Environmental Values 7 (1998): 201-22
© 1998 The White Horse Press, Cambridge, UK.
Environment as Discourse: Searching for Sustainable
Development in Costa Rica
Department of Ethnology/Cultural Anthropology
FIN-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland
ABSTRACT: This study analyses the social and political discourses related to
environment and sustainable development in Costa Rica. The central interest is
on those development institutions and ideologies that promote social interven-
tions in the name of sustainable development, and on those social processes and
economic relations on which the discursive formation of environment and
sustainability is articulated. Four different kinds of ideologies of environmental
sustainability are analysed: Environmentalism for Nature, Environmentalism
for Profit, Environmentalism for the People, and Alternative Environmentalism.
The study highlights the complexity of political discourses that construct the
relationship between nature and society, and the multiplicity of the means by
which the control over natural resources, within the internally differentiated
development apparatus, is defined.
KEYWORDS: sustainable development, environmentalism, Costa Rica, access
THE ERA OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
Within the last two decades, concern about environment and sustainable devel-
opment in the Third World has become a central feature of development policies
and thinking. Instead of the polemics of the 1980s about underdevelopment, in
actual discourse, all is sustainable development, the whole theme becoming
popular since the Brundtland Commission of 1987, and strengthening since the
United Nations Conference of Environment and Development (UNCED), held
in 1992 in Brazil. This UN Conference inaugurated environmentalism as the
highest state of developmentalism (Sachs 1993: 3).
In general discussion, sustainable development is easily assured of a place in
the litany of development truisms, but without a careful conceptual analysis of
what is to be sustained, for whom, and by whom (Redclift 1987: 3, 1993). The
discourse on environmental sustainability is not seen as a social construction in
modern world politics, where the emergence of a new perception of global
relations makes environmental questions no more local but global problems, and
where the great concern for environmental sustainability in the Third World
derives from the reconstruction of the relations between economies, ecologies
and cultures at new levels and under new terms of control and power. Discussion
on sustainability adds an environmental dimension to an already contested
development discourse, the very term presenting itself as a central point for
debate over development and power (Adams 1992, Escobar 1992).
This study aims to illustrate the multiple discourses on environment and
sustainability, by examining the social and political discourses related to
sustainable development in Costa Rica. In public, Costa Rica is presented as a
country which stands out globally as a leader in environmental protection and
biodiversity conservation (Calvo 1990, Holl et al. 1995: 1549). More than 12%
(622,000 ha) of the country’s land area has been set aside as national parks, a
figure that represents one of the highest proportions in the Americas. During the
UNCED, Costa Rica received an international award for its conservation
policies, and the country was praised as a model for sustainable development
worldwide (Boza 1993).
The study focuses on the diverse meanings of environment and sustainability,
and on the competing strategies of resource utilisation and control among the
multiple institutions and agents promoting sustainable development in Costa
Rica. Its central interest is in those social and political settings in which the
various interest groups – conservation activists, biodiversity prospectors, agrar-
ian politicians, development experts, rural extensionists, multinational corpora-
tions and local peasants – find their social positions, their specific patterns of
legitimating power, and their cultural constructions on environment and sustain-
able development. The principal research object is, therefore, not just the people
to be ‘developed’, but the ‘development apparatus’ that is to realise sustainable
development; this extending from global development agencies to local-level
nongovernmental organisations. As remarked by Watts (1993: 264), while much
work has been undertaken on the political economy of the development organi-
sations, relatively few studies have bestowed attention on how these organisa-
tions function as systems of knowledge. This in the sense of development experts
producing, disseminating and legitimising ‘development truths’.
Local people, usually constructed as beneficiaries or victims of development
interventions, are seen as self-motivating actors, actively involved in discourse
on environment and development. However, a one-sided actor-oriented ap-
proach, according to which no matter how degraded people might be, they
preserve room to manoeuvre, is not sufficient.1 By stressing the individual’s
capacity to create, actor-oriented researchers tend to remove agents from
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 203
structures and to replace determinism with voluntarism. At the same time, they
forget that the central questions related to environmental degradation and rural
deprivation are to be found in land tenure relations, market dependencies,
organisation of economies, and violence against local knowledge (Bebbington
The same problem arises in postmodern cultural analysis. Although
postmodernists agree that nature is socially and culturally constructed, they do
not note that what kind of nature we want to construct, is also a political question.
Cultural relativism, with its celebration of difference, constructs static views of
local knowledge and romanticised visions of non-Western relations between
society and nature.2 To disaggregate the hegemonic view of sustainability as an
apolitical issue, it is necessary to contextualise the multiple discourses on
environment and sustainability in their specific institutional fields. This in order
to recognise the struggles over resources and authority within the internally
differentiated development apparatus, as well as to note the inescapable dialect
of fact and value in the construction of development discourses. There are many
‘myths’ in development issues, and in order to situate the multiple discourses on
environment and sustainability in time and space, one has to reconceptualise.
Universal models of world development easily rediscover their own assump-
tions in ethnographic material, without any notion that the ethnographic theories
also are socially constructed, and powerful in making some aspects of social life
invisible while overemphasising others (Peet and Watts 1993).
This study is based on anthropological research carried out in Costa Rica
during 1990-92. This included fieldwork in a rural community, called Alto Tuis,
in eastern Costa Rica, as well as in various Costa Rican ministries, development
institutions, and nongovernmental organisations.3 The Alto Tuis community has
a highly skewed land tenure and a complex social structure. The majority of the
population are small-scale peasants, combined with landless peons, big cattle
raisers, absentee land speculators and a group of Cabécar Indians living high up
in the mountains. The region was heavily deforested as a result of land
colonisation policies between the 1930s and 1970s. As small-scale cash croppers
of coffee and sugar cane, the peasants of Alto Tuis have been linked to global
markets and policies for a long time (Nygren 1995a).
