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Social production of space and nature in peasant communities of a Costa Rican dry forest 

Social production of space and nature in peasant communities of a Costa Rican dry forest 

Silvia Vasquez-Olguin

Born in Argentina,  Silvia Cristina Vasquez-Olguin considers Costa Rica as her country of adoption after her family’s migration to the country to escape the repressive dictatorship in Argentina. Her personal  experience  was  a  journey  of  self-discovery having worked as a community engagement facilitator and researcher for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in water management, suburban supply, and water basin protection in the South-West region of the Great Metropolitan Area of San José, Costa Rica. She also served as the editor-in-chief of the book And we dared to dream… Women leaders’ experiences on social urban housing (2008) and worked with UNED Costa Rica in its journal that publishes university research of international quality.

With a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Universidad Nacional and a master’s degree in social and environmental policy and political sociology at Universidad de Costa Rica, Olguin further pursued her PhD in transdisciplinary environmental studies, human geography and rural sociology at York. Given her background, no wonder Olguin undertook her dissertation studies on the social production of space and nature in Costa Rican peasant communities.

Palo Verde national park and field station in Costa Rica

“Costa Rica was a clear choice for conducting my research for many practical and personal reasons. I studied the area of Bagatzí and Falconiana for more than ten years before my Ph.D. research. I researched these areas even before that as an undergraduate student of rural and environmental sociology,” says Olguin. She also worked with in Palo Verde National Park for the Organization of Tropical Studies accordingly was one of the most important roles she has undertaken in her personal and professional life. “It impacted the way  I  understand  nature  and  space  and  the  interactions  between  people  from  these  peasant  settlements,  their  places  of  residence  and  ways  of  living,” she adds.

For her outstanding dissertation, Olguin won the 2021 CALACS Outstanding Dissertation Award recognizing her significant contribution to advance understanding of Latin America or the Caribbean and to the to the diverse fields of environmental sociology, political ecology, environmental history, and gender studies. Her research examines the shifting agrarian relations in Costa Rica by focusing on the ways in which socially-produced space and spatialized social relations unfold in two peasant settlements in the province of Guanacaste. The dissertation speaks to one of the long-standing central questions in the field of peasant studies: the peasantry under capitalist relations of production. 

Olguin’s dissertation is considered analytically ambitious and theoretically bold. Conceptually, it involves a creative integration of the classical early-twentieth century work of Russian agrarian economist, Alexander Chayanov, the mid-century thinking of French social theorist, Henri Lefebvre, and the late-twentieth-century frameworks of Latin American theorists of capitalism and the countryside -- Agustín Cueva and Armando Bartra. Accordingly, the dissertation’s original discoveries are rooted in impressive ethnographic, archival, and oral-historical research. 

In an earlier article on “Land distribution does not make a revolution” in Historia Agraria de America Latina, Olguin provides a critical view on the Costa Rican peasant settlements in the Arenal-Tempisque Irrigation District, 1981-2016. She places Costa Rican agrarian history within the Central American experience by analyzing the Costa Rican agrarian policy on peasant settlements through the history of the Bagatzí and Falconiana settlements in Guanacaste. She describes the tensions that arose through proposed Israeli cooperation and the state’s goals regarding settlements and the class nature of Costa Rican agrarian policy.

Women's quilting workshop

Supervised by Prof. Anna Zalik, Olguin owes much of her outstanding research to mentors and peers as well as family and friends who have supported her along the way. And to the people of people of Bagatzí and Falconiana  “for opening your homes and your hearts to me, for letting me get a closer and intimate view of your lives, your history and your pain…The peasants from Bagatzí and Falconiana branded my experience with the resonating echo of the silence and absence of those who are not with us anymore. You made me wonder about the possibilities of hope for the many peasants of the region,” she concludes.

Silvia Vasquez Olguin is now working as a Senior Lecturer at Ryerson University and Research Associate at York University. She has also worked as a lead teacher and research scholar at the University of Costa Rica and as an independent consultant for municipal councils and environmental NGOs working on water/shed protection and ecosystem conservation. She has a passion for sustainability and innovation to community engagement and project management to ensure community engagement, environmental awareness, cooperation, inclusivity, and wellbeing.