San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Barra del Colorado: The Most Overlooked Corner of Costa Rica

BARRA DEL COLORADO, Limón – The water tower in the center of the tiny town of Barra del Colorado Sur is the most conspicuous and perhaps the best symbol of the level of government concern for this small village of about 200 people in the northeastern corner of the Limón province. The water tower, the town’s lone skyscraper, stands about 60 feet high and is rusted a reddish brown from the ground up. The broad cylindrical tank atop the tower is decayed and peeling, and appears to be on the verge of toppling over on the nearby homes at any moment; perhaps during the powerful Caribbean rains or an earthquake, it will. 

Like many things in Barra del Colorado, the water tower was a government promise that never came to fruition. Built during the first presidency of José Figueres in the early 1950s, the tower was erected to provide clean drinking water to the remote community, set on the Caribbean Sea and the broad Río Colorado, which flows east into the sea. Despite the concerns of the community that the tower was being built above bad, iron-rich water, it was constructed, inaugurated, and, like many government plans for the region, quickly abandoned.

According to longtime residents, after the completion of the project, locals soon stole the tower’s water meters, and within two years of its construction, the tower was rendered useless. The people of the town soon returned to relying on their own wells for drinking water.

Almost 60 years later, the central government’s blind eye continues to gaze blankly over Barra del Colorado. Despite a well-known and documented drug problem polluting local communities (TT, Sept. 16), the police force for the approximately 500 people living in the two communities – Barra del Colorado Sur and its sister hamlet, Barra del Colorado Norte, across the river – was recently reduced from three officers to two. In addition to the security concerns, the village’s schools are wracked by absenteeism, uninterested students, high turnover of teachers and a lack of resources. The adults of the village are no better off. With three sportfishing lodges in the area, one restaurant with accompanying rooms and a few bare-shelved drug and grocery stores, many residents are jobless and spend their days underneath palm trees or on their porches in rusted rocking chairs.   

Not a Prayer

This church in Barra del Colorado sits mostly in disuse, exceptfor occasional religious ceremonies.

While the government often repeats its vows to provide assistance to the region, these are usually unfulfilled. The most telling example was in April, when the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) flew members of the media to a number of airstrips around the country to show off improvements made during the administration of former President Oscar Arias.

Arias, who had promised to attend the event, canceled that morning. When the presidential airplane landed at the Barra del Colorado airstrip on the south side of town, the villagers gathered and cheered, waving small Costa Rican flags to celebrate the arrival of the president. When the MOPT functionaries alighted alone, the air quickly went out of the community celebration’s balloon.

Public Works and Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez cut a banner in front of a new plaque at the end of the airstrip, smiled for a few photos, and climbed aboard his plane. Within 20 minutes, the celebration was over, and the planes were on their way back to San José.

“To me, that was emblematic of the government’s concern for us,” said Guillermo “Memo” Cunningham, the town’s representative in the municipal government of Pococí, who has lived in the village his entire life. “Another promise by the government unfulfilled. Another reminder that they really don’t care about us at all.”

A Land of Contradictions and Lawlessness

Due to the town’s remoteness, all laws are blurred – if laws that are never enforced can be called real laws at all. Regarding property, there are few updated land records and no zoning. There is little to stop people from building anywhere they like and staking informal claim to almost any piece of land in the region. Even though Barra del Colorado is located within a protected 92,000-hectare (355-square-mile) natural wildlife refuge, which by law restricts construction, limited control means that the reserve exists mostly as lines on a map.

Recently, the Barra del Colorado police force was reduced from three officers to two. Roberto Mata, who had served for 10 years in Barra del Colorado, was recently relocated south to nearby Tortuguero. Mata scoffed at the idea of a police presence in the area.

“We couldn’t do anything with three officers,” he said. “With two, they might as well not leave the station.”

Much confusion stems from the designation in 1985 of the zone as a natural wildlife refuge, long after the establishment for the town, and after several sportfishing lodges had set up fruitful operations in one of the best tarpon fishing spots in the world. Because the hotels and homes existed prior to the creation of the refuge, they were permitted to stay. However, further tourism expansion has been prohibited, even though residents look to tourism as the only viable solution to the problem of joblessness.

“This town is perfect for tourism, and the people of the town would love for it to come,” said Bienvenido Hernández, a teacher at the Barra del Colorado Sur elementary school. “When we had visitors for the Green Macaw Festival last year, we had tourists, press and environmentalists here. People in the town were selling food and crafts and making money. It was a sign of how much we could benefit from tourism here.”

