Protecting Cultural Heritage through Community Storytelling and Legal Research

I spent my final semester of law school living in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica and learning about the volatile land rights situation threatening to displace native Afro-Caribbean residents. In an effort to learn more, I began interviewing people about their history, the current challenges facing their communities, and their hopes for the future. I quickly realized there was a story to be told – one that asks how environmental conservation measures can and should be balanced against the needs and rights of local communities to economic development and sustainable livelihoods – and that this community’s story could help inform better decisions and smarter policy for the benefit of communities around the world facing similar challenges.

The post below provides an overview of the background, progress, and goals of The Rich Coast Project. We are raising money now to support a community storytelling campaign. Donate to the project’s indiegogo campaign and spread the word to your networks. Thank you in advance for your support!

Katie Beck

Founder, The Rich Coast Project

PHRGE Fellow (2010 and 2012)

George Hansel has lived in Punta Uva his entire life, a small town founded by his grandparents. He has many fond memories of growing up in this tight-knit community, where neighbors treated one another like family and shared whatever they had.

“This is a big conflict. For at the moment you don’t own something that you had owned. We used to be owners, until now we comes to be squatters. In everything you supposed to be going up, not down. But in this we are going down.”

-George Hansell, Punta Uva

George Hansell has lived in Punta Uva his entire life, a small town founded by his grandparents.  He has many fond memories of growing up in this tight-knit community, where neighbors treated one another like family and shared whatever they had. His family has lived on the same plot of land for several generations. About 35 years ago he built, with his own hands, the house in which he now lives. He has owned the 11,000 m² of land since his grandmother handed it down to him when he was five years old. Sixty years later, George looks forward to passing the same land to his children, grandchildren, and the “ones that are coming.” His ability to do so, however, is seriously threatened by Costa Rican conservation and land use policies.

George’s community is in the canton of Talamanca, located in the southeast of Costa Rica and bordered by Panama and the Caribbean. It is home to a rich Afro-Caribbean culture, fostered over centuries by descendants of the area’s original founders, fishermen and coconut farmers from Jamaica and Panama. It is the country’s poorest region in terms of socioeconomic and human development, and the richest in terms of biodiversity and tropical forest systems.  In total, 88% of the land in Talamanca is restricted by some form of conservation protection.

These conservation laws, especially the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge (REGAMA) and the Maritime Zone (ZMT), are squeezing out the very people who have cared for and called these lands home for centuries.

The effects of unstable land tenure and stunted economic development are pervasive: opportunity for personal advancement is increasingly limited, and many young people must leave their homes and families to pursue education and employment. Homes and businesses have been threatened with demolition orders and residents have faced criminal charges for pursuing better lives for their families.

These communities face losing their lands, their culture, and their very history. Conscious of these challenges, residents are working hard to protect their rights and reinforce their cultural traditions while seeking a more balanced approach to the government’s regulation of their natural resources.

The Rich Coast Project wants to make sure that these communities have a chance to tell their own story. 

The Rich Coast Project aims to connect local experience to broad questions of international law and policy through a combination of new media storytelling and legal research.  We will create a living archive of the Talamanca coast by collecting the stories of the people who call it home and hearing firsthand how these issues are impacting their communities and way of life. We’re teaming with law students, librarians and scholars from a range of disciplines to reconsider how conservation law works, and letting this community’s experience help us explore better approaches to the competing aims of environmental conservation and sustainable development.

The goal of the project is to use creative advocacy to build the case for keeping the local people on their land, showing that not only is it the right and just thing to do, it will also produce better results for the people and the environment.

So far we have set up a non-profit, found a fiscal sponsor, organized a team of lawyers, researchers, photographers and filmmakers, and developed several exciting partnerships, both in Costa Rica and in the United States. This year a group of law students at Northeastern University will research the issue from Boston, and experts in archival studies at Simmons College, the top rated program in the country, will help us develop a digital community archive.

We are raising money for the first phase of the storytelling project now. Our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo is ongoing until November 22, 2013. Contributions will help us buy equipment, work with experts from the Center for Digital Storytelling, and support a small team working on the ground in Costa Rica.


The Rich Coast Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Rich Coast Project must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

More information can be found on the project’s website, Contact us directly by emailing Katie Beck at

Tita Hansel

“The only good thing about this problem is that it has helped us grow as a community and be more united.” 

– George Hansell


One thought on “Protecting Cultural Heritage through Community Storytelling and Legal Research

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