The Hidden Impacts of Conservation and Green Investment Initiatives in Developing Countries (Guest Post)

(This is a new version of an article originally published on Mariri)
In Central America, particularly Costa Rica, we are seeing a record-breaking increase in the amount of foreign conservation groups and green investors arriving ready to buy as much land as they can afford in order to “protect the rainforest” and calling on their friends, relatives and business partners to join in – often times at the expense of farming, ranching and indigenous communities that are seen as ‘destructive’ and contributing to the environmental problems of the region. Foreign-owned private protected areas, organic farms, native tree plantations, eco-communities, summer camps, retreat centers, and other eco-friendly land uses are replacing the clear-cut ranch and pesticide laden farms once owned by the local people. And although there is no denying that the local people are often times mismanaging precious resources and that most of these types of land buyers are hundreds of times better than large scale land development companies or mono-crop plantations that are also coming in by the thousands and openly destroying endangered ecosystems and local communities, eco-minded land buyers are also having an impact, and not always a positive one. And if the goal of ‘green’ investors and conservationists is to help solve problems such as environmental degradation, cultural extinction, and social injustice, then it is increasingly important for them to see the larger potential impacts of their interventions so they can help advance genuine solutions to these issues, instead of inadvertently contributing to them.

Foreign conservationists and green-minded investors buying land in developing countries for ecosystem protection and to carry out their eco-friendly business visions don’t expect to be seen contributing to a problem. Most come to places like Central America with noble ideas and conservation-oriented economic models that are vital for our developing economies. There is also no denying that environmentally and socially responsible land-buyers, conservation groups, investors, etc. are an asset to Central America and similar regions. In many ways, they are the ‘saving grace’ and the kinds of allies we need to help us face the many challenges we are dealing with. They can help advance sustainable development, enrich society with new ideas, provide green business opportunities for locals, create national green markets, and enhance social and political stability. But what many of these well-intentioned land buyers don’t realize is that when land is taken out of the hands of historically marginalized people, such as indigenous or farming communities, even when for the right reasons, social tensions and other types of ecological impact are increased. It takes a local perspective and a wide-angle view of the dynamics involved to understand how this is possible.
I speak from experience. I am a Central American and have spent years studying these issues and conducting applied work in social and ecological justice organizations both in the U.S. and at home. I did not grasp this concept for a long time either. It wasn’t until 2003, when I helped start Costa Rica Conservation Trust (CRCT), a U.S. non-profit dedicated to protecting the rainforests of Costa Rica, my father’s country, that the error of my previous assumptions about how to help my people and endangered ecosystems came into clear focus. Along with this, came the harsh realization that well-educated Central Americans, like me, are often just as disconnected from the reality of our own countryside-dwelling people as the foreigners that are coming in to try to help us are. This is important to note because we are usually the sector that foreign investors and organizations like CRCT speak to or reach out to about their projects and where most of our political leaders come from. Little do these well-intentioned foreigners know that we educated urbanites are often times just as clueless about the true impact their ventures will have on our most marginalized people. Luckily, with my involvement in CRCT and my decision to volunteer as their field researcher, the wool fell from my eyes.
CRCT’s original approach was to buy farms that were for sale bordering an ecologically sensitive Costa Rican reserve on the northern portion of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor, home to the highly endangered Baird’s tapir and jaguar. This is a typical conservation strategy employed by hundreds, if not thousands, of conservation groups worldwide and I had supported other similar groups in the past. It seemed like a good idea at the time because we would prevent destructive entities, which are increasingly coming into Costa Rica, from buying these lands by taking them off the market and putting them in the hands of ‘responsible’ owners. We envisioned expanding protected areas, consolidating biological corridors, and establishing eco-campgrounds and educational trails where visiting guests could learn about the rainforest and thus, be inspired to ‘save it’ and donate money to help us put more land under ‘trust.’ After coming up with this plan in meetings and desks far away from the actual site of action, I moved out to the target area and began meeting with the farmers and ranchers of the areas where CRCT intended to buy land. As I attended these meetings and conducted one-on-one interviews with farmers that were selling their land, very important questions quickly emerged that I simply could not ignore. I felt these questions needed to be answered before moving forward, as I was no longer convinced that our efforts would actually save the rainforests or help anyone over the long term.
Why are the farmers selling their land even though they express a desire to not do so? What will happen to the farming families that are displaced by these land purchases? Will they ever be able to buy land again? How will this transfer of land ownership to foreign organizations and individuals affect the social and political stability of this region, especially if locals can no longer afford to buy land in their own country? Will displaced farmers create more environmental problems elsewhere as they migrate to overcrowded, overtaxed urban centers? How many of them will end up in the United States, where they will adopt a consumer-based, disposable lifestyle and become part of the ‘20% of the world’s population that consumes 80% of the world’s resources’? What happens when large amounts of arable land are allowed to convert back to forests? Will the local populations have to start importing corn, wood, beans, and other products that they traditionally grew on their small farms? How is that ecologically sustainable? Is sustainable development economically viable enough to help small farmers keep their farms? Is it enough to move small farmers out of poverty and improve their quality of life so that they no longer need to hunt, log or raise cattle in an unsustainable way? Are local farmers able to manage their own lands sustainably and do they even want to? What will enable them to do so? Is socially responsible conservation even possible, or must we always choose between the animals and humans?
