last child when he was about 48 years old. I find this fascinating in that if you consider most of the residents of Yorkín have around eight children, and the entire population of the village is between 200 and 250 persons, this man alone is responsible for a very large proportion of the entire community. I can’t wait to do a kinship diagram of his family.

Saturday I was given a day off and decided spend my day fishing in the Telire River which forms one of the boundaries of the village. I was able to catch two small fish, somewhat similar to trout, but I was looking for something bigger and returned them both to the river. After showing pictures on my phone to several members of the community I discovered the fish are named “Lissa” and are considered very good to eat. WP_20150808_003I have been befriended by a group of young kids who follow me everywhere and we are all going fishing together next week. I remember reading something by Malinowski (or was it Pritchard?) In which he said his first solid contacts in the community were the children, from whom he learned the language and some of the basics of the culture. I find myself having the same experience, the children are constantly teaching me words, laughing heartily at my pronunciation, and telling me about their families and their lives.WP_20150808_006

When there are tourists in the community I often help out in the kitchen and eat with the other workers. When there are no tourists in the community I’m usually invited over to somebody’s house for meals. The usual fare is black beans and rice, with local vegetables and fruits, accompanied at times by chicken raised in the village. I drink the water (from upstream in the Telire) straight from the tap (a 1” pvc pipe with an on/off valve), and my stomach and digestion is healthier than it’s been in perhaps years. For a couple of days, there was a tourist here from Germany who did not speak any Spanish but spoke English pretty well. Having no other English speakers in the community at the time, I helped translate for him. I see my work at the construction site and in the kitchen, as well as my time spent with the children and in peoples’ houses as the purest form of participant observation. I am a firm believer in this first step in the research process. By spending time with the community, learning their customs and language, I have been earning their trust and acceptance. After building trust, people will feel more comfortable discussing more formal topics with me in more formal interview–type settings. Only later will I even attempt to have somebody fill out a survey instrument.

With all of the international visitors, the young people here are exposed to people from many different cultures. I know one 23-year-old guide who speaks fluent Spanish, fluent Bribrí, is pretty darn good with English, and knows phrases in both French and German. Although it is very rare for Bribrí to leave their home areas and live elsewhere, a few of the young people in the village are showing interest in life in other places and are constantly asking me about life in the United States, they seem to be particularly interested in how much money a guide can make and how much things cost. It will be interesting to see how many of these young men and women end up leaving the village and visiting other places or beginning lives elsewhere.

So far in my limited experience, I find the members of Yorkín not shy, but some of the older people a little timid around Europeans. They are constantly making jokes (of which I am often the brunt of, one day on the construction site they called me “plumb bob” all day) but I was told by one member of the community that in the past they often had wars with their neighbors and fought off the Spanish invaders with their long-bows and arrows. I find myself quickly adapting to the rhythm of this lifestyle. There is no TV, I only hear music (either from a local radio station or one in Panama or downloaded onto people’s phones, which just like in the U.S. the children seem to master immediately and are better at using than the older people) while working in the kitchen. The sun goes down between around 6:30 and I go to bed soon afterwards and wake up soon after the sun comes up around 5 o’clock in the morning. WP_20140731_010My body still has not adjusted to the heat and humidity or the bugs. I work hard, play hard, and rest hard, all with members of the community – even when I’m resting in my hammock people stop by constantly to have conversations with me. I’m so busy that I do not have time to think much about the amenities I am missing or folks back home (sorry). I believe that if I continue to work hard and engage with the community I will continue to be accepted and people will feel more and more comfortable talking to me about even sensitive subjects.

Thursday, 8/20/15, 9:00 pm, Yorkín, Costa Rica

I am lying in my hammaka listening to a live recording of the Grateful Dead in Egypt, 1978, which I downloaded onto my computer before the trip. It is one of Bear’s recordings, sounding like it was recorded in a multimillion dollar studio yesterday when actually it was recorded on analog tape 40 years ago. The music is accompanied by the sound of crickets, cicadas, and a multitude of other insects adding their voices. I enjoy falling asleep in my hammaka where I can rock back and forth and catch any breezes that might be coming through. I move from the veranda into my room; leaving the door open and grabbing my machete and water bottle. I crawl underneath the mosquito netting and into my too short bed. Around 5:00 I wake up to the sound of a multitude of birds and roosters crowing. I lay in bed for a while listening to the symphony. I then rouse myself and walk to my shower which is a 1 inch PVC pipe with an on-off valve set above a broken tile and cement floor. The cold water is refreshing (it comes from the Telire River upstream, it is the same water I drink) and it feels good to have the evening sweat rinsed from my body. I use no soap, as good soap is a precious commodity around here.

