La Carpio: exposing the hidden violence of poverty and marginalization in Costa Rica
Author: Lynn Schneider
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/03/2008
Category: Special Report
Costa Rica’s reputation is one of a social democracy, a peaceful society with little inequality and first-rate ecological practices and policies. Yet this reputation, perpetuated abroad and within Costa Rica, is in large part a myth reflecting more how Costa Ricans like to think of their nation than the reality that exists. A look at the living conditions and status of the poor residing in marginalized communities reveals that in fact there exist great inequality, violence, discrimination, environmental injustice and insecurity, and basic needs that go unmet. These forms of structural violence hinder the nation’s progress toward building both negative and positive peace, yet they are perpetuated and legitimized by cultural violence.
Hostile perceptions of, and attitudes towards, immigrants are reinforced and perpetuated by the media and xenophobic discourses, making it acceptable for Costa Ricans to blame immigrants for unpleasant aspects of their society. This generates cultural violence, as Costa Rican society dehumanizes immigrants, placing them in the category of the disliked “Other” who is violent and bad-natured, the source of the nation’s social problems, and therefore deserving of poverty and injustice. This differentiation between the nature of immigrants and Costa Ricans is, however, a mere social construction that serves as a smokescreen to obscure the structural aspect of poverty and inequality.
La Carpio: A Paradigmatic Case
The community of La Carpio, a poor San Jose neighborhood, is a paradigmatic case of the challenges that legitimized structural violence poses to peace in Costa Rica. La Carpio’s 40,000 residents, around half of whom are immigrants from Nicaragua and other Central American countries, live in an area of 62 hectares, surrounded on two sides by rivers and another by a landfill which receives over 700 tons of waste daily. Founded by squatters in the mid-1990s, waves of poor families have continued to inhabit La Carpio at rapid rates, moving into increasingly hazardous zones due to limited space. Although schools, health clinics, and a single paved road have been constructed in the community due to residents’ ongoing pressure on the government, this infrastructure remains inadequate. Over half of the crowded population lives below the poverty line (compared with 22% of the national population) and has no formal employment, and few residents have title to their land.
The following analysis will describe the various aspects of structural violence within Costa Rican society as they play out in La Carpio, focusing on the challenges that injustice and inequality pose to both negative and positive peacebuilding, and elaborating on the ways in which cultural violence perpetuates and legitimizes the currently non-peaceful system.
Challenges to Negative Peace
Structural violence hinders progress toward negative peace, as it frequently leads to direct violence. Although violence in La Carpio is not nearly as prevalent as the media makes it seem, direct violence committed by both Nicaraguan and Costa Rican members of the community is not uncommon, nor surprising due to the structural violence of which they are victims.
In addition to Galtung’s (1969) analysis of the correlation between structural and direct violence, Arendt’s (1969) analysis is useful in understanding the relationship between power and violence. According to Arendt, those who lack power use violence as an instrument to multiply their strength. This analysis lends itself to understanding why poor disenfranchised youth join gangs and partake in violent conflict, and also why domestic violence pervades in impoverished communities like La Carpio.
Social learning theory is another useful lens for understanding the prevalence of violence in marginalized communities. According to this theory, “social systems ‘learn’ from their members” and individuals learn through experience in their social system, observing and repeating the behavior that others model. Thus, if a child is raised in a violent household and/or community, he or she is likely to partake in acts of violence throughout his or her life. In this way, violence can be viewed as a vicious cycle inherent in communities that are shaped by structural violence. Costa Rica’s culture of violence, however, blames direct violence in La Carpio on the “inherently” criminal nature of Nicaraguans, conveniently ignoring the structural causes, the impact of social learning, and the fact that the population is half Costa Rican.
Furthermore, social learning enables cultural violence, which plays out in the form of xenophobic discourses that blame social problems such as increases in violence on immigrants. Discourses that declare Nicaraguans as “inherently” violent and poor conceal the structural dynamics that have contributed to increased inequality and consequent social problems in Costa Rica, such as the dismantling of the welfare state under structural adjustment policies in the early 1980s. Because it is unclear whether or not an increase in crime has been simultaneous with the proven increase in inequality, one can only speculate that the blame of immigrants for crime may be an ideological smokescreen, diverting attention away from the changes wrought by structural adjustment and subsequent neoliberal policies.