The informants’ accounts presented in this study were chosen on the criteria
that they express those general themes repeated in the discourse of different
interest groups on environment and sustainability. The aim of these pieces of
narrative is to illustrate that environment and development are socially con-
structed concepts, loaded with diverse associations and meanings. Simultane-
ously, they illustrate how the social hierarchy is often reproduced in thought and
speech, and how concepts of the proper utilisation of nature change between
different social and cultural actors.
THE ‘JARGON PHRASE’ OF SUSTAINABILITY
The late 1980s saw a strong greening of development discourse in Costa Rica.
Increasing international pressure for environmental sustainability challenged
agrarian policies based on extensive cattle raising and coffee and sugar cane
monocultures, with heavy use of agrochemicals. The discourse changed from
Green Revolution to Green Development, with resistance to deforestation and
campaigns on behalf of conservation. This occurred with clear connections to the
worldwide concern about the disappearance of tropical forests, about the links
of tropical deforestation to global climatic change, to the loss of biodiversity, and
to an ecological crisis threatening ‘our common world’.
Divisions between different directions in the country’s agrarian policy only
grew. The eco-development nexus, with its emphasis on ecological aspects of
sustainable development, gained ground in the Ministry of Natural Resources,
Energy and Mining (MIRENEM).4 Neoliberalism and structural adjustment
became dominant in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle Husbandry (MAG).
Between these two mainstreams there remained a minority of alternativists
highlighting that environmental and human welfare issues are two aspects of the
same question, and any policy which ignores the structural issues has little to do
with sustainability (Carrière 1991).
In this multiplicity of development policies, the one thing which is widely
supported is sustainable development. As mentioned by Rowlands (1993: 385),
‘sustainable development is today’s Good Thing’, and so nobody is against this.
According to the Brundtland Commission (WCED 1987: 43), sustainable
development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
Somewhat similar, highly abstract statements are continually presented in
discussions on sustainability in Costa Rica. In all the development plans,
concepts like ‘our common world’, ‘sound resource management’, ‘fulfilment
of basic human needs’, ‘future generations’ and ‘local participation’ are repeated
(e.g. DGF 1990a, DGF 1990b, MIRENEM 1990, WRI/INBio 1993). According
to the Plan of Peasant Forestry of the Costa Rican Forest Service (DGF 1990a:
2), sustainable development means ‘development where rural populations and
their organisations participate actively in forestry that aims at the recuperation
of rural environment, together with better fulfilment of life-quality and self-
determination of rural communities.’
In theory, this sounds simple. However, any development apparatus is not a
monolith. There are multiple state institutions, international aid agencies and
nongovernmental organisations, pursuing different goals and responding to
different ideologies in their struggle over sustainable development. In a situation
where environmental issues are gaining increasing international financial sup-
port and high media visibility, all the development experts swear by the Big
Thing of Sustainable Environmentalism, although there is no agreement as to
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 205
what this politically loaded concept includes. In the following sections, four
ideologies dominant in the current discourse of sustainable environmentalism in
the Third World will be analysed, in the context of Costa Rica.
ENVIRONMENTALISM FOR NATURE
First, there is ‘Environmentalism for Nature’. According to this approach,
supported by many officials in MIRENEM, and by many activists in the
nongovernmental environmental organisations, sustainable development means
primary environmental care: protection of the country’s natural forests and
conservation of its wildlife and biodiversity. In the policy of MIRENEM, the
struggle for the maximum conservation of the country’s forests has priority, with
plans to increase the area under national parks to 17% of the national territory.
To achieve this aim, MIRENEM negotiates with international aid agencies and
environmental institutions, many of which have their Latin American headquar-
ters in Costa Rica. In recent years, Costa Rica has obtained more foreign aid for
conservation than any other country in Central America. As a politically
‘beautiful’ matter to support, the private donors include companies like the
McDonald’s Corporation. In 1992, Costa Rica received a 30 million USD loan
from the Inter-American Development Bank to improve infrastructure in several
national parks, and the government was negotiating the reception of funds for
conservation via the debt-for-nature swap mechanism, meaning the conversion
of Costa Rican external debt titles into a local currency for investment in
conservation programmes (Boza 1993).
Among the advocates of Environmentalism for Nature, the amount of
protected areas is rarely questioned. The officials in MIRENEM seem to live
separated from the country’s social reality, where more than 30% of the
population gets its income from agriculture (SEPSA 1991). Humans are seen as
external to the ecosystem, and the environmental crisis as resulting from
destructive human action towards nature, with little attention to socially unequal
utilisation of natural resources. Deforestation is defined as a global problem
which threatens the existence of all humanity, and in this context ecological
aspects are imperative. On social questions, the whole emphasis is placed on
educating the people to make them aware of the necessity for conservation. The
matter was conceptualised as follows by one of the leading officials in MIRENEM:
I think that we need to establish more national parks. All that we can reclaim as
absolute reserve, as natural park, is good for Costa Rica, for the new generations. I
think that each day we will become more responsible in taking care of the forest and
of nature. Humid tropical forests are the lungs of the world, our existence on the planet
depends on them. To be frank, our peasants are very badly educated. They will
eliminate virgin forests, although we Costa Ricans should be an example of a green
country in America.5
In the Second National Forest Congress held in 1992, the former president
of Costa Rica, Rafael Angel Calderón, spoke about the need for a new ecological
order, without any comment about the need for a new economic and social order.
At the same conference, the Director of Forest Resources Section in MIRENEM,
emphasised how ‘Costa Rica without forests is unimaginable, antihuman and
unnatural’. There was much rhetoric of ‘the national pride of our protected
areas’, without any comment on the social conflicts, originating from the
government’s unwillingness to recognise the resource utilisation rights of the
indigenous people living inside the areas.