I throw on a pair of long nylon pants, a pair of socks, a cutoff tank top, and my bug suit top made out of mosquito netting. I slip into my Chaco’s because it is not too muddy outside and walk to the kitchen area just down the trail for my Casita. I greet the kitchen ladies and two of the guides that are eating an early breakfast, getting ready to work with clients all day. I walk back to the kitchen area where the cooking is done over an open fire placed upon a contraption of wood and cement in which logs are fed into one end and metal pots boil away over an iron grate. I grab a plastic cup which sits next to the pot which contains the morning’s coffee and a ceramic mug and pour coffee for myself. One of the kitchen ladies hands me a bowl containing Gallo Pinto (which is fried leftover rice and beans), a hard-boiled egg, and some fried plantains. I reach into the cupboard/storage area for a small bottle of Lazano Tabasco sauce. I sit down next to the guides and shake on what seems to me an appropriate amount of Tabasco sauce, but everybody teases me for eating like a Mexican.

After breakfast, I return to my Casita and throw on my Carhartts and a long sleeved nylon shirt. I throw my bag which contains my passport, money, phone (which has no service, but which I use for other things), and field journal into my day pack along with my hammer, tape measure, zip square, and tennis shoes. I tie together the two rice bags filled with nails and sling them over my shoulder. I slip into my rubber boots, tucking my pants legs inside, and head down the trail to the construction site which lays next to the river. We are building an office for the local representative to the Costa Rican police which service the Talamancan reserve. I passed by the house of an older couple who are trying to start a little two table restaurant just up the hill from the river. The woman is very nice and often invites me in for coffee. She has the best coffee that I’ve had so far, no sugar and strong. Her husband and has a small farm (finca) not far from the village where he raises cacao and banana.WP_20150807_001

I arrive before anyone else and sit down on the edge of the river, watching the birds as they busily conduct their morning chores. From here I can see the river and the other bank which is Panama. I open my journal and begin to write. Soon the other workers will arrive and I will be busy for the next eight or nine hours. But for now I enjoy the tranquility and the privacy of this moment. I am not often alone here, and it feels good to sit and think, and take notes in my journal. “Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.”

Saturday, 8/22/15, midday, somewhere above Shuab, Costa Rica.

I am sitting on an old stump, into which a simple bench has been carved, across from one of the older guides who works for Estibrawpa. The stump is worn smooth, with a lustrous polish, from being used for what seems like hundreds of years. We had just finished harvesting pejibaye (a small fruit which kind of looks like an apricot and tastes like a squash) and palmito (which is the heart of a palm tree). We had walked for over three hours to get to his small farm (finca) which lies on the steep mountainside in the hills above Shuab, a small community about two hours downriver from Yorkín. Upon arriving at the finca we searched in the high treetops for a good bunch of pejibaye. When we found a good bunch the guide chopped down the tree with just a few solid strokes of his machete. We had to scramble down a ravine to get to the fruits which we placed into a large rice bag. Next we stopped at a palm tree which had been knocked down by the falling pejibaye. The guide cut away the outer layers of the trunk and removed a 3 foot section of the heart. He gave the heart to me to carry back up the hill while he slung the bag of pejibaye over his shoulder. Reaching the crest of the hill we saw a banana tree with some yellow bananas on it. You don’t see yellow bananas around here very often, as the indigenous people prefer to eat them while they are still green. I pointed them out and my guide asked me if I would like one. “Si, mucho!” He grabbed five of them and I put them in my day pack. After a few minutes, we arrived at the stump/benches and each ate a banana while talking. He told me this finca was passed down to him from his grandfather and to him from his grandfather. So far, it seems that most of the fincas are passed down through the men and the houses are passed down through the women. I am not sure if this holds true in all families throughout the area.WP_20150822_004