But the three-day festival came and went in June 2009 and, as quickly as tourists arrived and boosted the local economy, they boarded boats and planes and were gone.

‘What’s the point of education?

There are two elementary schools and one high school in Barra del Colorado. The elementary school on the south side of the river is a small, teal-colored building that sits in the center of town, alongside the soccer field and the airstrip. The school has three classrooms, 62 students and two teachers. The elementary and high school on the north side has close to 150 students in all.

While unmotivated students are a concern in every school district, teachers at the elementary schools on both the north and south sides of the river say that the biggest struggle for teachers here isn’t motivating the students to learn, it’s providing them an explanation of why school has any relevance.

Héctor Porras, who hails from the inland farming town of Guápiles, is in his second year as the principal of the Barra del Colorado Norte elementary school. He says he thinks this will be his last year with the school. While explaining the lack of concern for education in the town, Porras points out of the window of his office at six men sitting underneath the shade of an almond tree. They all have their shirts off and several are smoking. It is 1:30 p.m.   

“Look at the role models for these kids,” Porras says. “You think kids are going to care about their education or work when they go home to parents like that? Their parents didn’t finish school, they don’t work and they don’t want to work. They don’t want to do anything. Kids can’t learn to value education and work when no one in their community does.”

Catherine Peréz is in her first year as a high school teacher in Barra del Colorado. She teaches English and French, and also says that she expects to leave the school at the completion of the school year.

“It’s difficult to be a teacher here,” she says. “Students lose interest as the years pass. Each level has a drop off in the number of students. We only have five students who will graduate at the end of the year.”

Peréz says the high incidence of dropouts is rooted in the community’s drug problem. People in the Barra del Colorado community sometimes find bags of cocaine floating in the waters of the Caribbean or washed up on shore. And when they do, the sale of the bags to drug dealers is typically lucrative, providing some level of financial comfort to members of this impoverished community.

Next door to the high school is one of the nicer homes in Barra del Colorado Norte. It’s a cream-colored house with glass windows, patterned-tile front steps and a freshly painted white tin roof. The front door is typically ajar, and just inside, a flat screen television mounted on the wall is visible, while large black speakers sit on the floor.

“Kids know you aren’t going to get a nice house just by graduating from high school,” Peréz says. “You don’t receive a diploma and move into a good house. But if you find a package of drugs, or several packages of drugs, you can. When students learn that, they usually prefer to search for drugs instead of continuing school. So what’s the point of education?”

While the lure of drug money is one reason for the students’ indifference, other teachers say the lack of employment in the community also deters students from education.

“If the government helped us to create job opportunities in the region, students would have something to look forward to after graduation,” Hernández said. “But, because there are no jobs here, getting an education doesn’t result in job opportunities. If we had jobs here, there would be an incentive for education. But the government has completely forgotten about this town.”

According to Porras, earlier in the school year, a first-grade student stood up in class one day and announced “I’m leaving.” When asked where she was going, the student told her teacher that she was going to work for her father. The following day, Porras went to her home and found her taking the heads off shrimp. Her father had recently caught several hundred pounds of shrimp and needed his 7-year-old daughter to help him get them ready for sale. She hasn’t returned to school since.

“She’s there every day taking the heads off of shrimp,” Porras said. “She’s got a job at age 7 and is making money. How can we convince her to come back to school for 10 more years when she’s already got a job?”

Dredging the Río San Juan

The newest concern among residents is the effect of a Nicaraguan government Río San Juan dredging project on the flow of water in the Río Colorado, which branches off the San Juan near the outlet to the sea. The levels of the Río Colorado, which is about 500-meters wide at the point between the northern and southern parts of the community, could be dramatically altered, potentially reducing the amount of fish in the river. The Costa Rican government has approved the dredging operation (TT Online, Sept. 8).

“Costa Rican biologists are just now beginning to realize the effect the dredging could have on this river,” said Dan Wise, the owner of the Río Colorado Lodge, the area’s oldest sportfishing operation, located on the north side of Barra del Colorado. “It could potentially impact the entire ecosystem that exists on this river … it could cause significant damage to fishing and the way of life in these communities.”

Because fishing feeds the area, the future of Barra del Colorado could hang in the balance.

“I can only hope the government gets involved to make sure that the dredging doesn’t affect this river,” police officer Mata said. “But they need to do something now. Most people in this community don’t even know it’s happening, but when the river flow drops, the whole community will suffer.”

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