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Saturday, 14 February 2015

MA SLM Student Field Experience: Abhay Mepparambil

As someone who is interested in agro-tourism and community planning, I decided to do my internship on The Heart of Gold Community Development Project. It began in May, lasted for one month, and was located in Costa Rica in the region of Los Santos. The project began 11 years ago, and has grown through 3 different phases. It began in 2004, initially focusing on developing small scale farming, but later it developed into an agro and eco-tourism product, aspiring to diversify the local economy of the participating communities. This project is a partnership between the Farm and Agro-tourism association of Los Santos (FAALS) co-operative in Costa Rica and Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Canada.
In the last four years, the FAALS association has focused on developing an eco-trail tour throughout five different communities.  For my research, I along with eight other students had the opportunity to take part in a 10 day pilot tour to experience the different aspects of the tour.

Even though FAALS are only an hour away from the capital, San Jose, they are still rural, underdeveloped communities. They have retained their own culture and identities which are all very unique. The project itself helps in empowering the community by giving them the knowledge on how to develop agriculture and tourism together. As a support system for the project, our work was not to come in as the experts and tell them what to do, rather to empower the members of the community to use their own knowledge and execute it themselves. In developing a tourism product, the intention is to help generate extra income and to diversify their economy. The project aims to be small-scale, keeping these communities focused primarily on agricultural activities, as that is what they do best. This internship helped me in communicating with the members and learning about the project first hand. Being a part of community development, was and eye opening experience as it showed me the difference in cultures between India, Canada, and Costa Rica. It helped me in understanding what the people of this community actually need, and what I could provide in order to help them with developing tourism and getting tour groups into the communities.

My experiences working with these members of the communities has been fruitful. The members and families of FAALS were very welcoming and the trust that has been built through the various relationships they have had with the students over the years, can be seen when they welcome each new group with open arms into their homes. Through this internship I developed an understanding in what the communities need. It helped me in choosing my thesis topic which is developing a manual for these members of FAALS association. This will help them set a level of standards in developing tourism products for the community. I do believe from the recommendations I put forth, this manual will help them standardize the products in tourism to further encourage future tour groups to have a very pleasant and comfortable experience.

By being in the field, I was able to get a first-hand experience of what is happening in the communities, helping me to get a clear image of the project. Theoretical knowledge just helps us in understanding one side of the story, but combined with practical knowledge, one can understand the complete story. For me, it was very important that I chose my internship carefully and made sure it was something I was passionate about, to ensure I enjoyed the work that I was doing.

 -- Abhay Mepparambil

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