Earlier, we had headed upstream from Shuab, crossing the Shuab River five times. We followed a barely discernible trail to his mother’s house. We kicked off our boots, climbed up the stairs, and his mother greeted me warmly and invited me to sit in this giant hand carved wooden rocking chair. I was immediately given coffee and some fried bread. We talked briefly and then descended the stairs, slipped into our boots and headed up an extremely steep muddy trail to the finca. As we were sitting on the benches enjoying our bananas, I reflected on how exhausted I was, how much fluids I’d lost due to sweat, and how far I still had to go to return to Yorkín. I drank about a half a quart of water and we headed down the trail. Upon returning to his mother’s house we dropped off a portion of the pejibayes. We then returned to Shuab, washing out our boots and socks at the final river crossing. We arrived at his house outside of Shuab and I was invited inside for a bowl of rice, beans, and (I think) beef neck. We talked for a while about his family and he showed me the animal guide he had received when he went to guiding school in Limon. He enjoyed hearing about animals that were common to both this tropical rain forest and Colorado and I was amazed at how many different types of animals are in the rainforest that I’d never heard of or seen. He then poured out a large portion of the pejibayes into a large aluminum bowl, and told me the rest were for Estibrawpa. He told me he would be returning to Yorkín later and asked if I wanted to walk with him or walk alone. I told him I would have no problem walking alone and offered to take the bag of pejibayes to Estibrawpa. It was a long hot walk back, but upon arriving I was greeted warmly by the ladies in the kitchen when I deposited the pejibayes and the palmito. I returned to my Casita and stood under the shower for about 10 minutes, bringing my body temperature down and refreshing my spirit. I then lay in my hammaka for a well-deserved rest. WP_20150822_008

I’d like to give a few words of thanks to everybody who has helped me get down here, the Maxwell Grant from the University of Alabama, and my friends and family who have offered support in this endeavor. Come visit! That is all for now, I will post again in a month or two.

 

 

 

 

Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, Probably

When I began my career as a wilderness guide, for the first time in my life I encountered people who were constantly seeking the newest piece of gear, anything from a titanium drinking cup to a sleeping bag which had arms and legs. Being an unschooled vagabond living in my truck and prostituting my wilderness skills out to the highest bidders throughout Idaho, Montana, and Colorado, I made do with the simplest and minimalist accoutrements. I’ve always looked at my gear as sacred; I easily signed over the title of my 1994 Ford Explorer to my friend John, but you could only wrench my MSR backpacker stove out of my cold dead hands. While I was working as a logistics coordinator for the Trailhead Wilderness School, I was often called the “Road Worrier” due to the mental effort I put into packing for a trip. I have protected and cherished my gear throughout the years. For the next year I will be living in a small village without most modern day amenities. Tomorrow everything is going in storage, today I need to pack my gear for Costa Rica.WP_20150715_003

The journey to Yorkín, the Bribrí village in the Talamancan Mountains along the border with Panama where I would be working with a locally conceived ecotourism project called Estibrawpa and conducting my research, begins in Puerto Viejo, a surfer/alternative lifestyle/international small town on the coast which was first settled by black Caribbeans. You catch a bus early in the morning to the town of Bribrí, the main town in the Talamancan Indigenous Reserve. From there you take an old yellow school bus to Bambu, which is nothing but a small general store and a few houses. There you meet one of the Yorkín boat captains who pilots a dugout canoe with an outboard motor up the Yorkín River to the village. From there it is a half hour slog along muddy trails to the Estibrawpa headquarters. Obviously, you cannot simply arrive at your living quarters in a car or bus and unload your belongings. I knew from my experience of the previous summer that I would have to be able to carry all of my personal belongings on my person.

In order to be able to carry all of my belongings, I decided on a large backpack (a Kelty 75th anniversary hybrid 7000 in.³, which I had purchased eleven years prior as a 40th birthday present to myself) instead of a full size dry bag with shoulder straps. In addition, I would bring two daypacks which I could carry one in each hand, and a soft briefcase which I could sling over my shoulder. I had considered bringing the full size dry bag because of its ability to keep moisture away from some of my other gear. However, the dry bag does not have as much internal space and is not as comfortable to carry over long distances as the Kelty pack. After some deliberation, I concluded that I would rather have the Kelty pack and purchase 5 gallon buckets or something similar on my first excursion out of the village either to Bambu, Bribrí, or Puerto Viejo, depending on where I could procure something useful in keeping pests and moisture out of my food and belongings.

