Case Study Analysis: Development Debates in Indigenous Costa Rica

April 27, 2017


The case study “Development Debates at a Town Meeting in Indigenous Costa Rica” records a community debate over whether or not to bring a mining business to Di Tsi, an indigenous reservation in Talamanca, Costa Rica. The indigenous Bribri tribe of Di Tsi received an offer from a Canadian mining company with beneficial economic and social development opportunities for their village of about 700 people. To make the decision, dozens of village members came together to hear community organizations and members speak their piece on the investment offer.

The Bribri, living in the poorest region ranked by per capita income in Costa Rica, are divided over the economic style of development in their village. The division is primarily between grassroots organization workers and pro-mining residents. The pro-mining residents have means to make a living outside of grassroots organizing and live in poorer, less economically advantaged positions in the Bribri community, in comparison to the organizers who typically own more land.

At the meeting these two groups proposed opposing points, weighing the positive and negative consequences of a mining contract. Two other groups also shared their views, weaving in debate points not promoted by either organizers or pro-mining residents, the women and elders. Although they won’t have the final call in the decision, they brought up important issues that revolved around community life and cultural values. In observing all four perspectives, the Bribri have a difficult decision to make despite how clear the outcomes of the decision may appear. In observing these outcomes, I have chosen to support them in maintaining their culture and autonomy by not opting into a mining contract.

Making this decision was difficult because the benefits with the mining company, if implemented as said, can bring better health care and even education. Yet, it is hard to determine based on the history of development in Latin America. I choose to be against mining because the Bribri live on a reservation, participate in culture preservation, and have the support of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). With this, if they do not choose mining, the Bribri are still not sacrificing their livelihoods and will be able to live off the land. With mining, the environmental and social implications cannot be ignored as they threaten their indigenous culture, family structure, and autonomy.

In reading the arguments, particularly by the women and elders, I see community and social development as more important than immediate economic development. The Bribri have potential to create change in their own communities from what I observed, and I think that should be taken into consideration before they decide to commit to foreign investment. In observing what we have learned in this class and what I read in Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crisis in Latin America, the Bribri seem to have a choice and I think that it may be one worth taking advantage of.

In the next section, I will cover the history and policy that have shaped Latin America for what it is today, displaying how tribes like the Bribri, are put into the position they are in. Then, I will discuss the community meeting and the organizations differing input, offering my critical opinion as to what I think they should do given their current circumstances.

Background and Related Theoretical Perspectives  

The observations being made by the Bribri are important as they cover the points of multiple groups and examine the potential loss of culture that comes with industrial development. In examining history, we can see how colonization has shifted entire futures of populations for hundreds of years. Colonization broke populations livelihoods placing them in a world where they served Northern powers as slaves, being introduced to new religions and individualistic ideals, harming the culture of collectivity that many indigenous communities have or once had. Independence for these countries came later, some gaining freedom in the 1800’s and others upto after the 1950’s. With new found independence, countries weren’t actually free and were held to debts of the old colonial powers, creating a new dependency. The South now relies on the North for their industries and loans to keep their economies moving and to keep their debts continually being paid while socially and economically harming vast populations. The cycle of debt has left countries dependent on foreign dollars and business. Starting with policy, I will demonstrate how Northen investment further transformed Latin American society, leaving large populations in desperate situations.

Investment in Latin America increased tremendously since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This trade agreement reduced tariffs on imported goods and created investment incentives for Northern corporations to establish industry in Latin America. In reading Trouble in Paradise, we learn pieces of land that were once lived on by tribes and peasants are now ‘ownable’ in the eyes of companies, who use this land for food production or resource extraction. Governments of these countries choose to allow investment today as industry generates income which often goes towards paying the loans and debts implemented by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. With these loan agreements comes another policy issue, Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs). SAP’s are loan conditions that require governments to cut social services as means to have money to pay foreign loans instead.

The toll industry has taken on the environment has lead to land preservation efforts, establishing reservations, biospheres, and eco-tourist locations. While some rural populations in Latin America rely on moving to urban areas to continue their livelihoods, other rural populations end up tending to these preserved places. In the case of the Bribri, they now live on a reservation and partake in receiving NGO support in cultural preservation projects. The community has internal struggles though as not everyone benefits equally from the NGO support and organizers’ efforts. This is what has pushed the pro-miners to their position as a rural livelihood is not sustainable for them.

The Bribri have what appears to be better fortune over indigenous groups such as the U’wa, who have lost over 400 leaders in their fight for cultural autonomy (Roberts & Thanos, 2003, p. 189). The Bribri though have already adjusted to land reform and cultural changes due to SAP’s, NAFTA, and other social-economic programs that have affected their traditional methods of living. In observing this case study, I will demonstrate why I believe the Bribri have the potential to develop their communities without Northern investment despite their internal conflicts.

Case Analysis

In analyzing the cases of both for and against the mining company, I will observe the sides of all organizations represented at the meeting and offer my analysis on their arguments in relation to the topics discussed above. In addition, I will discuss how my analysis has led me to choose the side against mining.

