San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Climbing up from the bottom

See a photo slideshow of Los Pinos.

On Monday morning in Los Pinos in Alajuelita, a town in the hills south of San José, a young boy sits outside his tin-walled house and works on his homework. His assignment is to build a replica of mountains to share with his class. But he has nothing to work with.

Looking around the small, muddy patch of land in front of his house, he finds a piece of plastic in the garbage, grabs some mud from the ground and starts shaping mountains and volcanoes on top of the plastic. 

Without cardboard, clay and colored pencils, the student finishes his project. But he may not finish school. 

Alajuelita is one of the cantons with the lowest grade school enrollment in the country. Last week, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Costa Rica presented the Cantonal Human Development Atlas, a measure of progress and failures in cantons across the nation. According to human development statistics from 2009, the latest available, Alajuelita placed dead last, with the highest poverty levels in the country. 

The atlas is an index of human development in each canton, determined by factors of health, education and material well-being. According to the study, Alajuelita has deteriorated each consecutive year since 2005 in all three categories.

Los Pinos, also known as Gran Tejarcillos, is one of the worst sections of Alajuelita. Some 3,000 families live in extreme poverty here. Large families cram into tin shacks that lack floors. Sewage systems consist of holes dug in the ground that residents fill in when they become full. Wastewater is discharged on muddy trails that serve as sidewalks. 

 “Alajuelita’s population has been increasing significantly in recent years, and the services and infrastructure needed to satisfy the community never developed at the same rhythm the population did,” said Juan Carlos Ramírez, manager of Educación Plus, a non-profit organization that helps at-risk children access education. The group has worked in Alajuelita for the past 15 years. 

The UNDP study, conducted in collaboration with the National University, found that the canton’s population increased by more than 24,000 people from 2005 to 2009, for a total of 131,730 residents. Other cantons experienced significantly less growth. Santa Ana, southwest of San José, increased by only 2,634 people in the same period, and Montes de Oca, in eastern San José, added only 339 people. 

“The increasing population is a problem,” said Daniel Quesada, a member of Alajuelita’s city council and president of the Unión Cantonal de Asociaciones de Alajuelita, a grouping of non-profit development organizations. “In the past, the municipal government gave land [to the central government] so that they could keep their campaign promises [to build low-income housing]. In the [Oscar] Arias administration, 80,000 additional low-income homes were built in the canton, but no services were provided and [existing services] collapsed.” 

According to Quesada, local government, the central government and the community are to blame for Alajuelita’s mounting problems. In the past 10 years the Public Works and Transport Ministry only authorized the local bus company that services the area to buy and use three new buses for the Alajuelita to San José route. According to Quesada, in the same period, the number of police officers in the canton decreased by 25 percent. 

Other declining indicators are life expectancy and school enrollment. Alajuelita’s life expectancy rate decreased from 79 in 2005 to 77 in 2009. To receive health care, local residents must begin lining up at 3 a.m. at the community’s public health clinic. 

“We estimate that in order to meet the needs of the population we still need an additional [clinic],” said Alajuelita Mayor Victor Hugo Chavarría.

Grade school enrollment – in both primary and secondary schools – in Alajuelita is one of the lowest in the country. In 2005, less than 79 percent of grade school students attended school, a number that decreased to 64 percent by 2009. High school enrollment is even lower at 43.3 percent.

“In 40 years, Alajuelita only got one additional high school, which isn’t big enough for the canton’s high school population. The way I see it, we are making drugs and alcohol easy options for Alajuelita’s young people,” Chavarría said. 

In Los Pinos, most grade school students attend the Tejarcillos School, which has an enrollment of 1,450 students. To meet the needs of such a high number of students, the school schedules classes in three shifts. Students often wander the neighborhood while waiting for classes. 

“With parents away at their jobs and with irregular school schedules, few children have discipline,” Ramírez said. “Many students repeat classes for years, and you can find examples of them graduating from primary school at the age of 15 or 16.” 

Carlos Téllez, 18, was one student who seemed to have a chance to beat the odds. Téllez comes from a broken family with six siblings. Five years ago, an older brother was locked up on multiple homicide charges. A school dropout, Téllez looked up to the brother. 

With the help of Educación Plus, Téllez went back to school and became an exemplary student. He graduated primary school at the age of 17. But once in high school, Téllez realized he was far behind other students academically. 

He applied to the National Training Institute, a government program to provide technical training for students. He wanted to be a mechanic. But he was turned down for the program because he lacked a high school diploma. 

He says his next step is to look for a less-skilled education program at INA. Growing up in Alajuelita, low expectations are something to get used to.

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