When Costa Rican indigenous groups struggle for recognition of their
ancestral rights to territory, at present constituted as natural parks, the environ-
mentalists for Nature make them invisible forest-dwellers, without any rights to
claim resource rights in protected areas. When the Indians emphasise the right
of supernatural spirits to control the utilisation of forests, the conservation
politicians underline that the forests are state-owned national patrimony. Ac-
cording to the indigenous people, the ecological crisis results just from the
neglect of ancestral principles of reciprocity and exchange in the utilisation of
natural resources. They look wonderingly at the conservationists’ conception of
idle parks, where their interaction with the rivers and mountains, forests and
wildlife that they have utilised for ages, is controlled through strict legislation.
The conservationists’ view of protected areas as an untrammelled Eden rather
than a time-honoured indigenous habitat, seems everything but sustainable for
Among the Costa Rican peasants, too, strengthened state control over natural
resources is seen as threatening their survival. When the peasants argue for their
forest clearings on the ground of their livelihood, the environmentalists for
Nature claim that the ever diminishing forests, even if located on private farms,
are a state-controlled commodity. Some conservationists amplify the vision
even more, stressing that the remaining forests are the common heritage of
humanity, including future generations. According to them, when the survival of
the planet depends on the conservation of tropical forests, it is short-sighted to
leave control over the natural resources to local populations.
The strategy to terminate forest destruction is sought in centralised state
vigilance, backed by incentives to conservationists and sanctions on forest
destroyers. The need for nationwide campaigns on behalf of conservation is
stressed, and in this context, the empowerment of the rural people means their
education for greater environmental awareness. There is little conceptualisation
in regard to who defines the problems of which the rural people should become
aware. Little attention is paid to the view that environmental consciousness is a
socially constructed process, where the conceptions of real nature and its proper
utilisation are historically and culturally contested. No wonder, when the
environmentalists for Nature emphasise how there is already growing awareness
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 207
among the peasants about the importance of conservation, the peasants them-
selves ask why it is exclusively the task of the rural poor to take care of protection.
This especially in the context of multinational corporations’ extensive forest
clearings for non-traditional agriculture in various parts of Costa Rica.
ENVIRONMENTALISM FOR PROFIT
Prospective marketisation of tropical nature
On the other hand, there are those sustaining ‘Environmentalism for Profit’.
According to this view, supported by many politicians in the DGF and MAG, the
protection of large areas of the national territory is unreasonable in the country’s
economic crisis, with the fourth highest debt per capita in the world, and an
economy dependent on the exportation of a few primary commodities. In this
situation, the international aid agencies put increasing pressure on the revitali-
sation of the country’s economy through structural adjustment and neoliberalism.
This with certain hopes of developing an Economic Miracle, similar to the East
Asian ‘Tigers’, in this ‘Switzerland of the Americas’ (Clark 1995).
According to environmentalists for Profit, sustainable development is not
possible without economic growth, and for this reason ecology has to be
economised. Sustainable development means economic revitalisation, where
private enterprises and multinational companies are encouraged to invest in
ecotourism, forest extractivism and biobusiness, in the name of making the
country’s biodiversity an economically profitable commodity and loading the
country’s environmental beauty with international market value.
In 1991, the Costa Rican National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) made a
Collaborative Biodiversity Research Agreement with the US-based Merck &
Co., the world’s largest pharmaceutical firm. According to the agreement, INBio
collects and processes plant, insect and soil samples to Merck for evaluation as
prospective medicines. In the media, much has been made of the agreement as
an excellent opportunity to make Costa Rican biodiversity conservation profit-
able, and of how it provides for Costa Ricans an economically beneficial
alternative to deforestation. In comparison to the situation where foreign
pharmaceutical companies utilise the country’s natural resources in order to
develop drugs, with no profits for Costa Rica, the agreement obviously means
However, in analysing the situation more thoroughly, critical questions can
be raised. According to the agreement, Merck gets exclusive rights to evaluate
the samples supplied by INBio, and if the company discovers any active
ingredients, it receives all patent rights to develop a commercial product. Costa
Rica gets a sum of $1 million US from all the samples collected for Merck, and
a royalty of 1–3 % from the drugs developed from samples provided by INBio.
However, the royalties cannot be used for any other purpose than the conserva-
tion and investigation of Costa Rican biodiversity (Martín Ovares and Sittenfeld
Appel 1995). Among biodiversity prospectors, the matter has been presented as
if Costa Rican biodiversity and US biotechnology were two naturally reciprocal
matters, where the Southern ecosystems serve as an irreplaceable resource for
Northern biotechnology. This vision, based on the argument that the tropical
forests should be conserved as a reserve for the global biobusiness, takes the
commercial logic of biodiversity prospecting wholly for granted.
