Bribri Women Lead the Way in Community-Based Tourism in Costa Rica
I have been a tour guide in Costa Rica and other countries of Central America for many years, but I was surprised to learn about an ecotourism project that is entirely developed and managed by Indigenous Bribri women. I was eager to visit the women who run the Stibrawpa project in the Bribri village of Yorkín, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. So, in July, I found myself being rowed up the Yorkín River in a wooden canoe through lush primary rainforest where only the singing of birds and the splash of the paddles interrupted the awesome silence. I was entering the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, the largest of Costa Rica’s 21 Indigenous reserves, and one of the least developed regions of the country. I was about to meet some of the most inspiring women leaders I have ever known.
During the last 30 years, the Bribri people have been struggling to recover their culture and sacred traditions, which have been threatened by the encroachment of the dominant Costa Rican culture. Bernarda Morales, president of the Stibrawpa Women’s House Association, tells me, “My generation lost our language and traditions, and has been struggling to recover them. We reached for our elders to help us return to our original way of being and living. We also needed to find new opportunities and sources of income for our community.” These were the needs that gave birth to the Stibrawpa Women’s House Association in 1996.
The women who formed Stibrawpa sought ways to build their local economy and provide realistic opportunities for young and adult members of the community to remain on their land, without having to leave home to find work. It was “a desperate calling to recover our traditions and generate a suitable income for our families,” recalls Prisca Morales, a board member of Stibrawpa. Prisca continues, “In the past, our men had to leave for months to work on banana plantations, and over time we started noticing that as they aged, their health deteriorated. They [often] died young, and, we believe, from exposure to the chemicals. We wanted to create a local source of income for them to stay here with their families, and live a healthier lifestyle.”
The founders of Stibrawpa saw rural tourism as something they could do in addition to harvesting bananas, cocoa, and doing handcrafts. Bernarda Morales remarks, “We had three major ideas to focus on: the rainforest, the culture, and the economy. We wanted to see how we could improve and preserve [these three areas]. We wanted to rescue our culture and our language. At first we thought this was a dream. ‘There isn’t any work to do here,’ I thought. But I became a change agent among woman my age, encouraging them to join and participate. Then we asked, ‘How do we organize ourselves?’ So we sought the elders’ wisdom and asked them to teach us how to do our arts and crafts again and make the bows and arrows. However, that was not sustainable; there were too many expenses and very little profit.”
As the organization grew, the women received training from institutions such as the INCAE Business School, INA (National Institute for Learning) and INAMU (National Women’s Institute) on such topics as leadership, organizational skills, accounting, and tourism. Bernarda recalls, “At first, only I received the trainings, since I was the only one who could leave my house. Some husbands are more strict [about their wives
leaving the house], but I had support from my husband.”
Stibrawpa gradually grew to its current 30 members: 12 women and 18 men. Bernarda says: “We have all ages participating, from our elders, to as young as 16- or 17-year olds.” With funding from the Small Grants Program of the United Nations Development Program and the Global Environmental Facility, they built the first thatched-roof building, which was destroyed in the big flood of November 2009. They rebuilt it, along with other structures, with help from international and local donors.
Stibrawpa members are required to pay an enrollment fee and to comply with certain rules, such as, “No fighting, participation in trainings, and attendance at meetings.” Each member’s salary depends on the work they do, the time they invest, and their duties and responsibilities.
Stibrawpa offers tourists a unique opportunity to explore the Bribri people’s ancient culture, and learn about their sacred traditions and contemporary life. Visitors stay in two thatched-roof buildings that can accommodate 30 people. Most tours are one-day events, starting with an hour-long canoe ride up the Yorkín River. Upon arrival, tourists are offered a traditional snack of plantain tarts served on a plantain leaf on a hand-carved, wooden plate. A Stibrawpa member welcomes them and introduces the day’s activities, which include hiking in the forest, crossing rivers on hammock bridges, practicing with the bow and arrow, and making chocolate from cacao seeds—a favorite activity. In accord with Bribri tradition, only women can participate in making the chocolate.
Tourists may also explore the organic farms and learn about medicinal plants and the construction of the thatched roofs. “During high season, there are around 40 tourists per month. They are all ages and they come from the United States, England, France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium, and some local tourism from Costa Rica,” says Prisca Morales. The project is promoted by ACTUAR (The Costa Rican Association of Rural Community Tourism) and ATEC (Talamancan Association of Ecotourism and Conservation), among other tourism associations.
Bernarda explains that in the early years of the business, most of the men were skeptical. “It took us a long time, more than eight years of struggling, to earn their respect. They didn’t like us traveling alone to San José to receive trainings. It took us a long time to convince them.”
But the women demonstrated their ability to organize and lead their community, and their success has earned them everyone’s respect. Bernarda’s husband, Julio, proudly walks with me through the village, pointing out all of the organizations that have benefited from Stibrawpa. With earnings from ecotourism, the association established a local health clinic, a high school, and a water aqueduct. They are now building a community center which will be their main area for rituals, community gatherings, graduations, and other events.
I wondered how Stibrawpa members felt about the social and cultural impacts of tourism in Yorkín. According to Bernarda, the interaction with people from different countries has nourished their community. “[Ecotourism] is educational both ways. We also learn about their cultures; it is a cultural exchange,” she explains.
For the most part, Stibrawpa members think the tourism project has reinforced traditional values. “We are now more connected to our roots, and nature. We are fighting to maintain our culture and respect for our land. The project has been an inspiration for us and our families. Now the young ones are getting more involved and excited about participating, because Stibrawpa offers them a source of income. They aren’t going outside for drugs or alcohol,” says Bernarda.
“The learning process has been amazing,” she continues. “We have learned how to manage organizations, to solve problems, and to respect opinions. We go home and [communicate] what we have learned to our children. We explain what our work is, and why it is important for our community. Now our youth and children are proud of our sacred traditions. They know how to write and speak the Bribri language. All our efforts are passing on to other Indigenous communities in Costa Rica, and even in Panama,” she smiles proudly.
What are their goals for the future? They hope to accommodate around 50 tourists in their facilities, increase their boat fleet, and have more young people involved in the project. “In the long run, we hope to have a university here,” Bernarda says. “We are very hopeful. Remember, five years ago, there was no high school here. We want young people to stay, to work within the community and be with their families. We want our people, wherever they go, to have pride in being Bribri.”
Ana Lucía Fariña is a student in the Masters of Arts program in Environmental Leadership at Naropa University. She is completing her Applied Leadership Project with Cultural Survival’s Global Response program.
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