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Letters from Costa Rica, Part III – Happiness Is….

by Juliana Birnbaum Fox, fellow collaborator with Craig Mackintosh on the Sustainable (R)evolution Book Project.

Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a series. Read Part I here, and Part II here.

Does Costa Rica hold the secret to happiness? According to a number of different studies, Costa Ricans are the happiest people on the planet, with a longer life expectancy than Americans. Over the past weeks, major news outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC have reported on these results. One figure, called “happy life years,” results from merging average self-reported happiness (where subjects rate their happiness on a ten-point scale) with longevity. Using this system, Costa Rica ranks first, the United States is 19th, and Zimbabwe comes in last.

Latin American countries generally score higher
on happiness surveys, perhaps because of the
cultural emphasis on family and community.

Another approach combines happiness and life expectancy but adjusts for environmental impact. Here again, Costa Rica tops the list, achieving contentment in an environmentally sustainable way. The Dominican Republic ranks second, the United States 114th (because of its huge ecological footprint) and again Zimbabwe is last. One could argue that happiness is linked to the preservation of nature and people’s access to it — Costa Rica has made the protection of biodiversity a top priority with its extensive network of national parks and indigenous reserves. The country also prohibits private ownership of the coastline, even forcing large hotels to run shuttles across their property to allow locals access to the beach.

We got to check out the Costa Rican health care system up close recently when Louis went to the hospital to get a botfly removed from his belly! This nasty little jungle pest bites you and lays an egg which grow into a worm-like larva. His was only about an eighth of an inch long, but apparently if left there they can grow much longer — gross! However, the experience of the hospital was very positive: the wait wasn’t long, the staff were friendly (joking that the larva they extracted was their new pet) and guess what? When we were finished and asked for the bill, they laughed and waved goodbye – it was free! Needless to say, that made us very happy.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof pointed out, another major reason for Costa Rican happiness might be traced to a decision made in 1949 to abolish the national army and invest instead in education. The investment paid off in many ways: a more stable society free from the violent conflict that has ravaged much of Central America; a narrowing of the gender gap (a few days ago Costa Rica elected its first woman president); and a strong economy that has fostered the effective health care and social systems.

Costa Rican pacifism and biodiversity are both sources of national pride — while waiting in line when we first arrived at the airport on this trip, we enjoyed a video which proclaimed “our army” over footage of leafcutter ants, monkeys and iguanas, and “our navy” over footage of fish and sea turtles.

My family has now been living here for over two months, working on the development of a nascent ecovillage called Tacotal, and examining for ourselves what we need to be happy. Having stripped down our lives from the comforts and amenities of California to a tent in the jungle with no electricity, we’ve been slowly rebuilding those luxuries and considering what comforts are truly necessary to us. Last week we moved into our newly-built bamboo and wood casita, which we managed to complete for about $1500. Nearly all of us in the community (now about 15) contributed to making it over the past month, and it’s definitely made me happier to have a little more space and some furniture.

The A-frame casita serves as a two story sleeping and living space for me, Louis, little Lîla and baby Ren. The roof is a tarp made of a repurposed advertising banner, which works for the dry season but will probably be replaced by something more permanent in May (we see the Kotex logo directly over our heads when we lie in bed). The floor and some of the framing is laurel, a hardwood that (so we hear) is locally and sustainably harvested. The main framework, deck floor, and ladder are Costa Rican bamboo, and the walls are made of a breathable shade cloth they call zaran.

A next step is to work on getting some more solar power. At present we’ve got one 56 watt photovoltaic panel for the community, which is not enough to meet all of our needs. We’re working on the design for our own composting toilet nearer to our cabin, which will all serve as the mount for our own panel (currently somewhere on route from the United States). More lights at night and a baby monitor so we could go up to hang out in the community kitchen after putting the kids to bed would make me happy.

Among the other upcoming projects are putting in a polished earthen floor for the main kitchen, which is currently made of loose dirt (imagine our 3 year-old after a day of playing in the kitchen and the way our baby continually drops her toys—ugh!) Fixing the floor might help reduce the need for building the bike-powered washing machine we’ve been collecting materials for. We’ve got most of the parts save one key gear that has been hard to get a hold of. The rest of the community seems somewhat ambivalent about the washing machine, but I’ve got a pressing need, and that is cleaning diapers.

Sign language for ‘toilet’
has an obscene
connotation here.

Diapering is a big question for many new parents, and by now between the two kids I think we’ve tried about all the options — disposables, diaper laundering services, compostables, and washing our own. With Lîla we also started “elimination communication” at six months, teaching her the sign language for “toilet” and having her use the potty at an early age. Here in the jungle, it just didn’t seem right to use disposables for baby Ren, especially when we have no garbage pickup and have to bring our own garbage into town and find a dumpster. Not to mention the fact that we’re supposed to be starting an ECO-village. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that the sign language for “toilet” also means “sex from behind” in Costa Rica….

We’ve gone through the suitcase of compostable diapers I dragged down here. So for now, I’m hand washing the cloth ones in solar-heated hot water, with bio-detergent (imported), soap berries, and limes (both from our land). We spray off the poop into a special compost pit, which after some time will be full of super rich soil. It’s what permaculturists call a closed-loop cycle. And to balance out this fairly unpleasant labor of love, we spend the money we’d use for disposables to pay a local mama to do our other laundry in her machine, so I have time for other things (like making marmalade with some of our million oranges).

For me, happiness is finding that precious overlap between sustainability and comfort, where my family’s needs are met within the boundaries of a healthy ecosystem. And that’s what permaculture is— creating positive, regenerative relationships between humans and the planet. If Costa Rica has a secret to happiness, perhaps it is in the ways it has put this ethic into practice, for the benefit of its people and its environment.


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