San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A green and happy La Carpio

From the print edition

In La Carpio, a shantytown of 34,000 residents that sits between a trash dump and the Tobias Bolaños International Airport northwest of San José, a splash of paint, a pair of shoes and something green can go a long way.

At least that’s the way Gail Nystrom, founder and director of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (CRHF) sees things. Nystrom works every day in La Carpio, organizing and directing community-empowerment and educational programs while garbage trucks rumble through, and millionaires, diplomats and tourists zip by in jets overhead.

“Most of these people are descendants of campesinos,” says Nystrom, giving a brief introduction about La Carpio’s history to CRHF volunteers. 

La Carpio is one of the poorest areas of Costa Rica, inhabited largely by Nicaraguan immigrants and Ticos from other parts of Costa Rica, Nystrom says. Thousands of Nicaraguans fleeing a bloody revolution in their home country, and later, a collapse of the economy, began settling in La Carpio in the 1980s.

On Tuesday, a line of kids waiting for the new shoes outside La Libertad stretched two blocks through the community of corrugated tin shanties and dusty alleys. 

“Even people who grew up in Granada or Managua still had opportunities to go out in the country, because Nicaragua is not as urbanized as it is here. So, to live in La Carpio is really harsh. You’ve got toxic air, toxic water and toxic dust. It’s so hot because there are no trees,” Nystrom explains. “People are losing their resonance with nature. That’s what we’re trying to restore.”

Green, healthy, happy

“Part of La Carpio Green is to show how pleasant it is to have something to look at that’s not trash, not gray dirt, but an actual garden,” Nystrom says. 

She points to a small plot running alongside the school, one of the educational centers she helped the women of La Carpio start. A few rows of green plants poke out of black soil held by cinder blocks. A mural painted over a flap of corrugated tin shows a tree reaching into a night sky.

La Carpio 3

Francis Rodríguez, from Nicaragua, makes gardens in old plastic bottles to help beautify her neighborhood.

Gabe Dinsmoor

“This is an actual garden that Francis has been working on,” she says, adding, “it’s very interesting [that] there’s a picture of a green thing on the wall, and then right in front of it is a beautiful green thing actually growing. This is a mentality that we want to promote so people will see how much nicer it is.”

Nystrom started working in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1977. She founded CRHF in 1997, but had already been organizing development and educational projects since 1990.

These days, her schedule is full. She founded three educational centers in La Carpio, one for each of the eight parts of the slum. Groups of volunteers rotate through the area almost daily, with Nystrom flitting around and putting them to work. 

She is a constant hum of activity. Her cellphone rings, and she counsels a 28-year-old who has been confined to a wheelchair since he was 8 – when he was shot in Tres Ríos. The man is expecting his first child with his girlfriend, and Nystrom tells him how proud she is, and how the baby will change his life. 

After the call, she explains that since being shot, the man on the phone has become a leader in the community, working with youth. She has known him since he was 10.

CRHF’s strategy for La Carpio has three mantras: La Carpio Green, La Carpio Healthy and La Carpio Happy. Happy is the last stage, Nystrom says, because each stage builds on the one before it.

La Carpio Green is an initiative to improve the crude caliche roads and haphazard constructions that visually define La Carpio into something prettier to look at. Building a sense of self-worth in a community requires it to look presentable. To this end, CRHF works with residents of the area. Those who help keep their blocks free of trash are eligible to get a new coat of paint or a mural painted on the exterior walls of their houses by volunteers. 

CRHF also provides “bottle gardens,” assorted plants potted in modified plastic bottles, to residents who want to decorate their spaces with something green and sometimes edible.

“Some of our plants that we’re giving out are butterfly plants, the ones that attract butterflies,” Nystrom says. “So my vision is that in four years, this place is going to be full of green and butterflies and food to eat, even if it’s parsley or something that you grow in your own little place.”

Eventually, Nystrom and Francis Rodríguez, CRHF’s “bottle gardener,” plan to distribute herbs like thyme, basil, spearmint, parsley and coriander, as well as potted cherry tomatoes, carrots and potato plants. 

“What we’re trying to do is show the beauty of their community, how they can make it more beautiful, and that you can find a piece of nature even in the most harsh conditions,” Nystrom says.

Rodríguez moved from Nicaragua to La Carpio in 1990. Her home sits across the street from La Libertad Education Center.

While 100 children are having their feet measured, washed and outfitted with new shoes by volunteers from Soles4Souls, an organization that donates footwear to kids in need, Rodríguez shows off her garden.

She has four children and cleans the education center for steady work. In her downtime, she tends a small jungle of creeping succulents, cacti, herbs and local

fruit. A few plants and a few flowers bring new life to a place, she says, and a flower or a fruit shows the world that God is thinking of them.

“I’ve always thought that a house without flowers is a house without life,” Rodríguez says.

Critical mass

“Development takes time,” Nystrom points out. “It takes a generation and a half before it starts to turn, before you reach critical mass.”

Sometimes, the hardest part of development is not educating community members, but rather the donors.

“You cannot go in with a whole bunch of millions of dollars and build a school and then just walk out. That’s what I thought I was going to do. I said, ‘I’m going to build eight daycare centers, one in each section, and then I’ll give the women a three-week training session,’” she says. “What was I thinking?”

That was 22 years ago.

Today, beside the eight educational centers, CRHF has a farm where every kid from the community gets to go spend a few days a year “to swim in a river, connect with nature and see how a farm works.” 

Nystrom has faith in the durability of her projects, saying they are “sustainable in spirit, sustainable in infrastructure, sustainable in the services they give to people,” and that the women and men of La Carpio she has helped develop the program will keep things going.

“Eventually, the part that’s tricky is financing,” she says. “Because no school is self-sufficient financially; even private schools have to charge a lot of money to be able to completely support themselves.”

Still, as she looks around Cueva del Sapo (Toad’s Cave), an area of La Carpio with a reputation for drugs and violence, she says the CRHF’s time could be winding down in the area. Her work here could be done.

“It’s happening now, and I think that between five and 10 years from now, the CRHF won’t be here anymore,” Nystrom says. “I mean they either got it or they didn’t get it.”

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