O’Connor Takes a Closer Look at Costa Rica’s Dam Conflict

By schwartzsa | June 17, 2011

At first glance the proposed El Diquis Hydroelectric Project in Buenos Aires, Costa Rica, appears to be universally beneficial: damming the river basin would bring sustainable energy to millions of Central Americans, and with it the promise of continued development. But as Kelly Hays O’Connor, a graduate student in Arcadia’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) program, discovered firsthand, measuring the impact of a project that would reshape a large swath of land, displacing current residents, is profoundly complicated and warrants a closer look. [Watch audio slideshow narrated by O’Connor.]

“There’s not just one indigenous perspective, but many of the indigenous peoples are opposed to the dam, largely because they feel they haven’t been included in the process,” says O’Connor, who traveled to the heart of the conflict, Boruca, Costa Rica, while studying sustainable development and indigenous rights in a course led by Professors Warren Haffar and Amy Cox.

José Carlos Morales and his wife, Leyla Garro Valverde, indigenous rights activists in Boruca, hosted the group of undergraduate and master’s students for part of the journey. During a three-day stay at the Kan Tan Reserve, O’Connor and her classmates learned about the lifestyles and cultures of the indigenous populations—Gutatusos, Chorotegas, Huetares, Cabecares, Bribri, Terrabas, Borucas and Guaymies—as well as their outlooks on the proposed hydroelectric dam project.

“They want to feel as though their rights are being respected and protected,” says O’Connor. “The El Diquis project… would affect the Térraba [mangroves], the Boruca territory, flood some of the land and displace some of the people there, altering their way of life and their means of making a living.”

When not in workshops and lectures, the students explored town, sampling local cuisine and meeting with artisans. (Many of the locals make a living producing textiles and other crafts.) They even took part in a traditional ceremony on ancestral burial grounds—land that will be lost if the proposed El Diquis Hydroelectric Project moves forward. “It was a highlight of the trip for many of us,” she says.

Upon leaving Boruca, the group toured some of Costa Rica’s most precious natural endowments. During a boat tour of the mangroves at Sierpe de Osa, they got an environmentalist’s take on how the dam project would affect the fragile ecosystem.

Returning to Glenside from the field study, which also included interactive seminars at the University for PeaceInter-American Court of Human Rights and the School for Field Studies, the students began conflict analysis papers critiquing the positions and interests of major stakeholder in the dam conflict.

O’Connor says the field study provided an ideal opportunity to apply skills she acquired in courses on economics, human rights, international health, and conflict resolution, in addition to bringing new insights to her analysis. “It was great to be able to take all these things that I learned in these other classes and put them into practice in the field through the Costa Rica trip. That was one of the greatest things for me, being able to really use what I had learned and to be able to make a lot of connections.”