It is just these biodiversity prospectors, the most eager speakers on behalf of
local environmental knowledge, who consider this as a culturally and socially
free ‘human capital’ to be exploited in the service of biobusiness. They also put
great emphasis on the gender aspect, knowing well that it is the women who take
care of the medicinal plants in Costa Rican rural communities. There is little
problematisation about property rights in regard to ‘wild biodiversity’ and the
information about its potential use. According to the Merck/INBio agreement,
the ‘unimproved genetic material’ – wild species and traditional varieties of
crops and livestock grown by local people – is an ownerless, open-access
resource, while the intellectual property rights regimes establish ownership for
those new varieties of plants and animals developed by commercial breeders,
and for those chemicals developed by pharmaceutical firms (WRI/INBio 1993:
19).The ecotourism boom is exceptionally heated in Costa Rica. In 1992, several
national and international donor funds were established, with revenue sharing
and financial help for those establishing ecobusiness in the country. According
to the eco-promoters, the only way to conserve tropical forests outside natural
parks, is to make them directly profitable for the people. By repeating the idiom
of ‘use it or lose it’, they argue that putting these ‘green-houses’ up for sale in
global ecotourist markets brings both profits and a general understanding that
forests must be conserved to be useful. Officials of the Agrarian Development
Institute (IDA) were very enthusiastic about the eco-funds. In their discourse on
natural resource utilisation, a certain ‘dollars-for-recreation’ scheme was in-
People are just waking up to ecotourism. They are just beginning to establish
committees to make ecotourist packages … because the tourists are those who come
with dollars … Each day more people come here from developed countries and what
they search for is relaxation and the direct contact with the tropical forest. As one
agriculturist just said to me, the more dense jungle you have now, the more profit you
can receive from it. For the panorama, the exotic view that it offers tourists.7
There was no attention to who are the real beneficiaries of such ecotourist
packages. Taking into account the necessary infrastructure, it can be questioned
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 209
how many of the peasants can afford to meddle in ecotourism. In 1990, some
travel agencies from the Costa Rican capital began to organise canoe tours along
the Pacuare River, near Alto Tuis. The benefits to the local population have been
minimal: the people of Alto Tuis just wondered about those canoes with tourists,
appearing every weekend along the river. At the same time, they wondered why
the use of natural products is becoming so fashionable. While physicians only a
decade ago condemned their use of wild plants as medicines, now scientists
come asking them to be guides to the mountains, in search of natural medicines.
This boom in naturalism has strengthened the rules for gathering non-timber
products. Traditionally, they had no proprietor but ‘belonged to a person who
encountered them in the jungle’, while now their gathering is changing into a new
clandestine economy. Don Rodrigo from Alto Tuis could only laugh at the whole
Business advances all the time. Formerly nobody utilised bamboo, except for making
coops for chickens. But now it has much value in the markets … In Bajo Pacuare there
is an Indian who has begun to sell wild plants and roots to a homeopath in Turrialba.
He just laughed that the more rich in mould and more bitter the plant is, more money
you can get from it. Formerly, we gathered orchids only for the home garden, but now
you can do business with them … The only problem is that it is difficult to find them
any more. They grow in big trees in a dense jungle.8
The triumph of commercial forestry
As to forestry, the agents of Environmentalism for Profit underline timber
production through commercial forest plantations. In 1988, the government
established two special funds, financed by international aid agencies, for peasant
forestry. According to the Plan of Extension of the DGF (1990b: 2), the task of
extensionists is to ‘change the peasants’ cultural attitude toward natural re-
sources, so that they would be ready to abandon their tradition of forest
destruction and adopt a new forest culture, where their role would be that of
intensive timber producers and cash croppers of trees’. A forest expert in the
DGF conceptualised the matter as follows:
Formerly, our peasants simply felled the forest to sow pasture or sugar cane. But now
we advise them: ‘Plant trees, because it means a future.’ All this takes time because
many peasants are still not aware of the necessity to reforest. I see it as a cultural
problem. The other problem is lack of education. Many peasants believe in natural
regeneration, and this does not work in forest plantations. We try to show them that
a tree is like any other crop, it requires fertilisation, pruning and management.9
Inevitably, most of the Costa Rican peasants have traditionally seen forest as
a reserve to be removed for agriculture. This, however, is because forest felling
was for a long time a legal requirement for them as colonists to get ownership of
the land, and not due to their cultural hostility toward trees, as supposed by
forestry agents (Nygren 1995b: 202-10). Considering the abundance of natural
forests, their lack of a tradition of large-scale tree planting seems anything but
In searching for cultural characteristics that inhibit the peasants’ adaptation
of to a new role of cash croppers of trees, the promoters of Environmentalism for
Profit shut their eyes to the existing structural biases. According to Costa Rican
forest law, a person receives a tax reduction for each hectare he dedicates to
reforestation. However, this incentive has no meaning for peasants who do not
pay any land taxes. Instead, it stimulates many big entrepreneurs to deforest
tropical forest in order to establish commercial forest plantations of exotic timber
species. Such was the case of the Industrial Bosque Puerto Carillo, a foreign-
owned parquet company. In the late 1980s, it felled hundreds of hectares of forest
for the establishment of 3000 hectares of teak plantations (Costa Rica Today, 8
In 1992, there was a dispute about La Hacienda de Los Mangos. In this case,
52 national and multinational enterprises had utilised governmental credit to
reforestate 1000 hectares of land with fast-growing timber trees. The whole
project failed, and in 1992, the DGF demanded that the participators must repay
their tax reductions for not fulfilling their responsibilities. The participants
themselves argued that the failure was caused by biological misfortune. They
appealed heavily in the media that if the DGF did not renounce its demand, the
private sector would no longer participate in forestry, and a worldwide image of
Costa Rica as a country with exemplary environmental policy would be brought
into discredit (La República, 13 July 1992).
In the discourse of the advocates of Environmentalism for Profit, the peasants
are frequently constructed as ‘unruly clients’ to be educated to become efficient
producers. Their arguments for interventionist forestry programmes are based
on the paternalistic anxiety that without control the peasants will spend all the
money received from the trees on luxuries or in arranging feasts, instead of
reinvesting it in their farming. Their assurances about the significance of trees
as poor people’s source of cash in the case of contingency seem anything but
plausible. No attention is paid to the institutional context, where authorisation
from the DGF is required even for the cutting of a tree on one’s own farm. A
particular authorisation is required to use a chain saw, and to transport the trees
to a sawmill. Although presented as an anti-state doctrine, the neoliberalist
Environmentalism for Profit seems to justify strengthening state power – for
controlling the effects of liberalisation among the rural poor, and for eliminating
the most radical ideas of resistance.