When I first began guiding, there was an older more experienced guide (he made his own clothing, something I was always impressed with) who told me, “Take care of your feet first, they are your most important tool.” I took this advice to heart, and own leather boots with vibram soles for travel over terrain, military style bunny boots for the winter, a solid pair of Chaco sandals with the hiking sole for on rafts or kayaks and crossing rivers, and a pair of mukluks for lounging around camp at night. For this trip I knew I would need a pair of what are known in western Colorado as irrigation boots. These are just-below-knee-high rubber boots with good tread, good for mucking livestock stalls and irrigating fields in Colorado or keeping your feet dry and offering (hopefully) protection from a variety of venomous plants, insects, amphibians and reptiles (Costa Rica is home to the fer-de-lance, a snake feared for its aggressiveness and deadly venom) while in the rain forest. On my previous visit to Yorkín, I purchased a pair of boots, and knee-high socks, from a hardware store outside of Puerto Viejo. As I was leaving the village after my stay, I gave those boots to Julio Morales, in whose wife’s house I resided during my visit and with whom I spent my days while he served as guide for the visitors to the village. While still in Tuscaloosa, I perused websites and finally decided on buying a pair of Servus boots from the Campmor catalogue. I knew these would be slightly different boots from those worn by the villagers (green not black for example) and I accepted the fact that these boots would set me apart, reinforcing the fact that I was an outsider, from somewhere else, and somewhat different. These boots would mark me; people would see my boots on the stair steps leading up to a house, and think, “Gregorio esta aqui.”WP_20150715_004

In addition to the boots I decided to also pack a pair of Chaco sandals and a pair of Skechers tennis shoes. The tennis shoes I would wear while traveling through airports and on buses, the Chaco’s can be worn around the house, and the boots would be my main footwear worn while walking around the village and assisting the guides of Estibrawpa while they led visitors throughout the village. While I was studying tracking with Tom Brown in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, he told me how his grandfather, an Apache shaman, had taught him that there were four sacred priorities: Shelter, water, fire, and food. He told me that the first and most important form of shelter is your clothing. Along with my footwear, I chose to bring two pairs of cotton socks, one pair of wool socks, and one pair of knee high socks. The knee-high socks are important to wear with the knee-high rubber boots to avoid chafing. I only owned one pair of knee high socks, so I decided I would simply buy two or three more pairs once I got to Puerto Viejo. For pants I chose to bring three pairs of nylon travel pants with the zip-off legs, a pair of shorts, and a lightweight pair of Carhart’s. I decided to bring the Carhart’s because it was quite likely that I would be lending a hand for various construction projects, and nothing is better than a pair of Carhart’s for construction work. I also brought three button up nylon shirts, one with long sleeves, as well as a T-shirt and two tank tops. I packed a pair of fleece bottoms, a fleece hoodie, and a flannel button-up; because I was going to be spending two months in the mountains of New Mexico before flying from Albuquerque to Costa Rica, I knew I would need some warm clothing. I also figured I would need some warm clothing if I ever chose to leave Costa Rica during my fieldwork to visit the United States, which most likely would be in one of the mountain states where it would be cold. I also packed a rain jacket and my U.S. Army rubber poncho, which can be used as a shelter, a bivouac bag, or simply as a poncho. To round out my clothing I brought a sun hat, a beanie, two bandanas, and my sarong.

In addition to my clothing, I had to decide which gear to bring and what could remain in storage. In keeping with the sacred priorities I brought only two cotton sheets to go along with my army poncho as shelter material. I knew that I would either be staying in my own little bungalow or with a family while in Yorkín. A roof over my head, a bed, and mosquito netting would be provided. So the next order of business would have to do with the procurement and storage of water. I packed one, 32 ounce Nalgene which were serve as my main water bottle. In addition to iodine tablets which I placed in my first aid kit, I also packed my Pur backpacker’s water filter. Even though while I was in Yorkín the previous summer I drank the water straight out of the taps with no ill effects, I could not be certain that everywhere I would be would have safe drinking water. In addition to my tools for water purification, I also brought my “water chicken.” a 2 gallon nylon bag with a pour spout, for water storage.

