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Negotiating Environmental Sovereignty in Costa Rica


  • Dana J. Graef

  • The research for this article was carried out in Costa Rica in 2011 as a component of my PhD in Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Yale University, advised by Michael Dove and Enrique Mayer. A prior version of this article was prepared for the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) International Conference on Global Land Grabbing, held at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex in 2011. I gratefully acknowledge helpful comments and suggestions from Ian Scoones, Wendy Wolford, K. Sivaramakrishnan, members and coordinators of the LDPI, Environmental History at Yale, and anonymous referees. This work is further informed by my long-term research in southern Costa Rica, begun in 2002. For quotations in this article, I am responsible for translations from Spanish into English.


This article analyses the linked histories and changing national discourses surrounding a transnational mining concession and subsequent plans for hydroelectric development in Costa Rica. The analysis shows how project framing shifted from un-environmental to green, paralleling a change in public debate from defence against a transnational threat to support of national sovereignty. Dissenters questioned an imperial project that would preclude the state and its citizens from the benefits of industrial development; now the problem is recalled as extractive development itself. Thus popular protests against the mine have come to be remembered as a defence of the nation's environment. This article defines environmental sovereignty as a relational concept that decentres human dominion. In addition, it argues for increased scholarly attention to unimplemented development. This case demonstrates how land deals transcend their own boundaries in time, space and imagination.