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 211
The revitalisation of agribusiness
In the agricultural sphere, the environmentalists for Profit promote nontraditional
agriculture as an optimal way to open the country’s introverted economy to
modern outward-looking development. The aim is to ‘produce more per man-
hour, more per cultivated hectare, and more per invested colon’.10 The promoters
of nontraditional agriculture in MAG, with support from the World Bank,
assume direct causality between export expansion and sustainable development.
Their capitalist narrative on the possibilities of nontraditional agriculture to
create economic growth pays little attention to the social distribution of the
supposed growth. Doubts concerning the marginalisation of peasants are squared
with the comment that ‘what is not productive, can disappear’. There is a strong
belief that the peasants’ structural sufferings will be temporary until the eco-
nomic benefits diffuse to all sectors.
According to the agents of Environmentalism for Profit, there is an increas-
ing demand for nontraditional products in the world markets. However, many of
them seem to be as vulnerable to rapid fluctuations of supply and demand as
traditional exports. In the late 1980s, MAG campaigned for the production of
manioc (Manihot esculenta) and taro (Colocacia esculenta) as new exports for
the United States. There was special credit for this sector and the price paid to
producers more than doubled from 1989 to 1990. The following year the price
began to decline. This was due to overproduction, as well as to a fairly limited
demand in the USA, where manioc and taro proved to be ethnic food, with
considerable demand only among the Hispanic population (SEPSA 1991: 74-
75). Since the late 1980s, the USA has put quotas on Costa Rican fruit and flower
exports, and this policy has only strengthened since the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA), where Mexico has gained priority in the exporta-
tion of fresh fruit and flowers to the USA and Canada (Clark 1995).
Many nontraditional agro-exports require high capital investments. This is
especially true in the production of flowers, fruit and green vegetables which
require modern techniques in hygiene and pest control, as well as effective
systems of processing and storing. No wonder the leading producers are
multinational companies, such as Dole and Del Monte. On the basis of their long
experience in the production of bananas in Costa Rica, they already have wide-
ranging marketing networks, including packing plants, shipping fleets, and air
freight services (Barham et al. 1992: 68-69). In this context, it can be questioned
if the major surplus generated in nontraditional agriculture will be removed
outside the country. Due to Costa Rica’s geo-political importance to the USA in
the 1980s, the country was the principal object of the nontraditional production
programmes promoted by USAID and the World Bank (Clark 1995). However,
today many multinational companies plan to remove their production from
Costa Rica to those Central American countries where the wages for labourers
are lower and requirements for social security are looser.
In the international arena, many Costa Rican nontraditional agro-exports are
marketed under the rubric ‘alternative Third World products’, creating ecologi-
cally and socially sound production conditions in the country. This especially
concerns the trade in herbs, spices, natural medicines and cosmetics to special
European and North American markets. In reality, the commercialisation of
these products is often controlled by multinational companies. In Costa Rican
herbal tea production, the leading firm markets its products under the indigenous
name of Kabata, signifying forest in the Bribri Indian language, in order to create
a soft-sounding image.
Nontraditional agriculture is also marketed as an effective way to mobilise
the country’s under-utilised labour. However, in many cases, it seems to deepen
the existing division of labour, where developing countries engage in the low-
paid phases of production, while multinational companies control the phases of
processing and marketing. The peasants producing nontraditional exports re-
main inevitably in the position of highly dependent contract workers. Such
seems to be the case with the peasants of Orotina, who produce melons for the
Pacific Melon Company. Although the peasants grow melons on their own plots,
the company directly controls their production by paying for it with fixed
monthly wages. The contract is made for 17 years, during which time the people
cannot orient themselves to other activities, nor sell their plot. (Rivera and
Román 1989.) In this situation, the neoliberal argument that nontraditional
agriculture creates modern land and labour arrangements, radically distinct from
the oligarchy clinging to semifeudal land and labour arrangements, seems
anything but plausible (Barham et al. 1992).
Little attention is paid to the social sustainability of this kind of profit-based
environmentalism. The key to sustainability is seen in the utilisation of modern
technology, the right economic incentives and efficient education, in order to
make the traditional peasants ready to adopt new forms of production, as well as
to induce in them the new mentality of progressive entrepreneurs. There are
programmes of nontraditional agriculture coordinated by MAG and IDA, where
the actual term peasant (campesino) has been replaced by agriculturist (agricultor)
or small producer (pequeño productor), to create the image of the desired
Local environmental actions are supported only if they occur through
institutionally controlled channels. Any action which questions the sustainability
of this kind of money-making environmentalism is labelled as a threat to the
country’s ‘democracy’. The ecological costs of nontraditional agriculture are
squared with the comment that economic revitalisation will create better possi-
bilities for utilising environmentally sound technologies. At the same time, there
is little recognition that the strategies based on nontraditional agriculture are
likely to produce considerable outcomes of social unsustainability, if no atten-
tion is paid to the underlying structures of resource access and power at local,
national, and global levels.
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 213
The number of nongovernmental environmental organisations is growing rap-
idly in Costa Rica. Many of them support an ideology of ‘Alternative Environ-
mentalism’. According to this approach, modern environmental problems origi-
nate from the Western division between nature and culture that allows environ-
mentally aggressive human action. In their environmental pamphlets, sustain-
able development is treated under the categorisation of Western versus non-
Western development, both constructed as internally homogenous and histori-
cally static. Indigenous environmentalism means harmonic localisation, while
western environmentalism means destructive globalisation. There are strategic
arguments based on an inevitable confrontation between the Northern and the
Southern knowledge systems, and the belief that the process of environmental
destruction could simply be obliterated by Third World people resisting Western
In the discourse of radical alternativists, all forestry is defined as destructive
deforestation and as a mark of modern humans’ environmental predation. The
tropical forests are appraised as a ‘cradle of harmony’ and a ‘necessity for
improving the human spirit’ , without any notion that the value of forests is not
just aesthetic or recreational for those people gaining their livelihood directly
from the forests; it also has social and economic dimensions related to local
duties of social survival. There is condemnation of the overall destruction of
tropical forests, without careful analysis of real cases. It is just these radical
populists who often gain the most media visibility through their criticism of
modern people’s instrumentalist environmental destruction.