After feeling confident that I had safe drinking water storage and procurement taking care of, I next focused on fire. I decided to box up my MSR International Backpacker Stove (which can run off of pretty much any type of liquid fuel) along with six lighters and mail them to Puerto Viejo. On a trip to Baja California in January 2012, just a few months after 9/11, I had a backpacking stove removed for my luggage by TSA, and didn’t want to run that risk again. I decided to throw in several Bic lighters because you can’t take them on the plane and I’ve found the lighters throughout Latin America are not as dependable as a Bic.

Now that I had shelter, water, and fire taking care of, I could think about food. I would be purchasing food in Puerto Viejo and carrying it in my packs to Yorkín. I brought a small saucepan with a lid and handle for cooking, a Tupperware bowl with a lid, a thermal coffee cup, and a spoon. On my previous trip to Yorkín I noticed several good-sized trout swimming in the stream that forms the northern border of the village. At that moment I decided I would definitely bring my fishing gear along with me next time I came down. I packed my spin rod, an Ugly Stick pole that breaks down into four pieces and fits into my pack nicely, several lures, some swivels, and a little extra line.

Now that I had the four sacred priorities taking care of I could focus on personal items and first aid. I bought a single blade safety razor along with 50 extra blades for the trip. Along with three bars of Kirk’s Castile biodegradable soap and a toothbrush, this would make up my toiletries. For my first aid kit I packed a roll of athletic tape, Band-Aids, a large bottle of aspirin, a large quantity of bismuth, a nail clipper, baking soda (which has many uses- tooth cleanser, antacid, etc.) and a box of Emergen-C packets to use for oral rehydration. I also packed a bunch of AA and AAA batteries, my compass, GPS, sunglasses, and my Swiss Army knife. These items completed my gear inventory (I planned to buy a hammock and a machete in Puerto Viejo) and all I had left to think about were school supplies.

I decided to bring both my laptop and tablet, so I could have a backup in case one of them went down. These will mostly be used for typing up fieldnotes and data analysis. My plan was to leave the village once a month and get a room in Puerto Viejo where I could access Internet. I decided to bring my phone, even though I would be shutting my service off. I was unsure at the time whether or not the camera function, along with some other functions, would still work even though I turned my service off. I planned on mostly using the phone camera because in my opinion it takes pretty good pictures, but I also brought a very small basic digital camera as a backup. I packed two digital voice recorders along with four Rite-in-the-Rain field notebooks and several pencils. I packed a Costa Rica travel guide, a Costa Rica map, a rain forest plant identification book, and a small book written about the Bribrí who live in the Kokoldi indigenous reserve. Finally, I packed a good supply of various sizes of Ziploc baggies and a bunch of trashbags, which will be used to keep things dry. The very last thing I packed was a gift for Julio, who served as my guide and mentor on my last trip. Julio served as the main guide for Estibrawpa and only had one of those small book bags with the shoulder straps made of cord which are so popular on college campuses. I decided to bring him a good day pack that was larger and had padded shoulder straps.

Now that I had my gear ready, I was excited to get down to Yorkín. I only had a few loose ends to wrap up (IRB among others) before heading out. I cracked open a Tecate Light and squeezed in some lime. Like we say the first night in camp on a backpack trip “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it.”

The Bribri and the way of Siwa

Sometimes while searching frantically through the University libraries’ databases for peer-reviewed journal articles you find that pot of gold under the rainbow. I had a moment like that this morning; I had been searching for peer-reviewed articles which contain information concerning the recent history of the Bribri. This information has been extremely difficult to find. I have been patching together information I have found in websites and books, but I’ve been unhappy with either the sources of my material or the information contained therein. This morning my hard work paid off and I found an article written by Polly J. Posas entitled “Shocks and Bribri agriculture past and present.” In this article, which mostly focuses on Bribri agriculture, Posas includes data gleaned from editorials written at the University of Costa Rica and a couple of books written in Spanish which I have not been able to gain access to. This was exactly the information I was looking for and I delved into her article with renewed fervor.Talamanca

