Mastatal–Portrait of a Changing Community


Twenty years ago the town of Mastatal, Costa Rica was first connected to electric service; and 10 years ago there was only one public phone that connected it to the outside world contemporaneously. Now cell phone connections and social media updates fill the airwaves from young and old alike trying to ensure communication. This small community, along with a few surrounding towns, exist much as they have for the last 50 years, despite emigration of many relatives to areas with more robust economies and greater diversity in opportunity. An unpaved road through the center of town, which is used mostly for motorcycles, walking, and one daily public bus, bridges the physical distance between families, supplies, and the bigger world. Subsistence farming supports most families, which is augmented by a nascent tourism economy.

Life expectancy in Costa Rica is higher than in the US. Many individuals are living through these changes, witnessing the broader world through television and Internet, and experiencing an increased literacy rate for themselves and their children. They can see the younger generation pushing and being pushed by society to join the masses by producing and consuming more. Still, the rural nature of Mastatal catches them appreciating the rugged beauty, and the natural environment. Families still living in the rural area, are both aware of the potential higher standard of living that a tourism industry will offer and other changes that are portentous; they are navigating shifting land-use from subsistence to corporate farmer. Many farms still exist and thrive by supporting local markets, with the hope of expanding. The potential for outsiders to enter the area and offer services and grow crops creates increased apprehension.

I was graciously allowed into each person’s life where they shared life experiences and daily struggles. A love of their surroundings and appreciation of the bounty and beauty of nature was discussed by each person I encountered, along with the longing and fear surrounding future changes. Each photo captures a different event or aspect in rhythms of their rural life. Most pertain to an agricultural activity connected to feeding themselves or others in the community.

This region of the world is important for all of us. Rainforests provide carbon storage that can attempt to balance the discharge from burning fossil fuels. High biodiversity characterizes rainforests that naturally cover the mountainsides in Mastatal. This rich jungle ecosystem is present in Costa Rica’s newest National Park—La Cangreja, famous for its diversity of birds and flora and a biological corridor for the Scarlet Macaw. Adjacent Mastatal, outside the park’s boundaries, is largely deforested due to subsistence farming and cattle grazing that replaces forest cover with GMO grass seed varieties, and contributes to an alarming rate of topsoil erosion and surface water degradation. Additional pressures from palm oil plantations threaten to remove even more acres of rainforest that act as a major carbon sink, in a world heating up from elevated carbon in the atmosphere.

Native ecosystems are at a crossroads to support the local economy and in its ability, by expanding, to mitigate climate change by increasing global carbon storage. Unpaved roads in the area will be paved in the next five to ten years and will bring more outside influence and tourists. Efforts to conserve soil and protect biodiversity, by encouraging reforestation and tropical rainforest protection, along with support of other economic models for eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture are possible and locally endorsed.

Economies far from the epicenter of industrial commerce have deeply felt consequences from global shifts in food production technology, economic pressures, and climate change; this area is no exception.

There is a local desire to photograph the current 100 residents of Mastatal; many are unique with their memories and deep familial ties to the area. I lived in this community last winter for three months, as a David Bird Fellow. I plan on returning to finish this project. The portraits in this collection were mostly taken in Mastatal and two neighboring towns, within the same watershed. Three images are from an area in Costa Rica known as the dry region, where limited rainfall supports a completely different ecosystem than further inland. Changes in rainfall due to changing weather patterns in the Mastatal region could lead to changes in vegetation, agricultural abundance, and rainforest cover. Along with shifts in the local economy towards a tourism based model, Mastatal is poised for change.

Interested in supporting my efforts to return to Mastatal and photograph all the current residents? Portraits would be provided to the families and others documenting the lifestyles and production of local food would be included in a monograph book, with the potential for the community to use it to educate visitors about the culture and heritage of the area. Please contact me if you are interested in contributing to this project.