The media exacerbates the perceived and real conflict in La Carpio through sensationalist reporting which focuses disproportionately on violence committed by Nicaraguans, fueling the negative discourses surrounding immigration. A content review of the newspaper La Nacion between 1999 and 2004 revealed that it carried an average of one negative news article about La Carpio every week, generally portraying Nicaraguans as the perpetrators of crime. The negative and unfair media attention perpetuates the stereotype of Nicaraguans as violent criminals, thereby legitimizing the root cause of the violence, which is structural.
A May, 2004, blockade that led to violence between police and protesters further exemplifies the relationship between structural violence, direct violence, and the media and society’s criminalization of La Carpio. In this instance, community members had blocked the road leading to the landfill in order to demand that the government and waste management company fulfill their promises to deposit a small sum of money per ton of garbage processed into a community fund and to grant titles for the land upon which people had built their homes. Rather than allowing for dialogue between the community and the authorities, police escalated what had been a non-violent conflict by throwing teargas bombs into the crowd, which in turn led to violent retaliation by the protesters.
While the media framed Nicaraguans as the primary perpetrators of the violence in this incident, La Carpio residents claim that few Nicaraguans participated in the blockade and subsequent conflict with police because they feared being arrested and deported. By portraying La Carpio incorrectly as a community of Nicaraguans who are inherently violent, the media justifies the structural violence in which La Carpio residents are trapped and the direct violence that the police employ upon them.
Costa Rica’s reputation as a peaceful country was contradicted by the police violence carried out in May 2004. While that event led to some public outcry over the use of police violence, Costa Rica will never succeed in building negative peace until the nation denounces both direct and structural violence in all its forms. For this to happen, a structural change in attitudes and perceptions of immigrants must take place.
Challenges to Positive Peace
As long as cultural violence legitimates and perpetuates structural violence through discourses on the “inherent” violence of immigrants, efforts toward positive peacebuilding in Costa Rica will be ineffectual. The widespread justification of inequality means that there is little pressure on the government to provide equal access to services, resources, and opportunities to the populations of La Carpio and similar communities, and they are thus denied the key ingredients for positive peace building: social justice and equality, economic opportunity, environmental security and justice, and adequate education and health care.
In the effort to build sustainable positive peace, that is, to construct a system that addresses and minimizes the structural sources of conflict, the equitable distribution of power, resources, services, and opportunities must be seen as necessary for the long-term well being of all of Costa Rica. Thus, a shift from the paradigm of structural violence to one of equal rights and justice regardless of race, social class, and origins is necessary to positive peacebuilding. This can only happen following a structural change in the psychological state of Costa Rican society such that social injustice is no longer legitimized and a culture of peace is embraced.
Environmental injustice and insecurity are two related ways in which structural violence plays out in La Carpio, creating barriers to positive peacebuilding. Environmental injustice refers to the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards: disenfranchised populations usually bare the greatest environmental burdens, while the rich bare few. By constructing a landfill in La Carpio, the environmental and health hazards associated with the pollution of air, water, and soil disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized, while the wealthy, predominately ex-patriot community of Escazu across the highway bears little if any of the landfill’s burdens, despite the fact that they likely contribute to it more garbage per-capita than La Carpio residents. Cultural violence that declares La Carpio residents as deserving of the conditions in which they live due to their “criminal nature” and threat to Costa Rican national identity perpetuates and legitimizes this inequity, as well as the injustice of the waste management company’s failure to comply with adequate environmental and health obligations, and the government’s lack of regulation to protect residents.
