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I came to La Fortuna, near the magnificent Volcano Arenal, to visit my friend Zulay for a few days. It happened that I arrived just in time to see a number of documentaries featured on the last day of what is hopefully the first annual CRiterio Environmental Film Festival. On my first full day of gorgeous, dry sun after a week of heavy rain and Monteverde coolness, with that big ol’ constipated mountain of lava rumbling behind us, we watched four diverse documentaries covering a range of issues.

The first was La Sirena y el Buzo (The Mermaid and the Diver), a Mexican/Spanish production telling a fable of the Miskito people on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. It’s a bittersweet look at the lives of poor Miskito communities, one riverside, the other dependent on the sea which can be both generous and brutally unkind. Although the story of the film was somewhat confusing, there was great power in the images of turtles being slaughtered, women giving birth, the bewildered faces of poverty and the unforgiving strength of nature. Although light on levity, the scene of a female shaman bouncing, slapping and chanting the bad spirits from a very robust, yet sickly, baby, was welcome comedic relief.

The film that I enjoyed the most was from the Cities on Speed series from Denmark and called Bogota – Change!  It looks at the renaissance of the Columbian city of Bogota in the 1990s. It was known as an urban center of high crime, corruption and unemployment, until two interesting characters were elected as independent mayors – Antanas Mockus in 1995 and a couple of years later, Enrique Peñalosa. Our first experience of Mockus is when, as chancellor of the university, he drops his pants and moons the perpetually angry and frustrated audience – “a display of both extreme violence and extreme submission,” he explains. He is fired from his academic post but soon elected as mayor of Bogota.

 His major influence is his Lithuanian mother who is a well-known sculptor and more outspoken than he. She insists that “if you don’t have honesty, you can’t accomplish anything”. And so Mockus is known for being controversial but having great integrity. He deals with the dysfunctional city like a sociological experiment and makes changes through such creative, yet unheard of, solutions as “a vaccine against crime”, professional mimes teaching drivers how to behave properly on the busy roadways, and insisting that “la vida es valor” – life has more value than objects in response to people’s greater concern about theft than the murder epidemic at the time. In his first term as mayor, the murder rate dropped by 50%, water usage dropped by 40%, and numerous other statistics demonstrated that his unorthodox and often puzzling methods were working. A side-note to this is, after googling Mockus, I found that he was the presidential candidate for the Columbian Green party in 2010 and lost, but also announced that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in April of this year – a sad update.

art on another dirty city - puntarenas -wall

After Mockus’ term, Peñalosa came in and worked on the infrastructure of the city, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes, a modern public transit system, limits on vehicles in the urban core, and taking out slums and derelict areas and replacing them with parks, public spaces, and libraries. Although there seems a moment when the populous didn’t understand “public spaces”, he managed to push through much of his agenda in a short time. In Bogota, the mayor can only serve one consecutive term, (Mockus returned for a second), but either of these men may have made an even bigger impact if allowed more time. It is amazing what they accomplished in their brief 2 year terms, despite the great opposition to their extreme platforms. The film is both amusing and inspiring. From what I can tell, Bogota is now a model city on many scales, even while Columbia struggles on – and it has just moved its way up my gotta-go-see list.

On the printed agenda for the filmfest was something called “Film Sorpresa” (Surprise film). We were curious as to what that would be. What came on the screen was a documentary I am already familiar with called Cracking the Golden Egg, a critical look at corporate tourism on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It was created by an organization for responsible tourism based in Washington D.C. The president, Martha Honey, was a journalist here in Costa Rica for years. I wrote about her back in April when I saw this documentary for the first time and she chaired a panel in Monteverde. She was back again in August holding a workshop and I happened to run into one of her co-workers. He told me that the half hour doc had been banned from distribution in Costa Rica, as both the government and the tourism industry didn’t like the idea that people would see its negative evaluation of large corporate hotels versus local development and community well-being. So it made sense that the festival organizers hadn’t advertised its name on their agenda but still took the opportunity to show it. You can go to the link:  and maybe access the video. I tried to post it but was unsuccessful. I especially recommend it for people thinking of traveling to Costa Rica.

The film that the festival organizers gave the top prize to is called Vienen por el oro; vienen por todo – “They came for the gold; They came for it all”.  It was a very well-done (yet poorly sub-titled) film about the town of Esqual in Argentina which, in 2003, managed to stop a large Canadian mining company (New Meridian) from developing an open pit gold mine. The use of explosives, cyanide and other chemicals would have devastated the beautiful mountainous area, its pure water, and the health of the inhabitants. In an area of extreme unemployment and hardship, the citizenry still decided, by something like 80 % in a referendum, not to allow the mine to develop. 

At this moment in Costa Rica, a Canadian mining company with a local subsidiary by the name of Infinito Gold is trying to open an open pit gold mine, in the small community of Las Crucitas, just north of where I am presently staying here in the San Carlos. They began their attempt in 1993 but have been held back by numerous legal actions against them. The new president, Laura Chinchilla, put a moratorium on any movement when she came into office in May of this year until the highest court could rule on the legality of the mine. Her predecessor, the once revered but now ethically-questionable Oscar Arias, felt it was a project that favored Costa Rica economically.

 The environmental community has managed to hold off this massive assault on the area. Their main concerns are for the 190 hectares of tropical dry forest that will be destroyed (along with the residential flora and fauna) and the use of cyanide and other chemicals that will poison the watershed of the area, including the mighty Rio San Juan that forms the northern border of Costa Rica with Nicaragua. Supposedly a decision is going to be made in the following days. This film we watched last night was a powerful message for those involved in the struggle – with community co-ordination and commitment, David can beat Goliath. As Esqual’s doctor, Flavio, declared, concerning what is right versus what is wrong: “It’s for the people, you asshole, not for the millionaires”.

The worldwide struggle continues with the helplessness of poverty versus the golden dream of jobs; the difficulty of empowering the disenfranchised and arming them with knowledge and hope when television generally encourages us down the path of least resistance and seduces us with the promise of comforts and convenience through consumerism and cooperation. These struggles continue everywhere, always – and writers, journalists, bloggers, poets, musicians and film-makers have the opportunity to educate, enlighten, and encourage collective empowerment. Bravo to the organizers of CRiterio and to the many who created these powerful cine-images that maybe, just maybe, will play a big part in moving us one step closer to sanity.

January 2021