Similar arguments can be found in their discourse on agriculture. According
to alternative environmentalists, traditional agriculture is desirable and sustain-
able, while nontraditional agriculture is a mark of overall globalisation where
peasants have no chance of survival. There is a deterministic tone of global
imperialism, where export agriculture per se is seen as destructive for peasants.
Insufficient attention is paid to the fact that the negative impacts of export
agriculture on peasant economy are not given, but depend on multiple factors,
such as structure of resource access, state policies and institutional arrange-
ments, as well as the requirements of each product in land, capital and labour.
In the discourse of radical alternativists, the peasants are easily described as
‘people without history’, who have only recently encountered changes in their
production systems, imposed by the ‘outside modern world’. There is little
attention to the transformation of the peasants’ land use practices throughout
history, or to local people’s response to changing national and international
development policies. The whole history of the Costa Rican peasants as pioneer
colonists, whose task it was to clear the unoccupied jungles for the agricultural
progress of the country (Nygren 1995a), is forgotten; and the traditional peasants
are defined as self-sufficient forest-dwellers, who lived in harmony with nature,
respecting the value of conservation in all aspects of their lives. Environmental
ethics, based on a romantic notion about modern people’s need to return to living
in harmony with nature, is invoked in their discourse on sustainability, as can be
seen in the following vision of a rural extensionist in MIRENEM:
Traditionally, the forest had multiple use for our peasants. To gather fruit and herbs,
to search for fuelwood, to go to hunt, to search the peace of nature. But not to destroy.
Our fathers were well aware of the value of natural resources … For them, the forest
was a symbol of life, and to cut a tree meant destroying this life. From the forest they
received all the medicines to cure illnesses, it was a big pharmacy for them. Now, all
this tradition is disappearing as the peasants imitate the life style of modern man.11
The key to sustainability is sought in localisation of development, which
often means construction of rural people as a monolithic subject. Through strict
separation between traditional and modern resource management practices,
many radical alternativists offer generalised diagnosis of the country’s environ-
mental situation and populist remedies for its recuperation. A strategy to
challenge increasing globalisation is sought in the struggle of local people
against the World Bank, IMF and other ‘development mammoths’, without any
attention to the existing local, regional and national power stratification, inter-
ventionist control, and social violence against local knowledge. The political
complexity of the process is easily lost in the paradigmatic categorisation of
powerful West and powerless rest.
ENVIRONMENTALISM FOR THE PEOPLE
In all this confusion, a small group of alternativists is easily disregarded: those
supporting the ideology of ‘Environmentalism for the People’. According to
them, environmental protectionism is not an adequate mechanism for promoting
environmental care. At the same time, they question the social sustainability of
Environmentalism for Profit. Most rural people have little opportunity to invest
in nontraditional agriculture or large-scale forestry, and so the features of
sustainable development have to be sought more in social forestry and small-
The highest expectations are held for agroforestry, seen as a promising
solution to the crisis of peasant agriculture. The idea is to integrate the cultivation
of woody perennials, usually trees, in the fields of crops and pastures. As such,
agroforestry systems are marketed as nutrient conserving, soil protecting and
erosion controlling systems. When using multipurpose species, the trees can also
provide fuelwood, stakes, fodder, and alimentary and medicinal products for a
peasant household (Reiche 1994). According to environmentalists for the
People, agroforestry can make the expansion of forestry into peasant agriculture
a complementary rather than a substitutive process. By combining trees with
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 215
agricultural crops, they are not in the same kind of competition with crops for
land as in large-scale forestry. In keeping with peasant traditions, according to
which cultivated fruit trees belong to the person who planted them, environmen-
talists for the People aim to create a scenario in which peasants would regard the
trees as ‘cultural’ crops under human management.
The earlier view that inappropriate land use practices originate from the
peasants’ cultural backwardness is countered by an opposing claim: that
unsustainable production systems are the result of cultural degeneration caused
by too much modernity. There is a search for action-oriented extension methods,
with emphasis on the mutual interaction between developers and local benefici-
aries. According to the environmentalists for the People, sustainable develop-
ment would succeed if the developers only understood the peasants’ different
kind of rationality and utilised their cultural symbolism in the promotion of
development. There are hundreds of books and pamphlets on participatory
development, in which local environmental knowledge is mediated as a ‘vital
essence’ to realise sound, human-based environmentalism. A forest advisor in
the DGF expressed the matter as follows:
Traditionally our extension was based on the idea that a forestry agent is an expert who
enables the peasants’ tree planting through technological packages. But at present we
are utilising a more human and more cultural-oriented method. This method of local
participation means taking into account the local context and the local culture. It also
means the introduction of new concepts of development, where the peasants partici-
pate actively in the process. This method is much slower but it is more efficient,
because the peasants understand all the phases of the project.12
In contrast to the earlier green revolution extension, where peasants were
asked to replace their cultural beliefs with ‘scientific facts’, the agents of
Environmentalism for the People emphasise that they have great interest in
peasant knowledge systems, such as sowing crops according to the phases of the
moon and evaluating soil fertility according to the colour of the soil. The key to
sustainable rural development is sought in empathetic understanding of the
peasant world-view. This new interest in respecting local culture was explained
as follows by an agroforestry extensionist in a programme coordinated by the
German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ):
Waxing and waning moon? Of course it has significance in our extension. We took
it into account even in our official project document, in practices related to pruning
… There is no research about the effects of moon, but it seems to give good results.