Whereas environmental justice focuses on the distribution of environmental hazards, environmental security refers more to human vulnerability due to factors such as the overuse of resources, environmental change and degradation, and the inhabitation of marginal and/or hazardous environments. La Carpio residents are environmentally insecure due to their inhabitance of a marginal and hazardous environment, increasingly pressured by population growth; the growing number of poor moving into the area now have little choice but to build their homes dangerously close to the flood-prone rivers and unhealthful landfill that surround the community on three sides. Hundreds of homes in the lower parts of La Carpio already flood each year, with numerous impacts on health and property. Residents frequently complain of health problems that they believe are associated with the landfill’s pollution of air, water, and soil, and it is likely that a greater number of residents will be at risk with the growth of both the population and the landfill over time.
Environmental insecurity and injustice are common forms of structural violence in similarly disenfranchised communities throughout the world, which are increasingly vulnerable due to rapid environmental degradation, population growth, and growing inequality. Cultural violence, fueled by hostile xenophobic attitudes and stereotypes of Nicaraguans, is an important component of a political climate that enables the state to largely ignore the human consequences of insecurities and injustices in La Carpio. Due to the discourses that paint La Carpio residents as violent and deserving of their poverty, it is no wonder that there is such little pressure on the government to address the issues of environmental security and injustice in La Carpio, despite increasing national awareness of environmental issues.
The lack of educational opportunities for La Carpio residents presents yet another structural barrier to positive peacebuilding in Costa Rica. Until recently, Finca La Caja was La Carpio’s only school, providing classes to more than 2,000 children while heavily underfunded, with retention and graduation rates significantly lower than other urban primary schools. While the government has recently invested in the construction of new schools due to ongoing demands by residents, this has led to intra-community conflict due to the need to demolish homes (La Carpio is so densely inhabited that there is no open space left on which to build) and the fact that many affected residents do not have titles to the land and have no safe location on which to rebuild with the meager compensation offered by the government. The construction of health care facilities has led to similar conflicts, and the limited health care now available is still inadequate and largely inaccessible (for economic reasons) to address the medical needs of La Carpio’s growing population.
Economic opportunities for La Carpio residents are limited for a number of reasons related to the forms of structural violence that this analysis has detailed. With little education and few opportunities for legal residents, much less illegal immigrants, to access state adult education and training programs or other social services, the majority of La Carpio residents work in the informal economy if at all. Adults and youth seeking vocational training through national programs have reported being denied such services due to their immigration status or merely for stating the fact that they are from La Carpio. Thus, the culture in Costa Rica of declaring Nicaraguans and all La Carpio residents as lazy and violent is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Building a Culture of Peace
In order to transform the structural violence which currently impedes negative and positive peacebuilding, the Costa Rican people and state must take significant action to eliminate cultural violence and replace it with a culture of peace. While the influences of government and civil society cannot be totally separated in efforts toward peacebuilding, as the interests of both parties always interact with each other, the following are suggestions for building a culture of peace in Costa Rica, outlined by sector:
· Overhaul immigration laws; grant refugees and immigrants from poor countries like Nicaragua equal access to services, resources, and opportunities.
· Require peace education in all Costa Rican schools, focusing on multicultural solidarity and the shared humanity of people of all origins, in addition to a curriculum on non-violence, conflict resolution, social justice, human rights and responsibility, environmental care, and personal peace.
· Require that EBI meet a higher level of environmental and health regulations in its management of the landfill in La Carpio.
· Provide all residents of La Carpio and similar communities with titles to the land upon which they have built their homes.
· Organizations, associations, universities and the like should support and partner with CODECA (La Carpio’s community organization), and find ways to work with the community toward the type of development that it wants.
· Pressure the media to report on La Carpio in ways that are fair, truthful, not sensationalized, and not focused disproportionately on crime committed by Nicaraguans.
· Publicly question the conventional discourses surrounding immigration.
· Mainstream the importance of social justice and equality for immigrants and other disenfranchised populations into the diverse efforts of organizations.
Bio: Lynn Schneider is a Master’s candidate in the dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development program at the University for Peace and American University. This essay is inspired and informed by her work with CODECA, La Carpio’s community development council, while a student at the University for Peace.