Thirty-Nine Years of Silence
By Adam Williams
In the Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude," owners of a foreign banana company arrive in the fictitious town of Macondo, cultivate plantations, employ locals, and abruptly depart years later, leaving behind only remnants of their hegemony throughout the deserted village.
The Central Pacific town of Silencio, or Silence, can empathize with Macondo's tale. After years of profitable production from its regional banana plantations, the United Fruit Company - the target of Marquez's literary metaphor - uprooted from the Central Pacific in 1965 after flooding and disease wiped out most of the harvest.
Similarities between the towns end there, as their fates took divergent paths. Whereas the disappearance of the banana conglomerate led to Macondo's ruin, it led to Silencio's eventual revolution, colonization and democratic unification for a town whose economic model is a case study beckoning to be examined.
There are only 130 families that live in Silencio, and each is a stakeholder in the nearly 2500 acres (1000 hectares) encompassed by the town's jurisdiction. After United Fruit left the region in 1965, the parcel of tropical farm land was purchased by a foreign landowner. Feeling stripped of land rightfully theirs, residents of the town refused to leave the property, resulting in what was known as "the fight for Silence" in 1973.
When the government under President Figueres intervened to diffuse tensions, the State purchased the land from foreign ownership and gave it back to residents under one condition: it would forever be operated by collective management of all its residents. Silencio was to be a cooperative.
"There were only about 60 families here at that time, but we all agreed to enter the cooperative and develop the town as we saw fit," said José Rafael Leon, president of the cooperative known as Coopesilencio, whose family has lived in town for generations. "From that day on, each decision of the town has been made by everyone in the community."
The central development project chosen by the community, located along a rocky road off the Coastal Highway south of the Río Savegre, has been palm production. After other agricultural experiments failed to materialize, in 1985, Silencio converted over half of its land into rows of towering palm trees, the most common economic practice in the Central Pacific region.
"We set up a relationship with PalmaTica, the biggest palm oil producer in Costa Rica, to purchase our harvest," said Juan Bejarano, a community leader. "The money earned is kept within the community to sustain development."
While palm represents the bulk of employment in Silencio, other projects such as a hotel, animal rescue center, and a milk and dairy farm were developed to diversify job options and attract visitors and volunteers. Efforts to increase rural tourism promote development in areas like roads and education.
On Feb. 20, Silencio celebrated its 39th anniversary. Unlike Macondo, which vanished after the banana companies left, Silencio has flourished by giving every one of its citizens a vocation and voice to be heard.