Posas begins by explaining that the amerindians located in the area of the Isthmus of Panama contain some of the oldest DNA groups in the Americas (Perego et al. 2012), suggesting that the modern-day populations are related to some of the first people to populate the Americas. The Bribri belong to this group. The Bribri and a related tribe, the Cabecar, both belong to the Chibchan language group and used to share common leaders and a cohesive political entity until geographic features contributed to their isolation, effectively splitting the groups around 300 years ago. This reminds me of a story I was told by Mole during my time in Yorkin. Mole described how their God Sibu created both the Bribri and the Cabecar, but they were split into two tribes by a great river. The Bribri and the Cabecar for the most part live on their two respective indigenous reserves which together comprise the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, which was set aside in 1977 by the Costa Rican government. According to the 2011 Costa Rican census, there are close to 13,000 indigenous people living on reserves in the country with close to 8000 living on the Bribri Talamanca reserve. The Talamanca Indigenous Reserve is located within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in the south east corner of the Limón province of Costa Rica.

The first written accounts of the Bribri come to us by way of the Spanish explorers. Fernandez, writing in 1908, mentions an account by Juan Vasquez de Coronado in which the explorer states that the women work alongside the men, even bearing arms and going to war. Coronado describes the land as being heavily populated and fertile, with an abundance of crops such as cotton, cacao, corn, and native fruits and plants. In fact, according to pollen analysis, corn has been produced in the area since at least 500 BC (Barrantes et al. 1990). This fact is reflected in the Bribri creation myth which states that the God Sibu created the Bribri and the Cabecar out of two kernels of corn.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Bribri experienced severe disruption and upheaval when the United Fruit Company moved into the area. The company forcibly removed the Bribri from the Talamanca Valley and created large banana plantations in their place. The Bribri were forced to move up into the hills and mountains. Here the Bribri continued their subsistence agriculture but were hampered by the poor soil of the region combined with having to deal with steep slopes and torrential rainfall. Some Bribri moved back into the valley from the 1940s to the 1960s and worked as laborers for the United Fruit Company. Others who had stayed in the mountains often traveled to the valleys to work in the plantations, being away from their homes for months at a time. In 1978, the Bribri’s cacao orchards were decimated by monilia pod rot, which they now control through natural processes such as providing adequate space between trees. Soon after, petroleum prospecting came to their area and the Bribri were again disrupted by heavy machinery, dynamite blasts, and an introduction of a cash economy. The Bribri people were in conflict with the methods of extracting resources as part of the capitalistic economy. Their way of life, given to them by Sibu, revolved around taking care of their natural environment which was seen as being connected to their physical bodies and to Sibu. As Lisandro Diaz Diaz was quoted in Borge and Castillo 1997 “In order to protect the earth and all the marvelous things it contains, Sibu left the knowledge, our science called Siwa, which is expressed through stories, legends, and traditional practices. The Siwa contain spiritual teachings that have governed our relationship with nature… Sibu left us, the Bribri and the Cabecar, as guardians and protectors of the natural diversity. For thousands of years we have cared for our Mother Earth and for the next thousands of years we will continue caring with the same zeal as our elders… A profound interrelation between the society and nature has existed, thanks to this principle, we can still encounter the great natural diversity of Talamanca.”

It is in this context that I currently find the inhabitants of Yorkin. It is their strong connection to the natural environment which has urged them forward in creating through ecotourism a strategy to make their way in the modern world without relying on wage labor or non-sustaining, extractive economies based on plantain or banana monoculture. It is my sincere hope that I may in some way play a small role in aiding them in this process. I also hope to document their practice and share what they have learned and accomplished with other indigenous groups who are finding themselves in the same situation.