In pursuing the answers to these questions, I joined local committees, met with government entities and local grassroots environmental groups around the country, as well as studying similar cases from around the world. In doing so, I found that there were hidden impacts with our plan that could end up being worse for my people and the environment and that the “collateral” damage might not be worth moving forward with our original plan. I also found that countless local groups are equally or even more concerned about their own fragile ecosystems and are trying to convert to sustainable income strategies but are facing multiple threats and obstacles. Ironically, in addition to the threats from agro-businesses and land developers, their culture and lifestyle was also being threatened by conservation groups and foreigners coming in buying them out because they are seen as too destructive to stay on their farms.
I listened closely to the stories of the local people – stories filled with difficult and ironic decisions, such as ‘whether or not to clear a new area for pasture so they can get a few more heads of cattle on the farm to pay for one of their children to go to college so they can eventually stop relying on unsustainable cattle ranching.’ It was obvious that many were causing environmental damage because they did not have any other way to make a living and the way they did things was what was taught to them by the government and the agro-chemical companies in the past. Some are simply stuck on an agro-chemical treadmill that they don’t know how to get off of. Selling their land seemed like the only alternative to many of them.
In response to this, I began implementing a socially responsible approach to conservation through CRCT that included the local people’s ideas and initiatives as the core – I worked to empower them to try out their eco-friendly income-generating ideas and to make the necessary changes to become the caretakers of their own precious rainforest and thus, hopefully make enough money so they would not have to sell all their land. By providing them with the necessary inspiration, education, resources, and inroads to the burgeoning market of conscious consumers, the farming communities I worked continued to prove that they were more than willing to engage in the greening of their local economy. I have seen them help each other build methane-digesters on their pig farms to stop pollution of their waterways. I have seen them establish and manage recycling centers. I have seen them build up ecotourism cooperatives and create a multitude of related sustainable income strategies to replace destructive practices, including establishing eco-campgrounds, organic farms, botanical trails and other sustainable tourism initiatives. I have seen them denounce the illegal hunting and logging activities of their neighbors and relatives. I have witnessed them develop and carry out environmental education programs with their children, and I have been amazed at how they will travel for miles on foot through the rainy jungle to attend meetings where they collaboratively develop these solutions. Their only motivation is saving their farms, simple lifestyle, and the natural resources they depend on. Every time CRCT and other support groups provided the strategies, assistance, and space for collaborative problem-solving, the locals have proven themselves, especially the youth.
On the flip side, I have witnessed many rural farming families in Central America sell all their land because of pressures from conservation groups, agro-businesses and foreign land developers. Because of economic desperation, in large part due to either climate change, the agrochemical treadmill, or the drop in beef and coffee prices (or a combination of these), most start off thinking of a willing buyer as a ‘gift from heaven.’ But all too often, illiterate farmers that sell their land find out too late, that the amount they received for their farm was, in fact, not much money at all. Most of them have to pay off debts, divide the money among their children (sometimes up to 18!) and move to the city. Low educational levels, unfamiliarity with market-driven urban culture, and a desire for material commodities they never had before also contribute to their money quickly running out. Thus, within a few years, many families end up as nomadic migrants living in the ghettos of Latin American and U.S. cities, where drugs, violence, gangs, and prostitution consume many of their youth. With no land to go back to, a disintegrated family, and few marketable skills, many of the honest ones end up living an impoverished nomadic life as day laborers, landscapers, domestic maids, etc. And desperate ones fall prey to the temptations of the underground economy or turn to crime (i.e. armed robbery). This is not to say that there aren’t wonderful ‘success’ stories, but these are the minority. And all too often, ‘success’ includes loosing their cultural identity and adopting a materialist lifestyle.
Many farming families struggle to keep their farms, and make difficult choices in order save their land. Many of the men (and sometimes the women) go up to the U.S. illegally in search of a living wage, and leave their families behind. Once established abroad, some never return because they are undocumented and the journey is too risky to undertake twice, while other migrants die or are killed during the difficult journey north, leaving many fatherless children strewn across the landscape. Increasingly, the mothers are forced to venture into the city to find work to feed her children, all too often in the prostitution sectors.
I also want to highlight that massive illegal migration also causes social and cultural tensions in the receiving cities and countries, to the point that the U.S. is building a wall on its border with Mexico to try to stop the flow of these kinds of immigrants and private militias there are taking it upon themselves to kill any “wetbacks” they find crossing into their “territory.” In the urban centers like Mexico City, San Salvador, Guatemala City, Los Angeles and Chicago, gangs are increasing and underground economies involving weapons and illegal drugs are growing. In the local cities, which are often not prepared for this massive migration of the farming sector into their city limits, a host of other problems are ensuing, including lack of access to clean drinking water, sanitation systems and housing. These ghetto conditions are causing deaths in children due to unsanitary conditions, and frustration, hopelessness, and increase radicalism among the inhabitants that have no where else to go.
In Central America, history has shown us that when indigenous and marginalized people feel unjustly displaced and hopelessly desperate, there is a higher chance that they will turn to armed resistance, political radicalism, and to eventually demand land reforms. In addition, owning the land one tills is a strongly held cultural value. To the displaced farming community or indigenous group who find themselves unable to own land again in their own country and living in desperate conditions, it makes no difference if the new land owner is a large multinational, an elite family or a well-intentioned green-minded entrepreneur or conservation-oriented non-profit group. To them it is the same old story of displacement and injustice. The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas is an example of this. The Zapatista rebellion was sparked in large part due to a large scale conservation project that drove off thousands of farmers and ranchers from one of the last remaining pristine jungles in Mexico. In El Salvador, my birth country, we watched in horror as hundreds of acres of forest were burned down by disgruntled ranchers upset about a new protected area that would force them off their lands.
