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A grounded approach to environmental sustainability, health and human well-being in Southern Costa Rica

A grounded approach to environmental sustainability, health and human well-being in Southern Costa Rica

In 2021, the York Las Nubes project in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC) launched the Grounded project in collaboration with the York Faculty of Health, York International, York Libraries, and Universidad Técnica Nacional (UTN) of Costa Rica, San Carlos Campus.

Indeed, community is at the heart of York’s Las Nubes EcoCampus such that many of the efforts of York faculty, staff and students are aimed at improving the lives of the people in Southern Costa Rica. It’s most recent endeavour -- the Grounded project -- is a series of documentaries filmed in Costa Rica that gather experiences of people whose livelihoods are substantially linked to the earth.

Filmed in rural Costa Rica, the Grounded project focuses on issues around environmental sustainability, biodiversity conservation, health, and human well-being, with the idea of revealing structural elements that constrain the pursuit of social and ecological well-being, as well as the opportunities that these grounded experiences offer for alternative ways of living.

The project aims to tell the stories of regular people in Costa Rica allowing them to control the narrative about how their community is portrayed and developed.  The first feature film, More Than Migrants, debuted in June 2021, and the second, Buried Seeds, premiered in February 2022

More than Migrants (2021) follows the lived experience of nine people striving to make a new life for themselves and their families in Costa Rica. The stories, told in their own words, reveal the strength and resilience needed to overcome the challenges of building a new home with dignity and well-being.

Buried Seeds (2022) looks at the life experiences of twenty peasants in Southern Costa Rica, their sense of identity, their daily struggles, the threats to their ways of life, and what sustains them. The stories reveal how they see their place in the world and how they contribute to local and global well-being.

Both films were directed by Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, Chair of Neotropical Conservation and Director of the Las Nubes Project with Mathieu Poirier (FOH) as academic lead in More than Migrants and EUC PhD student Mburucuya Marcela Ortiz Imlach as academic lead in Buried Seeds.

Grounded seeks to engage in transdisciplinary conversations among academics, expert practitioners, local stakeholders and actors on the ground.  Participatory documentary filming, creates and mobilize knowledge about complex issues of the Brunca Region, focusing on local concerns, difficulties, aspirations, achievements and potential. The series provides documentary material from diverse theoretical, disciplinary and life-experience vantage points gathered in the Brunca Region and allows for the analysis, theorization and collaborative construction of knowledge. "With its intertwined pillars dedicated to education, research and community engagement, Las Nubes has developed inclusive partnerships at the international and local level”, says Montoya.  “The Las Nubes EcoCampus has fostered international inclusive partnerships with three of the five major public universities in Costa Rica (UNA, UTN, UCR), carrying out collaborative research projects focused on rural well-being in the Global South, with particular emphasis on marginalized migrant, peasant, and Indigenous communities,” he adds.

At the local level, Las Nubes continues to nourish partnerships with Indigenous, peasant, environmental, and women’s organizations, all with the aim of bringing together York University´s academic expertise, with local strategic priorities in research, education, and socio-environmental action.

“During the pandemic we have doubled our efforts to strengthen and move these links forward. Despite the limitations posed by the requirements of virtual encounters, important new partnerships have been formed”, says Associate Director Ana Maria Martinez.

One of the pillars of the Las Nubes project is community engagement. For over two decades, it has worked hard to create a space in which local concerns and initiatives are heard and addressed. The collective initiative involving local communities, NGOs, universities and other groups has provided an identity and pride to the communities. Located across the Las Nubes Biological Reserve, the Lillian Meighen Wright Centre serves as a local, national, and international hub dedicated to promoting Neotropical conservation and livelihood improvement.

“The Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor has become an example of collective actions and imaginaries that provide alternative models of rural community development. Multiple lessons arise from this ‘lived experiment’ in Southern Costa Rica, where differing ideologies, agendas, and paradigms converge and where place and a sense of place shape social interactions,” Martinez notes.

Aligning its work with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, the project has contributed to community well-being in ways that are compatible and conducive to environmental conservation. Las Nubes does this through faculty and student research, environmental education, and community engagement initiatives.

Under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grounded project defied the limitations of international travel, making use of the established international structure of Las Nubes, to carry out ethnographic research in Costa Rica under the guidance of academic leads in Toronto. Furthermore, the Grounded project carried out international student placements by providing virtual opportunities for Global Health students from York University to engage actively with students from the Universidad Técnica Nacional in Costa Rica to work together as part of the film production team of the Grounded project.

With its permanent and long-term presence and relationship with local communities and organizations, Las Nubes aims to further develop and enhance the use of a grounded theory and praxis around the sustainability of healthy and gratifying rural lifeways respectful of, and in harmony with the natural environment.