Quakers in Costa Rica
The small Quaker community in Costa Rica was founded in 1951 by a group of eleven Quaker families from Alabama. Four young Friends had recently been jailed for refusing to serve in the Korean War and the families were seeking somewhere they could live in peace.
Hubert Mendenhall travelled overland by truck from the US, looking for suitable land for the group to settle, eventually arriving in Costa Rica. The country had just abolished its army and the government was encouraging foreigners to come and develop the land. Once Mendenhall found Monteverde in the centre of the country, which was then accessible only by ox cart, he knew he had found what they were looking for.
The families purchased 1500 hectares of land, which was divided between the families. Each family then built their own house, with the community holding “house raising bees” to set the foundations and raise the heavy frames.
Soon after, they set up Monteverde Friends School, completing the main school building in 1957. Today it is a bilingual school serving the local community – both Quakers and local Costa Ricans - from pre-school through to high school.
Part of the land the Quakers purchased was used to set up a dairy farm, and the Monteverde Cheese Factory, which today produces over a ton of cheese a day. However, the community also made the far-sighted decision to set aside an area on the mountain slopes as virgin cloud forest – high altitude forest cooled by moist air from the Pacific. In the early 1970s, when scientist George Powell began buying up land to prevent forest clearance, this land became the kernel of the newly established the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, now an international model for conservation. Wolf Guindon, one of the original Quaker settlers, was among the leaders of these pioneering conservation efforts.
In 1983, at a time when many Central American countries were riven with war, Costa Rica declared its permanent neutrality. Simultaneously, Quakers established the Centro de Amigos para la Paz (CAP), a peace centre in San Jose, to protest the human rights violations in neighbouring countries. CAP “promotes a culture of peace and active nonviolence in Costa Rica by upholding social justice and human rights.” In the 1990s, for example, CAP ran training programmes in non-violent conflict resolution, in conjunction with Alternatives to Violence. In 2009, they provided observers during the elections in Honduras and sent a team to investigate human rights violations during the subsequent coup. They continue to be vocal in raising awareness of the plight of Palestinians in the Middle East. CAP also runs Casa Hostel Ridgeway, welcoming visitors from around the world.
In the 1990s, with the support of Quaker Earthcare Witness, a network of American Friends, the Monteverde Quakers worked with the local community to establish Finca la Bella community farming project in the San Luis Valley, an area where the land had traditionally been held by a few wealthy landowners. Finca La Bella is a 49-hectare plot, of which half is forest preserve and the rest divided into parcels of land around one hectare each. Twenty-four local families farm the land in a traditional way, producing dairy produce and fair trade coffee and passing the skills on to their children. Finca la Bella was founded partly in memory of Anna Kriebel, a Quaker from Ohio who worked closely with the San Luis community in the 1980s, helping to provide literacy, health care, nutrition, and an environmental conservation.
Quakers were also influential in establishing the Monteverde Institute. As well as sponsoring education and research in Monteverde, the Institute supports local community projects like Eco Bambu. Eco Bambu is a women’s cooperative making recycled paper products such as the bags used by the local coffee farmers.