Problems in Paradise

A USF field school in the Costa Rican highlands marks a decade of health research on a changing population.



Students at the USF field school in Costa Rica conduct health studies on the local population. Photo credit: David Himmelgreen.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June 10, 2011) – Three hours from a major city and off the Pan American Highway on roads that are not entirely paved, Monteverde, Costa Rica is a picture-perfect region of lush vegetation and small communities on the edge of a cloud forest.


A diverse land of rare orchids, exotic creatures and breathtaking mountains and waterfalls, this part of northwest Costa Rica could not seem further from the pressures of the developed world. But globalization has not left this remote region alone, which is why if you travel into the small towns you find that many of the homes are linked up to the Internet, cable satellite dishes are attached to rudimentary roofs and foreign influences abound.


You will also find residents struggling with uniquely modern ailments: adults who have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet while their children spend too many afternoons in front of the television; diabetes, hypertension and obesity are on the rise. The soil is rich for growing healthy food, but too many workers have abandoned small farms to work in the burgeoning tourist industry, where free-wheeling behaviors run head-long into a conservative, traditional Costa Rican culture.


The challenges of globalization in this region have not gone unnoticed.


For more than 10 years, a University of South Florida field school in the mountains surrounding Monteverde has charted the impact of globalization on the health of the people of this region, giving scores of students a real-world opportunity to research the unintended consequences of global integration literally as it unfolds.


The program – founded by USF Vice Provost and Anthropologist Linda Whiteford and led the last nine years by Associate Professors of Anthropology David Himmelgreen and Nancy Romero-Daza – has connected students to the communities in a complete cultural immersion: living with local families, following the lead of local leaders and understanding, from their perspective, how outside influences affect personal health. Joining them have been Heide Castañeda, an assistant professor in anthropology, and Rita DeBate, an associate professor in Public Health.


“What took place over 80 to 100 years in the U.S. has taken place in 20 to 30 years in rural Costa Rica,” Romero-Daza said.


The newest group of students – who apply from universities around the world to be a part of the five-week program – will arrive in Costa Rica June 17 for a new round of research. Himmelgreen and Romero-Daza say each time they return they see the impact globalization has on the people who live there.


“We don’t want to train students so they can simply do research,” Romero-Daza said. “We want their research to be applicable. We really work with the local communities to identify the issues that are important to them.”



The 'Exotic Other'


The field school is located in a rural area in the Tilarán mountain range in the Puntarenas province of Costa Rica. Once dotted by farms and dairies, Monteverde has become one of Costa Rica’s main tourist attractions, drawing some 250,000 visitors each year.


USF’s program operates in conjunction with the Monteverde Institute, an educational institute which has hosted thousands of international students over its 25 years to study the culture and environment of the region, which in 1951 became the home of a Quaker settlement which has preserved the cloud forest and its unique diversity.


Costa Rica has universal health care, but the system is plagued with inconsistencies and is far from being a panacea, the researchers noted. For students, it’s a unique opportunity to see “the good, the bad and the ugly” sides of the system, Himmelgreen said.


Over the years, the students have examined every health issue imaginable: from water management to the emergence of diseases typical in the United States, to the unique challenges of the elderly living in nearly impassable terrain. But over the years of study, a triumvirate of trouble has emerged:  tourism, food and sex.


For Romero-Daza, who has studied sexual health among poor women in the U.S. and Lesotho, Africa, and Himmelgreen, a nutrition expert, the juxtaposition of the lush and vibrant landscape and the health consequences of drawing people to enjoy it have made for fascinating research.


Vacationing Americans and Europeans have refocused the economy away from local food production to tourism, which come with alcohol, drug use and sexual temptations when Costa Rican young people have little access to condoms or sexual health education.


Sex tourism, though, in this part of Latin America isn’t what most people would think (foreign men and local women engaging in prostitution), according to a 2008 paper published by Romero-Daza and former student Andrea Freidus on the trend of foreign women engaging in risky sexual behavior with the Costa Rican men who work on the zip lines, as river guides, and in the tourist bars. The men who seek out such relationships call themselves gringueros; the attraction for both groups is rooted in the "exotic other".


In surveys of the two groups, the researchers found American and European women not only strike up brief sexual relationships with Costa Rican men in the tourism industry, but were told that the women seemed to be traveling to the area for that expressed purpose. Forgoing the usual contraceptive precautions so routine in American and European communities, at least three of the young local men interviewed told the researchers they’d fathered children with tourist women.


“There are a lot of young women coming into the area and most of us guys (think) they are the ‘special of the day’ - plato del día. One day (we) can be with one of them, the next with another. There are always available girls and you can change your girls every day—every day you can be with a different partner,” said one young man in an interview with Romero-Daza and Freidus.


Given those behaviors, the risks for STD outbreaks are high, the researchers concluded. Costa Rica’s HIV infection rates have been relatively low, but clearly a need for education and prevention measures exists along with reminder messages for tourists to encourage condom use, they said.


Freidus, now an adjunct professor in anthropology and women studies at Michigan State University, said the program became an opportunity not only to conduct real-world research, but to observe first-hand how veteran researchers do their work.


“You learn so much more by doing it. I liked the emphasis on the program in engaging in what the community wants studied,” she said. “This program revolves completely around themes the community wants studied.”



Foreign Food Influences


An even more pervasive threat, however, is food and the health effects of the community’s diet transitioning from one of locally-produced food to expensive, imported junk food.  Just as in the United States, food insecurity manifests itself on obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heath disease, Himmelgreen said.


As more Costa Ricans abandon farming to work in the tourism industry, the cost of buying land has become very expensive. Meanwhile, food imports have increased – the new Costa Rican favorites are American standbys of burgers, pizza, sugary cereals and soda – and those imported products are very expensive for the locals.


“When you hear about people not being able to afford food, you really expect to find malnutrition,” Himmelgreen said. “We were surprised by the obesity rates.


“People are really concerned about becoming sedentary. We’re really seeing a rise in diseases of affluence: diabetes, heart disease, cancers.”


As less local food production occurs, transportation for the outlying area also becomes an issue. People –especially the elderly – find it expensive and difficult to get to town to buy food. The situation become even more dire when tourist season ends in late fall and families see their incomes drop precipitously.

 “Everyone is catering to tourists, food is considerably more expensive than here,” Romero-Daza said.


Himmelgreen said most would have expected such conditions to lead to malnutrition, but the actual impact in Costa Rica has been obesity as fresh, local and nutritious food disappears from the landscape and Costa Rican children spend more hours in front of the television while their parents work multiple jobs.


Seeing that clear pattern, students in one of USF’s summer programs helped start a farmers market in the town of Santa Elena for local producers and craftsmen to meet. The market has continued and become a community cultural event.


The highlight of the weeks the students spend there is a community health fair where they can provide basic health tests and pass out information on disease prevention and healthy lifestyles. The fairs are big draws for the area’s elderly residents, who revel in telling the students of their life experiences in a world that has changed so much, so quickly.


“Every year our students tell us it’s a life-changing experience just to sit and talk with the people and hear about their personal experiences,” Romero-Daza said.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.