Costa Rica: a beautiful panorama from a community that wants to become “safer”

Published: 5 June 2007 0:00 CET

Manuel Esteban Rodríguez in San José, Costa Rica

The hamlet of Linda Vista is situated on a small hill 12 kilometres from the Costa Rican capital of San José. Its 7,500 inhabitants enjoy a wonderful view of the city. Yet they also live under constant threat of natural disaster and their homes are not far away from the San José municipal rubbish dump. Also nearby is a special facility designed to isolate people with leprosy.

Despite a ban on new building in the community when Linda Vista was declared a high-risk zone, population pressures mean that homes continue to be built. They perch on the steep hillside, unstable on the clay ground and vulnerable to mudslides.

“As well as earthquakes, mudslides and floods, there are social problems linked to drug and alcohol abuse, crime, pollution and fires,” explained José Bonilla, coordinator of the Costa Rican Red Cross disaster preparedness reference centre.

Today, the people of Linda Vista are working to become a safer community. For over a year, the Costa Rican Red Cross has worked with them to promote behaviour change and identify risks. Using the vulnerability and capacity assessment (VCA), risks and vulnerabilities have been established and local capacity to prevent and recover from disaster identified.

The International Federation introduced the VCA into its community-based disaster prevention programme in 1995. It aims to increase involvement by communities and promotes the integration of other local organizations, such as the police, schools, community development groups and local authorities. In short, it means reducing vulnerability, strengthening capacity to cope should disaster strike and, ultimately, ensuring a faster recovery.

‘We realized a lot more could be done’
Nurse Laura Mora Marín has been working in Linda Vista for six years. An employee of the Ministry of Health, she is assigned to the community health centre and understands the importance of not relying on a single institution working alone.

“As we visited house after house, we realized that a lot more could be done in the community than just what we were doing at the health centre,” she said. “We gained an in-depth knowledge of the community, its high-risk zones and the key people for promoting changes in ideas and attitudes that benefit all of us.”

One of those key people is Jean Marie Brizuela, a member of the local emergency committee and a leader in the community. “The Red Cross has taught us how to join forces and we are now communicating better,” she explained. “We have learned to live with risks and to be prepared to face them. Today, for example, we know how to take the elderly people away when there is a threat and we can do something as simple as identifying safer sites.”

At the local school, children play ‘Riskland’. Developed by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction and promoted by the Red Cross, this is no ordinary board game but one that could one day save their lives. “Children spot vulnerabilities and threats and turn them into strengths,” says schoolteacher, Helen Quiroz. “They share their own experiences and use what they have learned to map risks.”

Moving to the next stage

The vulnerabilities have now been identified. The next important step is to address them. Red Cross staff will work with local authorities to present projects to the community, before the community prepares micro-projects and seeks funding.

“Our efforts must be comprehensive,” explained José Bonilla. “As we build safer communities, we ask all actors in a community to participate and we encourage the community to take matters in hand.”