Significant cultural impact is also involved in all this. Many leaders of conservation organizations and green-investors understand the need to live closer to the land and many try to live a simpler lifestyle. In part, this is why many buy rainforest farms in places like Costa Rica or help set up eco-communities. But ironically, the farming and native communities that epitomize these values in their centuries-old way of life are becoming extinct to make way for these vacation farms, eco-lodges, eco-communities, meditation/yoga resorts, and private reserves owned and operated by foreigners wanting to “commune with nature.” Along with this cultural extinction, we are losing knowledge of age-old uses of medicinal plants, agricultural techniques and ways to live closer to specific types of lands.
The social and cultural issues involved are multi-faceted and complex, but rural to urban migration contributes to environmental problems as well. For example, urban households create, on average, two to four times the amount of garbage that rural farming households produce. After leaving the countryside, families that once lived on the same farm are now dispersed throughout numerous urban households. As each household rapidly adopts the consumption-based, disposable lifestyle typical of urban areas, they begin to create much more garbage than they did as one unit living on a farm complex. Also, the amount of resources consumed by urban dwellers is exponentially higher than rural people. This ingestion of resources and creation of waste is increased even more if members of the family end up settling in the United States (a very common scenario).
To add to the irony, it is also common for those farmers and ranchers who were considered an environmental threat while living in the countryside to become migrant laborers for large agro-businesses or factories owned by multi-national corporations that cause much bigger environmental problems worldwide. The huge landless and displaced labor force (willing to do anything to make some money) creates an atmosphere in which large manufacturers and processing plants can pay low wages, deny worker rights, and curtail environmental regulations, providing companies with higher profits that can be used to exploit more natural resources globally or lobby for decreased environmental protections. So as a cheap laborer for a timber company or plastic toy factory, it may be that the individual now has a greater negative impact on the environment than as a “destructive” rancher back on his small rainforest farm.
Furthermore, a significant number of displaced families that cannot afford to buy land again and that opt out of horrid conditions in the cities, end up going deeper into the jungle, where they squat new land, and clear whole new areas of virgin rainforest, bringing a host of new environmental problems into sensitive ecological areas and conflict with the local governments, especially when they cross national borders. Poor migrant families also contribute to the hunting of endangered animals for survival. For example, in Costa Rica the green iguana is increasingly at risk because the poor displaced Nicaraguan farmers, who are coming into the country in search of work, are killing it to feed themselves and their families. I hear the same problems are occurring in Africa with endangered monkeys.
In Central America, there is no denying that we need foreign investment and are in desperate need of allies with win-win mentalities that can bring resources and new ideas that will help us develop our local green economies and protect our endangered ecosystems simultaneously. But as our governments sign off on neo-liberal trade agreements and decrease regulations on foreign investors, the large and often illiterate farming and indigenous sector is left defenseless. Small locally owned businesses are also having a hard time competing, as is happening in the eco-tourism sector in Costa Rica where locals are going out of business because of foreign-owned tourism agencies and eco-lodges that have more capital, contacts and access to technology.
Thus, a more complicated and very ironic ‘bigger picture’ surfaces and it soon becomes obvious that green sector businesses and conservation initiatives, particularly those working in developing regions like Central America, must look at as many angles of their impact as possible before embarking on projects that could have negative repercussions down the line. And although they are certainly not the main cause of a lot of these problems, they can be part of the solution and are in a particularly good position to lead and model the way for the ‘less-conscious’ sectors of society. Conservation minded businesses and non-profit organizations are the cutting edge when it comes to finding and implementing creative solutions for long term sustainability, social responsibility and prosperity for all. They are also the ones more willing to hear this message and make the necessary changes to assure a positive ecological and social footprint in all that they do. The growing number of conscious investors and conservation groups can opt to work with us to accomplish mutual goals, rather than unintentionally ignoring the hidden impacts of their projects. I am reaching out to these types of foreigners and entrepreneurs because it seems like these sectors want for us in the developing world what we want for ourselves – long-term prosperity, economic growth, healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems and peace, which will benefit us all as well as our shared planet. Our differences are often simply a matter of awareness levels and perspective.
To help further research and advocate about these issues, an institute is being created called Instituto Conexiones (Connections Institute). Our aim is to help U.S. entities carrying out non-profit or for-profit projects in Latin America become aware of their hidden impacts, and provide hands-on, cross-cultural liaison and project development services to help them become true allies to the local people and environment of their sphere of influence. We invite you to join us in our efforts and to comment on what is presented in this publication. E-mail us at
small_kimberly.jpgKimberly Newton De Klootwyk: Co-founder, Costa Rica Conservation Trust
Kimberly Newton-Klootwyk was born in El Salvador to a Costa Rican-Guatemalan father and a U.S.-Italian American mother. This bi-cultural mix, along with her upbringing in many worlds, extensive travels, and focus on cultural anthropology and subaltern history in college, provides a unique foundation for her work as a cultural liaison. Kimberly’s expertise is in inter-American relations, with a special focus on North-South relations and the defense of indigenous people’s rights.
Photos courtesy of Jon Orlando. To see more photography by Jon Orlando, visit