The pro-miners see the mining company bringing development and modern living into the Bribri community, as not all Bribri people have the means to live well by farming. The pro-miners take into account the community members who do not live by farming means, pointing out that the organizers do not serve their interests. With a mining contract, the community would have access to a local health clinic, roads leading to the rest of Costa Rica, electrical and water infrastructure, and potentially a high school. The health clinic would be extremely valuable for the community as members must travel to a county clinic to receive health care and this trip can mean life or death. Another benefit mentioned is the increased income that will create a trickle-down economic effect because as money goes into workers pockets, it will go towards small local businesses. The miners also already have the approval of the Costa Rican government for this development.

In observing the role governments play as the development middleman, the government often has less power than the investment companies. With the investment in mining, not only would the Bribri generate local income, but the country will benefit as investment in resources in poor countries often promotes a means increasing international economic flow, aiding to pay off debts. Let’s look at how the national debt has played a role in the lives of the Bribi. In their current situation, offerings such as a health clinic are beneficial, but this lack of a health clinic in the first place can be theorized to be partially at the fault of SAP’s and other economic distribution problems. In observing this, we can see why the pro-miners feel the way they do, as the grievance of not having a health clinic is a shared issue that affects everyone. Unfortunately, governments do not put enough money into aiding the poor to have necessities such as health care which is how tribe such as the Bribri, may be faced with a difficult decision like this one, and may find themselves desperate enough to risk their society’s values.

In the view of the grassroots organizers, the contract with the mining company would threaten their tribes’ way of life. In having NGOs support, the organizers see their community already benefits from outside support and that it is sustainable without mining. They mention the influx of outsiders may have an effect on their collective culture and that is an irreversible outcome. In bringing up a previous oil exploration on their reservation, they fear drinking may become more prevalent in addition to the sex trade. The last important issue brought up by the organizers is the potential for environmental harm that may destroy the local resources they use to survive on, such as water and fish.

In review of the points by the organizers, I agree with the projects they’re performing currently. With their support from NGO’s that allow them to sustain themselves, I think the organizers have strong points as they sill have autonomy over their communities. With mining, this autonomy may be lost and an influx of outsiders may come in, erode their culture, and influence younger generations to leave their cultural values behind. The last point the organizers make about the environment is crucial as the environment in Latin America only continues to get worse. There are less environmental restrictions in Latin America, and the lack of investment in the people keep the poor living in environmentally damaged slums polluted by industry. In agreeing with many of the points by the organizers, the women’s and elders’ offered even more valuable points that led me to my stance.

The women’s organizations held a primary concern for the change of the family structure and roles if a mining company were to start up. They foresee their work on farms becoming less valued as mining will only create work for men and will make them the most economically dominant household member. They also mention the potential increase in drinking and spousal abuse that that may occur along with the family re-structuring. The women’s organization did agree with the pro-miners about the health clinic and development, appreciating the pro-miners had pointed out how a health clinic would benefit them as it is something the organizers have not fought for.

The elders, like the women, held many pro-community and cultural values. They agreed on the benefits investment could bring, but are not certain it will play out as said. They also argue against the change it may bring to their autonomy as a signed contract may create unwanted societal changes. Despite their skepticism of Northern investment, they put down the organizers and the women’s organization as the elders think they could be serving greater purposes too. In the end, the elders’ wish was to have their input in mind in making the decision.

In the review of both women’s and elders’ view of mining, they recognized the potential help and damage a mining company could bring into their village, not standing on either side completely. One thing I think was important was how they criticized the organizers because they have not done much, in particular, to bring in a health center or improve education. I think the elders and women placed a needed amount of emphasis on community and maintaining their collective culture, which has been lost by numerous groups of people since colonization. Their arguments led me to go against the pro-mining organization because the women and elders discussed issues that need addressed in their own communities. I believe the Bribri should instead host town meetings and discuss how they can better support and redistribute resources in their own community. In addition to this, other groups such as women and elders need to be able to partake in more of the decision making processes by organizers. This in itself may help address greater issues and bring about a stronger community because as we saw, the women and elders both offered views not considered by either the organizers or pro-miners.


In reading the case study, there are many sides to the story and I believe that the community needs should be addressed as the room for growth here is free. I take the side of those against the investment because unlike other indigenous groups, the Bribri have a chance to retain their lifestyles and maintain international NGO support.

In observing cultures that have been forcefully taken and enslaved, this motivated my decision because the Bribri do not have to give into development if they choose not too. I think the women and elders in attendance were crucial in this debate as the organizers and pro-miners, although have great points, fail to address the equal input of other community members, particularly women.

I also find the environmental argument extremely important as the exploitation of resources all over Latin America has perpetuated an environment that causes sickness in it’s workers. If the Bribri want to maintain their culture, the choice to deny the mining company is a clear one. But the Bribri can no longer deny their own internal struggles if they want to remain independent for years to come.



Roberts, J. T., & Thanos, N. D. (2003). Trouble in paradise: globalization and environmental crises in Latin America. New York: Routledge.


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