TACOMA, Washington – Costa Rica is widely known for its incredible biodiversity, lush landscapes and iconic wildlife. During the past several decades, Costa Rica has become a global leader in environmental sustainability. The country has shown steady economic growth. In fact, according to The World Bank, Costa Rica has one of the lowest poverty rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, despite healthy growth rates, Costa Rica has not been able to significantly reduce its poverty rate for the last twenty years. Parque La Libertad, located in the Costa Rican province of San Jose, aims to break the cycle of poverty in Costa Rica. The project hopes to accomplish this by improving “the quality of life [for]surrounding communities.” According to its declared vision, the organization works toward this goal through social, environmental and economic development.
Why Have Poverty Rates Remained Stagnant?
In the early 1980s, Costa Rica suffered an economic crisis that caused the economy to contract, inflation to skyrocket and the poverty rate to sharply increase. The crisis inspired government action. The Costa Rican currency, the colón, was devalued due to inflation, but this was leveraged in order to incentivize the export sector. Additionally, newly-established free trade zones gave tax breaks to companies prioritizing exports exclusively. According to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Report, these interventions were effective. The country went from ranking in the 62nd percentile in 1985 to the 19th percentile in 2005.
Despite “Costa Rica’s significant improvement in economic freedom,” there are vast inequalities and a stagnating poverty rate in the country. Economists point to several reasons to explain this. For the last several decades, the country’s high inflation rate has disproportionately impacted the poor. According to the CATO Institute, impoverished groups cannot weather the storm of inflation as successfully as those in the upper and middle classes. A relative lack of assets and savings leaves Costa Rica’s poor particularly exposed.
Additionally, the country’s poor are also the most vulnerable to the high tariffs on key agricultural products such like rice, beans, potatoes and more. Separate analyzes make the case that inequality and poverty in Costa Rica can be explained by the “widening gap in workers’ skills and education.” Following the economic crisis, high school enrollment rates dropped. They did not return to normal until more than ten years later, leaving countless Costa Ricans without a completed high school degree.
The Power of Community Development in Combating Poverty
The Costa Rican government has prioritized fighting poverty; in 2010, for example, the government invested 2.2% of the country’s GDP on more than 40 programs aimed at reducing poverty. However, one of the most powerful ways to combat poverty is through community development programs. Community developers specialize in “appreciating the interdependence of different parts of the community.” They work on “addressing issues like poverty from a multifaceted approach,” with an emphasis on helping the impoverished achieve “self-sufficiency.” According to a study outlined by the Rural Poverty Research Center, a full step from poverty requires interdependent elements. Such elements include income assets, education, safe housing and surroundings, and access to healthcare and social services.
The Park, Then and Now
Parque La Libertad’s story began in 2004 in the southeastern part of the San Jose province of Costa Rica. Team member Vivian Pastor Murrillo told The Borgen Project that the park began after Holcim, a concrete company, moved its operations to another location. This left behind 37 hectares of land. She explained, “[A]t that time, the general manager of concrete products, Juan Marcos Fernandez, now president of our Board of Directors, had begun conversations with the government around taking advantage of the land for the benefit of the communities.” The park was established formally in 2008. It has served tens of thousands of people since its inception.
The impact of Parque La Libertad is substantial. According to the 2020 annual report, a little more than 3,000 people accessed regular programming that the park put on. More than 70,000 visited the park annually, with the majority of regular attendees being between 18 and 35 years of age. More than 11,000 participated in park activities, both online and in-person. The majority of the participants are from the San Jose province, specifically from the Desamparados municipality.
How Parque La Libertad Functions
The park focuses on three dimensions when developing programming: social, economic and environmental. The goal of social dimension programming is to enhance skills and promote a better quality of life through positive social interaction. Parque La Libertad offers sports such as soccer, skating and disc golf. It also offers artistic programs focusing on ballet and dance, tutoring and technology clubs. The park makes room for empowerment and personal development courses focused on mental health as well.
To address the economic dimension, Parque La Libertad offers young people and adults education. It also provides training opportunities to “enhance skills, thus facilitating insertion into productive sectors of society and breaking cycles of poverty.” Programs focus on basic computer courses, including graphics design programs. They also include technical training to promote entrepreneurial skills and employability. Moreover, the environmental dimension offers environmental rehabilitation and sustainability programs. The strategic balance of these components is at the heart of making a true, lasting impact on the lives of vulnerable populations and fighting poverty in Costa Rica.
Local and Personal Development
Parque La Libertad believes in the theory of change that illuminates the dynamic interplay between local and personal development. Murrillo told The Borgen Project that “social mobility based on variables that come together to promote personal development, and later local development, are achieved through quality improvement of people’s lives.” She explained that Parque La Libertad does more than provide positive conditions for the people within the park. It also seeps into surrounding communities, creating a “dynamic alliance” within various essential sectors of society.
Parque La Libertad is leveling the playing field and combatting poverty in Costa Rica by providing rich experiences to vulnerable communities. Costa Rica’s recovery following its economic crisis has been slow-moving. Still, organizations such as Parque La Libertad do the powerful work of combating poverty by focusing on what makes its members human: the desire to grow, play, interact, learn and explore.
– Brittany Granquist