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4 responses

    It is wonderful to see another person who has experienced personally the lifestyles of the urban “concrete jungle” as well as the simple but hardworking and sacrificing rural life.
    I lived four years from 2000-2004 in Chiriqui Grande, Bocas del Toro, Panama and while not economically rewarding, I would do it over again and again in a heartbeat.
    The Ngobe-Bugle Community has a heart bigger than reality, although they have almost no economic support.
    Time and again, they invited me as a complete stranger into their humble dwellings, because I descended to their level of communication and lifestyle while eating or even sleeping on a piece of cardboard as a bed for the night.
    I will never forget the kindness shown me and I know you understand completely what I’m saying.
    Keep up your great work, Kimberley, even when 90% of the people say you’re “schizophrenic” as they do here in Puerto Limon (Urban Jungle)with me.
    Hope to cross paths some day.
    Please visit our Webpage as listed below.
    Weather Advisor
    Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

  2. Dear Ms Kimberly,
    If those that would “save” the rainforests would consider subsidizing marginalized farmers instead of buying forested areas,
    perhaps a savings in terms of monetary outlay would accrue. Pay the struggling farmers NOT to clear more land, but to keep on tilling their own land as always. Maybe it would pay in the long run to subsidize the income of the hard-pressed farmer thereby offering an incentive to keep their lands in their own names.
    Surely there are monied organizations that care equally about the indigeneous folks as well as the rainforests?

    1. These comments both bring up important points. Thank you for sharing. I´ve continued to work for years towards finding applied solutions for equitable sustainability and positive cross-cultural cooperation around these global issues. Conexiones Institute is a product of this process.

  3. These comments both bring up important points. Thank you for sharing. I´ve continued to work for years towards finding applied solutions for equitable sustainability and positive cross-cultural cooperation around these global issues. Conexiones Institute is a product of this process.

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