Every July, a dozen students from universities around the US head to Costa Rica for a study abroad program called Surfing & Sustainability: Political Ecology in Costa Rica. Taught by environmental anthropologist Dr. Pete Brosius and offered through the University of Georgia, the two-course program leads students on an embodied learning surfari through surf towns and world-class waves both on and off the beaten path. The program comprises two complementary courses: The Anthropology of Surfing and Communities, Conservation & Development on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast.
Throughout the month-long journey, students meet with members of local communities to explore the dynamic intersections among surfing, tourism, development, conservation, and sustainability. Learning to see the world and themselves through a critical lens, they’ll analyze their lived experiences over the course of the program, raising useful questions on important realities otherwise overlooked in the world of surfing and sustainability. While Costa Rica is known around the world as a leader in conservation and ecotourism, serious challenges do exist, and they’re in need of deeper investigation and analysis. The critical perspective allows students to explore the hidden sides of sustainability – like what happens to the income-poor families whose livelihoods rely on living and collecting trash at the local dump, when a new recycling center comes in, funded by foreign residents from the nearby enclave surf community? Or how do the politics of turtle conservation play out in communities whose local development plan centers around the sustainable harvesting and sale of turtle eggs, sparking controversy among staunch conservationists? And how does traveling to surf contribute to processes of social exclusion and environmental degradation? Or how might it begin to transform these and other dynamics in the places where surf tourism happens? Now into its fifth year as the first program of its kind, Surfing & Sustainability’s critical perspective attracts students who wish to delve deeper into the issues, engaging with the many challenging questions of sustainability in surf tourism destinations and beyond.
This past July, students met with local surfboard shapers, real estate agents, pro-surfers, local business owners, national surfing champions, turtle conservationists, hotel sustainability managers and community non-profit leaders, all to get a well-rounded glimpse into surfing life and issues of conservation and development on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Area locals expressed hope for the future of a sustainability-minded tourism, while also lamenting the loss of their culture and traditional livelihoods prior to the arrival of tourism in their once sleepy, coastal villages. Surfing & Sustainability students confront the paradox of educational surf travel – grappling with the challenging questions of tourism’s heavy footprint on local people and nature, while also experiencing first-hand what it’s like to be a tourist in Costa Rica: zip-lining the canopy above Malpais, boating through Tamarindo’s croc-filled mangrove estuary, taking surf lessons and chasing swell up the coast, SUP-ing along the rocky headlands of the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve, indulging in a local reggae night here and there, and even getting to watch an Olive Ridley turtle lay her eggs at midnight during the famous arribada in Ostional. Embodying the complexities of tourism and sustainability in surf towns along the coast, students see a side of Costa Rica unseen by most people just passing through. Utilizing methods of participant observation and an ethnographic lens common to the field of anthropology, students learn directly from locals, foreign residents and tourists in the places they visit along the way, with class discussions to ground their experiences in relevant readings, theory, collaboration and story-sharing.