People come to Costa Rica from all over the world because they are optimistic. They arrive with big, bright ideas. They have heard that Costa Rica is green and peaceful and progressive. Everyone knows someone who has visited on a vacation and returned with nothing but praise for the beauty of the forests and oceans and the friendliness of the people.
But there is another side to Costa Rica.
As a long-time resident commented to me the other day, “If any government says its economy is good right now, they’re lying.” The economy of Costa Rica relies on tourism—specifically, eco-tourism—-for much of its GNP. So why doesn’t the government do something to clean up the garbage and the crime in the Caribbean?
And as another long-time resident commented, that same day, “The government has money. It spends nearly nothing on infrastructure. We still have one-lane bridges. There is no army. The minimum wage is still around $2/hour, yet food prices are outrageous. Where is the money going?”
Take, for example, the problem of garbage removal.
The municipal garbage pick-up for the beach villages of Puerto Viejo is chronically late. Local residents have attempted to remove unsightly piles of trash lining beach roads, but if the municipal truck does not come every Monday—as municipal workers claim it does—-nothing will change. Individual residents spend their own funds to build pretty trash bins, or plant flowers to discourage dumping. Businesses pay their taxes and provide their own trash receptacles. But unless the municipal government does its share—-sending the truck to haul away the garbage, every week—the problem will not go away.
Unsightly mountains of garbage are a common sight during peak tourist season. Has it occurred to the powers that be that mountains of smelly garbage—every week—could send tourists packing? Why is it not possible for local government to find a solution to this problem when Costa Ricans believe that todo es possible?
Back in July of 2012, vacation property managers took a day off from work to remove the unsightly trash receptacle that had become a public dumping sight on the driveway of a cluster of high-end homes in Cocles. They spent their own time and money buying materials to plant a garden in the hopes that people would stop tossing their trash. But out-of-touch rules about whose trash gets picked up, when, and where, force people to continue depositing their trash along the road.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January. I was riding my bike to town and had just paused to look at the mountain of trash that threatened to swallow up the lovely garden by Margarita Road in Cocles.
Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a holiday in the United States. But it was not a holiday in Costa Rica. So, why did the garbage truck not come, again?
“Why is it Wednesday, again, and the trash is still here?”
Once, I stopped to ask the garbage men who slave over their daunting task, just to make sure I had the facts straight: What day does the garbage truck come to take away the trash?”
One of them cautiously answered my question. “On Monday,” he said. But it was Wednesday, I replied. “There is only one truck, and it comes from Limon. The truck breaks down a lot.” Was this an excuse or an explanation?
Is the garbage pick-up problem a matter of government spending? Is there not enough money to buy a new truck, or to make sure the truck is always running properly? Or, is someone just not telling the regional government that the truck is not able to perform proper services to the community?
That same day, I saw a private truck picking up trash at a hotel. Perhaps this was another independent attempt at solving a municipal problem.
Here are the required two eyewitnesses who can testify to the fact that the municipal garbage truck came on Wednesday, not Monday. But eyewitnesses are not enough. Roger Cameron, long-time manager of Tex Mex in Puerto Viejo, will soon be free of the weekly concern about piles of garbage blocking the entrance to his business; the historic landmark is changing ownership.
The situation bothered me. So, on Monday morning, January 28th, I took the bus to the municipal building in Bribri, a mountain village far removed from the populous beach villages with the garbage problem. I politely asked the receptionist in the municipal office to tell me which day the trash was scheduled for pick-up in Playa Chiquita. She replied matter-of-factly that the trash is picked up on Mondays. I said that this has not been the case. She explained that, due to the holidays, there have been some delays, but soon the schedule will return to normal. The holidays? The holidays are the times when trash pick-up should be doubled, because these are the weeks of peak tourist season.
When trash is piled up along the roads during peak tourist season, tourists suffer as well from this disconnect between the municipality and daily life. The law says that residents are to put their trash out only on Monday mornings, even if the truck does not come until Wednesday. The people who have the authority to resolve this problem just transfer the blame with excuses, such as: the trash is there because people put it out too early, or too late, or don’t pay their taxes. But if residents obey the law, officials should stop making excuses and instead accept their own responsibility by providing services.
Today is Monday, May 20th.
The problem is worse, not better, since January 28th, the day I went to the municipal building to speak in person with someone about the garbage problem. I had wanted to give the local government the benefit of the doubt, so I held onto this article. But now, months later, the garbage truck does not come sometimes for weeks. It is time for people to know what is happening here in the Caribe Sur.
Residents are concerned that disease will begin to spread. The smell of the garbage is overwhelming. Recent rains are washing loose trash into a nearby stream.
This morning a property manager called the Bribri office, again, to ask why the garbage from Cocles to Punta Uva has not been picked up. She was told the last time she called that the pick-up day had been changed to Wednesdays. But the truck had not come for two weeks now. The office worker informed her that now the garbage truck would come on Tuesdays. But does that mean tomorrow, or next week?
The local handyman came by this morning to take our trash to the garbage receptacle on the street, the one that has grown into a two-week mountain. I was surprised. “Oh, is the truck coming today?”
He responded, “It is supposed to come on Mondays.”
Apparently he has not been informed of the schedule change.
“But it hasn’t been coming. Maybe we should leave our trash here, just in case.”
His wise reply: “It is the responsibility of the municipality to bring the truck when it says it will.”
Maybe I should also ask him this: “Why is the garbage problem worse, not better, since the Margarita Road project drew public attention almost a year ago, in July 2012?”
If the Costa Rican government has plans to bring development to the Caribe Sur, shouldn’t people be asking some questions? “Can we begin by picking up the trash?”
What, exactly, is possible, here? Maybe we can begin with just one thing.