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Own Rainforest

Ownership got a new meaning with Aiko.

Since Costa Rican law was quite new to me, I joined up with a friend-of-a-friend local lawyer, half jokingly called Jorgito, to legalize the purchase in Talamanca. I had mentioned that I needed to get the signatures of all neighbors in order to prove the ownership of the terrain I bought. Now this may sound weird or funny, but to get the signatures of the neighbors, my lawyer and I first had to find the neighbors – not so easy in the rainforest where each neighbor lives on 15-30 hectares of mountaneous tropical forest intercepted by numerous ridges and streams, waterfalls and the occasional fallen giant. What made it even more difficult is that we coulnd´t find our own piece of land…

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Picture a young, German MBA student with his big-city San José lawyer sitting on two horses, Jorgito on his back then super high-tech and modern Motorola flip-mobile-phone, riding through the rainforest in torrential rainfall. We gave up after a two hour soaking wet expedition and returned to Bribri where all our neighbors were sitting calmly in dry and relaxed bars enjoying their saturday off. Needless to say, we got all the signatures we needed in a blink.

Now that we had the signatures, I had to learn that those signatures really were the basis of what I had paid for: the right to use the land. In the end, that´s what one really wants when one buys land, but central European as I am, I had expected to be welcomed into a huge natianal database where all the legal owners are listed by name with their respective ownership. Negative.
In Costa Rica, the person who lives on land, uses land or even cultivates and lives off of the land, owns the right to use the land. With my puchase, I actually had acquired 15 years of history of living on that land and the neighbors confirmed that fact with their signatures.

Let me take a step back in history: About 3000ha of Talamanca territory had been given to the United Fruit Company, now commonly known as Chiquita Bananas, in an act of political friendlyness towards the USA in the 1960´s. I´ll leave politics at that for now, but the fruit giant imported lots of workers from Jamaica, Barbados and Haiti to work huge banana and cocoa plantations in the region just to leave all these families to their own fate when plagues made the cultivation unprofitable. The now unemplyed workers started living off of the land and thereby acquiered the right to these territories which I bought in the 1990´s.

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So far so good. I actually find this practice quite fair and innovative to the people living in a certain place. It doesn´t prohibit rich foreigners to join a local community but it does hold back land speculators and big investors. In fact, “our” land was inscribed in the Costa Rican National registry under names of numerous banks and land holding companies. Apart from that the land inscribed in that registry amounts to an extension that would make Costa Rica reach all the way to Guatemala, this has absolutely no practical influence on everyday life.

Then there are the indigenous tribes of Talamanca, the Bribri and Keköldi. The government, righfully or not, assigned some of the territory Aiko has purchased to them in exchange for territories they have “lost” to the more interesting tourism industry by the coast. This territory keeps changing and the legal status changes with political interests in San José as well as the indigenous groups dedication to fight for their rights.

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In the end, the situation is simply unresolved. No one has even properly mapped this part of Costa Rica to know how much land there is let alone whose land it is and how it can be used. As a result, the land was and is especially vulnerable to exploitation. Although the rainforest does a quite good job of defending itself from intruders, modern civilization keeps nibbling off the edges more and more.

Having learned all the above, I accepted that I had not bough any property or rights but rather an obligation. An ethical obligation to take care of a piece of land until its situation is resolved and secured.

1 reply
  1. Huaying Zhang
    Huaying Zhang says:

    I heard about this from your father many years ago. He sure is very proud of this “purchase”, more important proud of you.

    I don’t know much about the country, but I would love to visit you some day.

    Best wishes,

    Huaying

    Reply

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