In Costa Rica, many remember it as the moment the country’s environmental movement was born. In 1970, thousands of Costa Ricans protested a proposed large-scale Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) mine in an ecologically fragile valley. Several years later, Alcoa abandoned the project, an outcome that foretold Costa Rica’s growing reputation as one of Latin America’s “greenest” countries.
There’s only one problem with that narrative, says Dana Graef, an F&ES doctoral student: It wasn’t quite that simple.
In a paper published last year, Graef showed that it was “anti-imperialism” rather than environmental interests that predominantly fueled the protests. Nonetheless, this shift in public memory over four decades provides key insights into the relationship between landscapes and national self-identity, she wrote in the journal Development and Change.
Last week, Graef was honored for this work with the F. Herbert Bormann Prize, an award that honors an F&ES doctoral student whose work best exemplifies the legacy of the longtime professor.
“Dana’s article makes a novel, scholarly contribution,” said Prof. Karen Seto, Associate Dean for Research and Director of Doctoral Studies at F&ES. “While research tends to focus on development that has taken place, Dana counter-intuitively examined, in her words, ‘projects that are canceled or stalled,’ yet nonetheless have real and lasting effects.”
Graef, who first learned about the Costa Rican protests as an undergraduate more than ten years ago, decided to explore the issue further as part of her doctoral studies. After examining archival documents and old media reports, she began to see that the driving factor for protesters was the assertion of national sovereignty. In this particular case, she says, it was a profound desire to prevent an American company from profiting at the expense of Costa Rican interests.
But as years passed, the successful campaign took on increased importance for the nation’s emerging green movement. Ultimately, Graef says, the protests enabled the public to raise questions about the responsible use of resources for later development projects. As such, the campaign did become a watershed moment in the quest for “green sovereignty” in Costa Rica.
“To me, this demonstrates how our memories of the past are so intimately linked to the present,” says Graef, who is pursuing a combined degree in Environmental Studies (F&ES) and Anthropology. “Memories can also tell stories about the present, whether we’re conscious of it or not.”
Bormann, who taught at F&ES from 1966 until 1992, was a plant ecologist whose research first called the world’s attention to the threat of acid rain in the 1970s. During his career, Bormann’s research helped scientists better understand the complex but irrefutable relationship between humans and the environment.
“Growing up in Vermont, I remember learning about acid rain and being concerned about its effects,” Graef said. “It’s an honor to win an award named after someone whose research has had such a profound impact.”