And in any case, the peasants do their pruning in the waning moon, so why not respect
it? For rural people it is important that we respect their beliefs, and so if we want to
succeed in our project, we have to take it into account.13
In practice, the struggle for Environmentalism for the People has often led to
idealist ‘small is beautiful’ thinking, where the peasants have little involvement
in wider decision-making. Participation means apolitical grassroots-level ac-
tion, with insufficient attention to the broader linkages between environmental
degradation, rural poverty and unequal distribution of resources. Although
marketed as a local-based development strategy, the ideology of Environmen-
talism for the People has clear connections to the boom of ‘investing in people’
and ‘adjustment with a human face’ in the current World Bank rhetoric of
sustainable development in the Third World (World Bank 1989: 36).
In forestry, environmentalists for the People promote small-scale tree plant-
ing, with active participation by women. This has often led to ‘eco-feminisation’,
where women are understood as having an inherently intimate connection with
nature, and to shutting one’s eyes to the gendered division of labour in the rural
communities and in society at large. There is no realisation that often the areas
which the peasants first dedicate to tree growing are the plots under food crops.
Planting timber trees on these takes land from already marginalised food
production, and shifts control over the land from women to men. Often the
division where the men control the timber trees while the women take care of
their protection is even strengthened in the extension: the developers laying
stress on commercial forestry in their communication with males, while in the
women’s group extension, conservation of nature is highlighted. Current dis-
course on female power has led some extensionists to think that all the gender-
related problems can be solved simply by involving the whole family in tree
planting. According to them, the question of gender is no longer acute because
there is always some room to manoeuvre for the women. The central idea in such
projects is to integrate women in development, without any awareness that for
many women, development means the possibility of seeking their own identities
and of getting rid of paternalist projects, in which rural people are put under the
guardianship of developers.
The people of Alto Tuis could not but resent the developers’ view of local
environmental knowledge as something to be indiscriminately harnessed in
favour of developmentalism, without careful consideration of the cultural
significance and social memory included in it. In their own traditions concerning
intercropping, a complex scheme of local knowledge is taken into account.14
According to their cultural scheme of hot versus cold, applied to plants, soils and
nutrients, it is not suitable to plant a hot crop near a cold one, because of their
opposite intrinsic temperatures. They never intercrop maize and manioc because
the maize as a hot crop overheats the manioc, perceived as cold. Equally, a tree
of pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes) classified as hot, growing near an orange tree,
prevents the development of the orange as a fresh tree. In this respect, the people
could only feel that the environmentalists for the People are making them
ridiculous. It was not long ago that the developers criticised them for planting
porós (Erythrina spp.) as shade trees for coffee, because according to them, the
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 217
porós had no value but only took room from coffee. Today, the same system is
praised as one of the ecologically soundest agroforestry systems, where the porós
as nitrogen fixing trees reduce the need to use agrochemicals.
As a whole, the boom of Environmentalism for the People has often led to
romanticised visions of self-sufficient peasants, using environmentally sound
natural fertilisation and practising subsistence production in homestead agricul-
ture. In this discourse, agroforestry is marketed as a buffer against the external
forces penetrating peasant agriculture. Evaluation of its advantages and disad-
vantages is made at the level of individual households, based on the perception
that peasant units are undifferentiated family-labour farms. The peasants’
marginal production conditions are seen as given, without any links to the wider
relations of production and power, and peasant identity as ascribed, without any
notion of its dynamic construction in diverse social and cultural spheres.
The question why the peasants must continuously intensify their land use on
terrain with limited suitability for intensive agriculture is rarely posed. While the
‘colonisation of the jungle’ was constructed as a substitute for agrarian reform
in the early times, now political discourse on land reform is directed toward the
intensification of the peasant production through agroforestry. Many agroforestry
practices are reasonable only in small-scale agriculture. The manual harvesting
of timber trees combined with crops is profitable only when using domestic
labour, while the random distribution of plants in mixed gardens is possible only
when the technology does not demand uncluttered rows. No wonder agricultural
entrepreneurs show little interest in agroforestry; they claim that it is too costly
to introduce into mechanised farming. In this context, one wonders if the
uncritical promotion of agroforestry will only produce the distinction between
food cropping peasants versus export-oriented agricultural entrepreneurs in the
country’s agrarian structure.
By stressing local-sensitive development, environmentalists for the People
easily identify themselves as ‘benefactors speaking on behalf of the voiceless’.
There are demands that attention should be on particular people, at a particular
time, and in a particular community, with little debate as to how such a local-
based sustainability is guaranteed within a context where the questions of
sustainability are no more local, but also national and global. The empowerment
of local people in the sense of giving them room for active management of their
environment is hardly possible without struggle against institutional regulations
and hegemonic authority. Likewise, it is difficult to make any transformation in
the stratified social order if there are no changes in land tenure and the
knowledge-power regime. However, there are no easy answers as to how to
realise such ‘redistributive’ actions. In a situation where most of the politicians
have little will for any social reform, the few environmentalists for the People can
do little. In the worst case, their soft-sounding programmes, with aims to increase
the degree of self-sufficiency among the peasants, may serve as an alternative to
agrarian reform for the policymakers.
As the study on Costa Rica showed, no development apparatus is a monolith, but
there exist many contradictory tendencies and rivalries in global, national and
local development strategies. All this requires a careful analysis of the social
construction of nature, where the discourse on environment and sustainability is
linked to the broader systems of development and power.
