ALTA TALAMANCA, Limón – Above the driver’s seat on a dusty school bus in remote southeastern Costa Rica, an antiquated digital sign announces upcoming stops and advertises “innovative technology to better serve the community.”
That the small, black ticker is considered innovative here shows how slowly technology actually arrives in the Bribrí-Cabécar Indigenous Reserve, in southern Limón province along the Panamanian border. Yet changes are noticeable in this region of dense forest, banana plantations and winding rivers.
The reserve sits on 66,000 hectares of land a few kilometers west of Puerto Viejo, a popular Caribbean beach destination. Away from the coast, tourist beaches quickly fade into dense jungle and poverty.
West of the reserve’s main town of Bribrí, few communities have electricity. Families live in wood-framed houses with tin or thatched roofs and wood-burning stoves. Chickens, pigs, horses and dogs wander the yards.
Most residents work in fields during the day, leaving home at dawn to cultivate bananas, cacao, oranges and mango. The crops provide workers enough income to feed their families and buy a few other items such as clothing, toys and books.
Armando Mayorga, 65, has lived in the Bribrí community of Barrio Escalante for 40 years. He is known by a host of nicknames, including “El Loco” (“The Crazy One”).
“They call me ‘El Loco’ because of some of the changes I have caused in the community,” he said. “We needed police here to help keep order, so I went to San José and personally handed a letter to the public security minister. People said I was crazy, but months later, we had a police station and three officers in town.”
Mayorga embraces change in Barrio Escalante, which is home to about 60 Bribrí families. He has a cellphone, knows how to send a text message, visits San José often and recently bought a refrigerator, despite not having an outlet in his home to plug it into.
He also pushed for a new school to be built in the community.
“Our children only receive the equivalent of a 6th-grade education,” Mayorga said. “If they want to attend an accredited school, they have to move away from home to study in San José or Limón.”
New School, Better Times
In January, Mayorga will get his wish. The Costa Rican government plans to invest $800,000 in a new high school along the central road in Barrio Escalante. Part of the funds for the Liceo Académico de Sepecue originated from a $30 million loan from the World Bank. The school will be finished by Jan. 20.
“The Liceo Académico de Sepecue is a model high school for indigenous communities,” an Education Ministry press release stated. “To build it, the elders of the community were consulted on several occasions to determine what type of school would fit the needs of area students and residents.”
Bribrí influence on the school’s design is noticeable. One structure is already built – a conical “cosmic center” to be used by students for religious ceremonies. The eastern-facing door on the thatched building, which sits at the center of school property, aligns with the sunrise.
Nearby, residents prepare wood for the school’s walls, mix concrete for the foundation and install hinges where doors will soon hang. The school will have six classrooms, a science lab, language room, cafeteria, an administrative office and a small dormitory to house students traveling long distances. Some 300 students are expected to study here under a staff of 18 teachers and administrators.
“The school is undoubtedly the biggest project we have ever seen here,” Mayorga said. “It will change everything.”
Currently, the community’s high school is a collection of small, gazebo-like structures across a small plot of land; students access the buildings by muddy, worn footpaths. Classrooms have thatched roofs supported by thin wooden poles. There are no windows or chalkboards, just dilapidated wooden desks and whiteboards propped against posts.
“For many years, the Education Ministry wouldn’t certify this school,” Mayorga said. “Kids would go to school for years, but when they tried to apply to trade school or college, this high school wasn’t recognized. There was very little benefit in getting an education here.”
A Computer for Every Student
Without electricity, laptops and Internet are still foreign to many of Barrio Escalante’s children, who play soccer in their spare time at a local field, chase each other on gravel roads, or help out around the house. TV and the Internet aren’t a part of everyday life.
Yet a deal between the World Bank and the Program for the Improvement of Education Quality, an organization that helps distribute the loans, will give each student at the new high school a computer.
“The program is designed to provide a computer for each student at the high school level, as requested by the education minister,” said Carlos Miranda, an infrastructure engineer who works for the program. “We see it as a very positive sign for some of these communities. Currently, most schools [here] are inadequate and don’t have electricity or walls. By next year, [students] will be using computers.”
Obtaining electricity is still a work in progress in Barrio Escalante, though generators used to power chainsaws and sanders, which will likely stay put after construction is done. Funds are also earmarked for solar panels for the school.
The program will help build 85 schools, including 17 high schools, in indigenous communities across Costa Rica.
“The educational facilities in indigenous regions have been practically ignored by the government,” Miranda said. “But we think that with this investment, the quality of life in those communities will be improved by better facilities and access to technology.”
For Mayorga, who sold wood from his property to help build the school, bringing technology to Barrio Escalante is a needed step forward. Of Mayorga’s nine children, only his oldest daughter left the community, moving to San José to earn a high school diploma and study human rights at a university.
“Everyone in this community is excited about the idea of better education for our children,” Mayorga said. “What parent wouldn’t want that?”
On Dec. 20, high school director Oscar Almengor will inaugurate the cosmic center. “It will be the biggest day in the town’s history,” Almengor said. “It will be the first time that we have a truly educational center here for Barrio Escalante’s children. The future of this town will change forever.”
“We live in a jungle community, and you have to take a boat and three buses to get to Limón,” Almengor said. “Our kids don’t get to see the outside world and don’t know what else is out there. … Having this new school and new technology will finally allow us to educate them and show them about the world outside of Bribrí.”