 

Culture Specific Terms for Mental Health

During my time volunteering as a guide for the Estibrawpa project in the Bribri village of Yorkin, Costa Rica, the women explained that they started the project to address illness in the community. The first type of illnesses they mentioned came about as a result of the men working with pesticides and fertilizers on plantain and banana plantations. In particular they noted skin and respiratory ailments. The second form of illness they described as “depresión.” As a medical anthropologist I am acutely aware that this term may mean something totally different in this context than how it is understood in the Western medical model. The DSM-IV TR describes a major depressive episode as a period of at least two weeks in duration in which occurs a depressed mood or the loss of interest or pleasure in activities. The individual must also experience at least four additional symptoms that include changes in appetite or weight, sleep, or psychomotor activity, along with decreased energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty thinking or concentrating, or recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation. However, much research in Latin America has shown that there are other cultural terms used to signify similar illness and distress among those populations.

One such research project conducted by Susan Weller and colleagues (2008) found links between the cultural terms susto and nervios and the Western medical formulation of depression. Susto and nervios can both be considered culture bound syndromes, which the DSM defines as “locality specific patterns of aberrant behavior and troubling experience that may or may not be linked to a particular DSM-IV diagnostic category.” Weller found that among her study sample of Mexicans, those who had reported experiencing nervios or susto also reported higher levels of perceived stress and depression. In fact, they suggest that those reporting a period of nervios in the past were 20 times more likely to experience depression.

So, what exactly are the experiences of nervios and susto? Nervios has been described as a chronic situation involving persistent emotional distress with symptoms that include crying, difficulty sleeping, sadness, hopelessness, and being quick to anger. It is more common among women and marginalized members of a population. Susto is often also described as “soul loss.” It is often understood to be caused by sudden fright in which the soul leaves the body. Symptoms include listlessness, restless sleep, debilitation, depression, and indifference related to personal hygiene and dress.

So where does this leave me in determining what is meant by the people in Yorkin by the term “depresión?” To determine this, I can begin by asking which symptoms are related to this term. I can then also ask if there are other terms used within their culture to describe this distress. In this manner, I can determine the specific explanatory model which the women are referring to when they use this term to describe the distress they were feeling. I will also ask if they have heard of the terms nervios and susto and whether or not they use them to describe specific experiences with distress. To determine whether or not the distress they were experiencing can be compared to the Western model of depression, I can use an established instrument, for example the CES-D, to determine if the items in the scale accurately describe their experience of distress. To also add validity to the measuring instrument, correlations can be examined between those reporting “depresión” and their resulting score on the established depression scale.

Ultimately, what is most important to me is the cluster of symptoms which they consider when describing their distress as “depresión.” Also, I would like to determine whether or not they use other terms to describe this distress and why or how they have decided to use the term “depresión” when describing this distress to myself and other visitors. Stay tuned for more on methods concerning how to develop locally derived mental health scales as I review a new article by Weaver and Kaiser.

Risks of Commercial Plantain Production in the Bribri Territories

While volunteering in the Bribri village of Yorkin, I was told the story about why the women in the village decided to start their ecotourism project, Estibrawpa. I was told that before they started their ecotourism project, most of the men were working in banana and plantain plantations. The women say that not only was it an issue for the men to be gone for long periods of time (in those days it took an entire day to travel to and from the village), but the men were also suffering from respiratory and skin ailments. The women explained that they started the ecotourism project to keep the men in the village and eliminate or minimize the health risks associated with working with agrochemicals in the plantations. Knowing nothing about plantation agriculture, I set out to find some information in the literature.

In the article “Pesticide application practices, pest knowledge, and cost-benefits of plantain production in the Bribri-Cabecar Indigenous Territories, Costa Rica” by Polidoro et al. (2008), the authors state that there has been numerous reports of environmental and human poisonings in commercial plantain and banana plantations in Costa Rica. This is especially the case in the Talamanca region where the Bribri reside. This region accounts for 52% of the plantain, 6% of the commercial banana production, and 90% of the organic banana production and Costa Rica. Plantain has historically been an important subsistence crop among the Bribri and has been grown as a commercial export crop since the 1980s. In many Bribri communities, traditional cultivation of basic grains, organic cacao production, and traditional fallows have been replaced by monoculture plantain production. Legislation regulating the use of pesticides and fertilizers are absent in the indigenous Bribri Territories.

