UF Law student recounts Costa Rica program experience
“Fun” can be an abstract term for law students facing long nights reading and preparing for class, along with the subsequent anxiety of being “cold-called.” Not to mention, the moments spent at the end of the semester hoping that the curve will be in our favor. I Love Law School. However, to recuperate from the struggle, it is not unusual for me and my classmates to end the semester with big vacation plans and trips with sights pleasant enough to take our minds off the work done in school. Summer would be great for me to relax, I thought at the end of spring semester, but instead I signed up to take summer classes abroad. I had moments of mixed feelings, but little did I know that “fun” could be realistic while doing “law school” in summer.
This summer, my pursuit of a juris doctor took me beyond the confines of a classroom and state courtrooms in Gainesville to the beautiful country of Costa Rica. I was afforded the opportunity to study abroad through the UF Law Costa Rica Program.
The UF Law Costa Rica Program is a four-week study abroad program that integrates class work and field trips, culminating in a practicum where students apply the knowledge obtained in the analysis of the areas of interest in relation to the host country, Costa Rica. In 2014, the UF Law Costa Rica program partnered with the Organization for Tropical Studies and UF’s Center for Latin American Studies to build interdisciplinary bridges between law, policy, and the social and natural science of conservation and sustainable development. Through this partnership, law students from the United States, Costa Rica and other parts of Latin America had the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills in two ways: first, through an integrated suite of courses that merged around efforts to find practical, policy-relevant solutions to issues of immediate importance to the conservation and sustainable development community; and second, through a field based approach where students embark on extended visits to OTS field stations and their neotropical context: i.e., rivers, forests, beaches and mountains. In addition, the field approach consists of several visits to indigenous communities, meeting with farmers and landowners, and encounters with unique sustainable development projects.
This summer, seven U.S. students, three Ticos (Costa Ricans), one Colombian, one El Salvadoran, and four faculty members (U.S. and Costa Rica) experienced international and comparative environmental law from the perspective of a developing country. Classroom lectures focused on the environmental issues that arise when a developing nation chooses to continue to develop sustainably as opposed to choosing less environmentally friendly options that are often cheaper. The issue-based field trips solidified the concepts learned in the classroom by providing students with real-world examples of sustainable development issues. The field trips were not only educational, they were engaging and fun. One day in class we learned about water law and administration and sustainable development in the context of international environmental law. The next day we were in Talamanca Mountain Range driving to the Rio Pacuare (Pacuare River) receiving a “bus lecture” (short talk) on how the Pacuare is under constant threat of being dammed like the rivers running parallel to it. We learned about how the Instituto Constrricense de Electricidad is the telecommunications and power monopoly in Costa Rica that has dammed rivers on multiple occasions to generate electricity. Then after a short walk to the Pacuare River we put on life jackets and helmets, grabbed a paddle, got into rafting boats, and rafted down the class II to class IV rapids of a wild and truly scenic river.
The next week we learned about watersheds, an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet, and how the U.S. (common law) and Costa Rica (civil law) address water quality. We also focused on the long-term effects of development and the humanitarian issue that arise when there is forced displacement (relocation of towns) and resettlement. We saw firsthand the outcome of displacement and resettlement caused by the construction of a dam. We went on a field trip that helped us understand that Costa Rica’s quest to develop sustainably creates a conservation conflict by using hydropower and geothermal energy versus other alternative energy. We visited Arenal Dam and Lake Arenal, which was constructed as a part of a hydroelectric project by the Costa Rican government to provide electricity to a large percentage of the country. The town of Arenal used to be located where the lake currently is, but the town and its residents were forced out to make way for the dam. Next we visited the Nueva (New) Arenal Resettlement and learned that the resettlement of more than 2,000 people was considered a success because the people of Arenal were given the procedural right to take part in the decisions made regarding resettlement.
My trip to Costa Rica was one of the most memorable trips I have taken. I am grateful to have been chosen as the recipient of the Environmental and Land Use Law Program’s Minority Fellowship, without which I probably would not have been able to participate in the amazing Costa Rica program that UF Law offers. White-water rafting down the Pacuare river, zip-lining through a rainforest, swimming in hot springs near the base of Arenal Volcano, and celebrating with Ticos while Costa Rica played in the World Cup Soccer games are experiences that I will always remember. Now that the fall semester has started, I am reminiscing about summer and wishing I could go back.