Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rethinking “Sustainable Development”, or, Better Living through Geography

I am skeptical of the utility of seeking out "sustainable" development in academic theory and applied practice. Place - a foundational concept in geography - matters for the viability of economic development in tourist destinations. Though tourism is heralded as the road to development for poor peoples (UNWTO 2005 in Schellhorn 2010), the ways tourists and locals maneuver to define place limit the promise of sustainable development. I have found that tourists who visit the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica perceive the region as authentically underdeveloped. That region, the caribe sur, depends upon tourism, but remains one of Costa Rica’s poorest. Because the value of the place boils down to its backwardsness, attempts to "develop" in themselves constrain the possibility of future growth.

A couple of recent events illustrate how place and development color each other. In the early morning hours of April 19th, 2008, a resident of Cahuita - a small settlement of about 1,000 on the coast - was shot and killed at a popular bar. The story made the national news and the town has received critical attention in recent years for gruesome violence in a place typically considered tranquilo. Negative press coverage is lamented by local business owners for scaring away potential tourists and damaging the local economy.

At around the same time, the University of Costa Rica newspaper published a front-page story on a marina complex to be sited in Puerto Viejo, a town about 15 kilometers south of Cahuita. The story articulated several of the potential ecological and social effects of the large-scale development, such as damage to nearby coral reef systems and crime (Chacón 2008). In a similar report, a female U.S. tourist explained, “I’m a tourist and if this is constructed I won’t come here anymore. I like the simplicity and naturalness of Puerto Viejo that would be lost with this" (Plaza and Carvajal 2008).

These events show that how tourists, the media, and others represent a place matters for its economic growth and that, in turn, development in place matters for the perception of place. The remark of the U.S. tourist is particularly striking as it gets to the crux of the sustainability question. She will only sustain her travels to Puerto Viejo if the marina project, which would generate substantial revenue but ruin the town’s “simplicity and naturalness”, is scrapped. What exactly is the true character of the town? And is such an essential definition even available?

Geographers understand that the meaning of place is always flexible and negotiated. Place is in part produced by capital, through development. Capitalism tends toward equalizing the rate of profit across space and in place as it achieves greater economies of scale while it simultaneously seeks niches which yield comparatively high rates of profit (Smith 1984). It is a commonplace that capitalist globalization standardizes places so that they become like everywhere else.

However, David Harvey (1990) has noted that in a globalized world, capital moves freely but locale remains fixed. In order to attract residents, businesses, or, in this case, visitors, places work to distinguish themselves from other, often homogenized, areas. Capital augments the assembly of place and place-identity (Harvey 1993; O'Hare 1997; Kneafsey 1998; Sywngedouw 1997) and as such, tourism may be "destroying" places, but at the same time it is creating others. Sustainable development advocates seek to rectify capital’s incessantly uneven global development, but ignore how place drives the process.

Place is paramount to understanding development - not because development takes place somewhere, but because place encapsulates crucial social relations. Notions of the caribe sur as having a fixed character express a social relation; they are a way of relating and ordering people, places, and resources. For the U.S. tourist quoted earlier, Puerto Viejo should remain simple and natural. For her and other tourists, the appropriate use value of this place is its genuine underdevelopment. But the traveler's desire for real difference inherently constricts avenues for development; growth does not occur in a social vacuum. Even relatively small-scale ventures like indigenous village visits bring in wealth and the resulting infrastructural changes turn-off many kinds of travelers, for whom the meaning of place no longer corresponds with their expectations (Young 1999). Additional development erodes the possibility of further, sustainable growth.

Those advocating sustainable development should strive to see place as the intersection of social relations, rather than attempting to managerially revalue people and resources and ignoring the very relations which may very well undermine such revaluing. As Cresswell (2000: 11) asserts, "place is a way of seeing, knowing, and understanding the world." Reading development in the caribe sur via place is a guide for critically appreciating contemporary patterns of tourism and development in both the caribe sur and elsewhere.

Eric Nost


Chacón, V. 2008 “Proyecto de marina enfrenta fuerte oposición” Semanario Universidad, 21 February 2008.

Cresswell, Timothy. 2004. Place: a short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Harvey, David. 1993. From space to place and back again: reflections on the condition of postmodernity, in J. Bird (Ed) Mapping the Futures, pp. 3-29. Routledge.

Kneafsey, Moya. 1998. Tourism and place-identity: A case-study in rural Ireland, Irish geography, 31 (2): pp. 111-123.

O'Hare, Danny. 1996. Interpreting the cultural landscape for tourism development, Urban Design International, 2 (1): pp. 33-54.

Plaza, S. y Marvin Carvajal. 2008. “Plan para construir marina crea controversia en Puerto Viejo,” La Nacion, 5 April 2008.

Schellhorn, Matthias. 2010. Development for whom? Social justice and the business of ecotourism, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18 (1): pp. 115-135.

Smith, Neil. 1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Blackwell.

Sywngedouw, Erik. 1997. Neither global nor local: "glocalization" and the politics of scale, in K. Cox (Ed) Spaces of Globalization, pp. 137-166. Guilford.

Young, Martin. 1999. The Social Construction of Tourist Places, Australian Geographer, 30 (3): pp. 373-389.

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