Polidoro et al. (2008) conducted a rapid rural assessment to evaluate plantain production in the Bribri indigenous territories. They found that 60% of their respondents grew plantain commercially in monoculture systems using pesticides and fertilizers. They found that the majority of indigenous farmers did not use any type of protective clothing while applying chemicals to their crops. They found that nematicides and insecticides were being applied in manners which allowed for exposure which has been shown to cause both acute and chronic health problems. They also found that over 97% of the farmers used chlorpyrifos treated bags which protect the fruits. The farmers apply these bags by hand which also exposes them to organophosphates. As a result, their respondents reported problems with nausea, headaches, and rashes.

By this initial review of the literature, it appears that the women in Yorkin were right. Commercial plantain production exposes farmers to dangerous agrochemicals and this practice is widespread in the indigenous Bribri Territories. In my opinion, the women have created a more sustainable method of bringing money into their community while preserving their traditions and improving health.

Pesticide application practices, pest knowledge, and cost-benefits of plantain production in the Bribri-Cabecar Indigenous Territories, Costa Rica

Beth A. Polidoro, Ruth M. Dahlquist, Luisa E. Castillo, Matthew J. Morra, Eduardo Somarriba , Nilsa A. Bosque-Perez (2008)

Ecotourism: How do you know it when you see it?

Last month (August 2014) I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer for an ecotourism project named Estibrawpa in the Bribri village of Yorkin. The Bribri are an indigenous group in Costa Rica who live in scattered villages on indigenous reserves near the border with Panama. Estibrawpa was started by a group of women in 1992 as a way to bring money into the community, preserve their traditions, and address health issues. The women explained that before they started their ecotourism project, the men of the village were for the most part employed in wage labor on banana plantations. Due to the fact that traveling in and out of the village involved a daylong journey in a dugout canoe, the men who were working in the plantations were away from the village for long periods of time. As the women describe it, this led to much “depresion” in the village due to fractured and disrupted households. The men were also suffering from respiratory and skin ailments caused by working with chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the plantations. Reflecting on the fact that ecotourism is very popular in Costa Rica, the women decided to start their own ecotourism project.

Visitors arrive via dugout canoe
Visitors arrive via dugout canoe

From its humble beginnings, Estibrawpa has grown over the past 10 years. At first visitors had to commit to a three-day trip to the village; a one-day journey in dugout canoe to the village, a day in the village, and a day return trip out of the village. In time, the community made enough money to buy two outboard motors for their dugout canoes, enabling visitors to come for day trips, increasing the number of visitors. The women explain that now men are able to stay in the village working as guides, canoe captains, and construction workers. Women are involved in organizing the program and scheduling trips, cooking, and giving demonstrations on cacao production which is the exclusive domain of women among the Bribri. Children are taught how to be guides, construction workers, and organizers, and are educated in the stories that make up the Bribri “historia” and the native Bribri language. The women conclude that as a result of their ecotourism project, the village enjoys better mental and physical health.

Entering the village
Entering the village

I decided this situation provided an excellent opportunity to conduct my dissertation research. My first order of business was to peruse the literature on ecotourism and community-based development. I recently found an article by J.K Reimer and Pierre Walter (2012) entitled “How do you know it when you see it? Community-based ecotourism in the Cardamom Mountains of southwestern Cambodia.” Their research involved analyzing an ecotourism project by comparing its aspects to a framework devised by Martha Honey in her book “Ecotourism and sustainable development: Who owns Paradise?” (2008). Honey’s analytical framework for ecotourism includes seven components that should be present in an ecotourism project. It includes: the project involves travel to natural destinations, minimizes impact, builds environmental awareness, provides direct financial benefits for conservation, provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people, respects local culture, and supports human rights and democratic movements.

Traditional bow and arrow
Traditional bow and arrow

In my opinion, analyzing the Estibrawpa project in Yorkin according to Honey’s framework will provide a fruitful beginning to the process of describing and analyzing the community’s efforts. In addition, the collection of biomarkers including blood pressure readings and the administration of the CES-D scale for measuring depression will provide measures for health which can then be compared to similar populations throughout the world. This project will also illustrate how the interaction between biological bodies and their environment affects physical health as measured by blood pressure and mental health (and its neurological correlates) as measured by the CES-D. It is my hypothesis, that through the process of niche construction (modifying their environment and their interactions with it through their ecotourism project) the residents of Yorkin are benefiting the community and improving physical and mental health.