The current greening of development discourse in the name of Environmen-
talism for Nature has in many cases hidden rather than elucidated knowledge on
local environmental questions (Table 1). Defence of the environment has been
separated from social rights, and environmental questions have become an
excuse for political intervention in rural communities. The establishment of
protected areas is done with insensitivity to the needs of local populations –
chasing away the local resource-users and transforming the rainforest into a giant
green museum for the benefit of posterity. However, as remarked by Carrière
(1994), this Green Museum approach simply does not work. No environmental
policies put forward by the state and agreed upon by the international commu-
nity, such as UNCED, will make any difference if they do not simultaneously
deal with the issue of poverty and inequalities.
Environmentalism for Profit is a powerful discourse among the current
ideologies of environmental sustainability in the Third World. In this discourse,
the establishment of ecotourism businesses and agreements for biodiversity
trade are marketed as free of controversy, simply because they are green. The
programmes for non-traditional agriculture are considered sustainable, simply
Imperatives Aims Strategies
Environmentalism ecological environmental interventionist
for Nature care authority
Environmentalism economic capitalisation neoliberal
for Profit of nature globalisation
Alternative spiritual liberation from radical
Environmentalism westernisation populism
Environmentalism humanist local-sensitive idealist grassroots
for the People development participation
TABLE 1. Dominant ideologies of environment and sustainability in the
ENVIRONMENT AS DISCOURSE 219
because in the era of neoliberalism, nature has to be economised. These
advocates of Environmentalism for Profit do business using modern discourse
on tropical conservation, biodiversity prospecting, and local knowledge, with
little concern for the social problems intrinsic to profit-making Environmental-
Humanist integration of people in local projects of environmental care is not
enough either, because it does not ensure their positions in the wider knowledge-
power regime, and because the ethic separated from politics is highly voluntaristic.
This means a critical look at the one-sided Environmentalism for the People
ideology suggests that sustainable environmentalism should simply build on
indigenous knowledge. Their agendas for self-sustaining and local-sensitive
environmentalism involve static visions of local culture. Through ahistorical
discourse, incapable of coming to terms with global relations of power, they
construct monolithic views of the struggle over environment and development.
There is an assumption of static opposition between ‘virtuous peasants’ and
The same can be said of radical Alternative Environmentalism. Many
alternative environmentalists consider local communities as almost free to
reinvent global political and economic relationships, without any notion that
there are limiting conditions to cultural specificity, in that societies all over the
world are exposed to a certain degree of globalisation. The tendency to make
cultural difference a paradigm through which Western environmental knowl-
edge is constructed as absolute and instrumentalist, while local knowledge is
relativist and situational, is based on nihilistic celebration of the Other. Little
interest is shown in the dynamic interaction between traditional and modern
resource management practices, or in the inevitable articulation of local and
Concerning this, there is a growing need for radical social and political
change within which a new perception of social concern, cultural representation,
and local action would be possible. This is not the rhetorical argument of giving
‘voice to the voiceless’, where the rural poor are seen as if they did not marshal
any social power, nor articulate their concerns. As remarked by Touraine (1995:
92), the centres of modernity have accumulated disposable resources on such a
scale that there are no more ‘pre-modern places’ and no more ‘noble savages’.
At best, the struggle towards a more sustainable development means a new
plurality of social actors and social movements, which redress the one-sided
views of environment and development toward strategies that express more
diversely ecological, social and cultural reality. Such deconstruction is a basis
for changing the terms of the debate, which has so far been conducted in the terms
of universalism versus relativism. Neither globalism nor localism provides
adequate answers, but the middle way between universalism and relativism is
pluralism, where both tendencies are seen as meaningful and complementary
(Nederveen Pieterse 1991: 21-23).
The paper draws on research financed by the Academy of Finland, Finnish Cultural
Foundation and Emil Aaltonen Säätiö. I am grateful to the people of Alto Tuis and to many
Costa Rican ministries and development institutions that cooperated with my field
research. Dr. Arturo Escobar provided valuable comments on previous versions of this
paper. Of course, I remain solely responsible for any errors of facts or interpretation.
1 For the action-oriented approach, see Long and Long (1992), Verschoor (1994).
2 See van Beek (1993), Bordessa (1993), Peluso and Poffenberger (1989). For the
criticism of postmodern analysis, see Gandy (1996), Nederveen Pieterse (1991), O’Hanlon
and Washbrook (1992), Polier and Roseberry (1989).
3 The primary information for the study is based on my field material, which as a whole
consists of 150 hours of tape-recorded interviews, dozens of meetings and daily conver-
sations, together with dozens of law texts, ministerial documents, working plans of
development programmes, newspaper articles, mimeographs, pamphlets etc. This mate-
rial was gathered in order to look at the discourse on sustainability from the perspective
of diverse actors.
4 This is nowadays called the Ministry of Energy and Environment (MINAE).
5 Interview with a forest official of MIRENEM, San José, July 1992.
6 The USA was one of the few nations that did not sign the Biodiversity Convention at the
UNCED. This was because of the fear that the convention could force the US drug firms
to transfer patent rights for a new drug to a developing country, and thus diminish their
comparative advantage in biotechnology. According to the World Resources Institute,
Costa Rica has lost 4 billion USD during the past twenty years from unrealised returns on
natural resources. On the Merck/INBio agreement, see Blum (1993), Roberts (1992).
7 Interview with the sub-director of IDA, Turrialba, July 1992.
8 Interview with a local peasant, don Rodrigo Sánchez (pseudonym), Alto Tuis, May
9 Interview with a forest expert of DGF, San José, June 1992.
10 Statement by Eduardo Lizano, the former President of the Central Bank of Costa Rica,
cited in Rivera and Román (1989: 146).
11 Interview with a rural extensionist of MIRENEM, November 1992.
12 Interview with a forest advisor of the DGF, San José, June 1992.
13 Interview with an agroforestry extensionist of MIRENEM, San José, November 1992.
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