Grassroots Climate Action in Monteverde, Costa Rica: an interview with Katy VanDusen
In this interview, Katy VanDusen, a community-based climate activist located in Monteverde, Costa Rica, answers questions about her experience in building more sustainable communities.
Art by Jessica Kamman
Can you talk a bit about your involvement in the Monteverde community?
I first came to Monteverde in the 1980s after graduating from college at the age of 22 and I thought that I'd be coming for maybe 6 months. I went to Guatemala first to learn Spanish and then came here to work in a co-op. I now have 40-plus years of experience here. From the start I have been involved with the broader community and have been interested in community development.
I am now the coordinator of the Monteverde Commission for Resilience to Climate Change, known as CORCLIMA for short, and I work as a volunteer. Corclima’s mission is to unite Monteverde to reduce emissions, capture carbon, and adapt to climate change as fast as possible. Oftentimes one activity can do more than one and even all three. It's not trying to do it all as one organization but having people understand where the emissions are coming from, how it is captured, what our vulnerabilities are, and aligning our climate actions; By measuring our emissions and sequestration, we can focus on actions that have more impact. The way I think of my role sometimes is like being the conductor of an orchestra, really trying to unite everybody in harmony towards the same purpose.
When were you first inspired to become a climate activist?
When people ask me that question I bring it back to after my sons had graduated from high school and were starting at college together. I was very much looking at what would be my next step, because up to that point I had dedicated many years to my kids and their school. I was ready to do something else that would make a difference in the world. While at their college during parent-weekend, I went to a talk given by a professor that studies the permafrost and how its melting will have a large impact on releasing methane. He explained that it was releasing as much methane as was released by the entire Industrial Revolution. That concept was such a big eye-opener to me. At the same time he shared with people what public perception is about effective climate action. He said that pretty much everybody thought that recycling was a big climate action. And of course when we think about recycling in that context it’s bottles, cans, and paper. When in fact, that kind of recycling has minimal impact. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to work on climate, but it took me another five years to really zero in on how to do that. That was in 2009 and it was in 2016 that we founded CORCLIMA.
What are some unexpected challenges that you’ve faced facilitating grassroots climate activism in your community?
I think that for me probably the biggest challenge is how do we change mindsets from thinking about a linear economy to a circular economy so that people can see their consuming habits with a better lens. We need to get our leaders as well as everybody else to stop thinking that growth is the only thing we need.
Another challenge I was thinking about is how everybody wants to have good roads, but by focusing on roads we’re focusing on cars. Really what we need for the community is to balance that and have more of a focus on what we’re really looking for — which is sustainable and secure mobility for people. That means shifting thinking more to sidewalks, bikers, collective transportation, and electrifying more vehicles. It’s about getting people around in a safe, secure, accessible way. It’s not making everything better for cars.
What was your favorite project you’ve helped accomplish?
I don't know if I have a favorite, but the ones making the biggest splash,la Ruta Eléctrica Monteverde and la Ruta Eléctrica Costa Rica. The goal of the projects are simple: that one doesn’t need to have range anxiety because of not having accessible electric plugs. In reality, there are plugs almost everywhere; they just need to be made accessible to the drivers of electric vehicles. It is the simplicity of that, that is part of the beauty of it. The person who coordinates Ruta Electrica Costa Rica is a young woman who doesn’t have the money to buy an electric car. Last week she drove in a borrowed electric car to Panama and back as part of an expedition for promoting electric mobility. For her, and for the people that went on that trip, they all felt that this project was the way to go.
You need to charge and you need to be doing something instead of just sitting and waiting. The charging plugs are at businesses and organizations where something is offered, like a hotel, restaurant, park, or reserve. I think that has been the project that I think is a favorite in part because just three years ago we didn’t have any electric vehicles in Monteverde. Now people come regularly in electric cars. Still we need to have the transition happen much faster than it is. However, as this idea takes off I think it will grow exponentially.
How do you work with climate change deniers in the community, or those with goals that oppose sustainability?
We are super lucky because there are almost none of those people here. I think that if you think about the people who own the gas stations, they are probably the people in our community who have the most to lose. I think it’s very important not to alienate any of those people or businesses who in some way have their own barriers and places where they’re getting stuck. It doesn’t help us get them unstuck by accusing them of being the worst. So while I don’t think we have any climate change deniers, we have people and businesses who are stuck. Maybe as one general group, people who are using liquid petroleum gas for cooking, for example, are stuck in their addiction to using that product. Money is always a great incentive to get businesses unstuck. Right now they can save money by switching to induction cooking, or not cooking with gas. For homes we’re still trying to come up with an incentive to help people switch. Sometimes it's as simple as familiarizing people with the technology and allowing them to have a good experience with it.
Do you think the things you’ve learned about climate activism on a community level can be applied to country-wide activism?
Yes. So much of it has to do with understanding the people that you’re working with and really listening to them well and responding to their needs. So, with all of our collective transportation work, it started with a study we did about asking people what their needs were. That’s something that I think can happen at any level, as long as you’re simultaneously responding to people's needs it makes change happen much easier.
Another thing is that images in media in general have a lot of power. Do not focus on images of disaster because that drags people down, and makes people believe there’s nothing they can do. While if you have images of solutions it inspires people to act. Another thing is stories, which really stick in people's minds. Images and stories really have the power to inspire people and keep people upbeat. We need more news like that on the local and national level.
What can the U.S. government learn from Costa Rica in terms of climate sustainability?
It’s possible to generate 98% of your energy without fossil fuels. That is probably the biggest one. It’s also possible to reforest the landscape and regenerate soils.
How do you stay optimistic about climate change?
One thing that I do is I turn to Christiana Figueres and her podcast called “Outrage and Optimism” because that’s what she’s designed it all for. Every podcast feeds you something that is positive while at the same time acknowledging the hard stuff without sugarcoating it.
For me one of the things to do is to go into nature and take in the forest, the birds, and simply being in the wild. It lifts me up to connect with people who are walking the talk and who also at the same time make systemic change. Being associated with those people makes a difference for me. It's harder to stay optimistic when I’m interacting with people who are not.
What advice can you give to people who are interested in becoming more sustainable?
Pay attention to what your footprint really is. I’m not just talking about your carbon footprint, I’m talking about your nitrogen, water, and others. I think that before taking action it's important to understand what you’re consuming and how your living patterns affect the place that you live. For example, someone in Michigan should not focus as much on their water footprint, but if you’re living in California water conservation is much more up there. Know where your electricity is coming from. So if you’re living in a place that gets most of its energy from wind, you don’t have to think about getting solar panels as much as if your energy was coming from coal.
I think that for people who are travelers, and for those at the higher end of the income spectrum, they need to pay attention to their travel footprints and not take travel lightly. Think about how much fossil fuels are going into moving you around. I think that when people think about being vegan they usually assume they have a low carbon footprint. However, for example, if you’re in Costa Rica having coconut ice cream from Seattle, that means those coconuts came from the tropics, went to Seattle, and then were shipped back to the tropics. Maybe someone eating beef from a regenerative farm in Costa Rica has a lower footprint than the vegan. So we must look at the complexities of it all and really seek to understand the life cycles of the products and actions you consume.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
What I would like to say to the editors, writers, and readers of this review is that what you’re doing is really important and that I applaud you and think that this kind of discussion is what’s really needed!