Legal Education, Costa Rica and “Pura Vida”

This reading week, I endured the hardship of leaving the warmth of Toronto for Costa Rica, in order to meet with Dean Alfredo Chirino of the Faculty of Law of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and explore future partnerships between UCR and Osgoode. I was joined by York colleagues Professor Martin Bunch, who leads the President Advisory Council on Environmental Sustainability and Professor Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, Director of the Las Nubes Environmental Research Centre in Costa Rica. Given the significant Canadian connections to Costa Rica, and Costa Rica’s leadership within Latin America in areas of human rights and social justice, I believe this collaboration has great potential.
My connections to Costa Rica go beyond law and legal education. I first visited Costa Rica in 1982 when my father moved to San Jose. In short order, my brother and sister both settled there as well, married and raised children with one foot in Costa Rica and one foot in North America. I would travel down for several weeks a year to visit family, explore the country, and practice my Spanish. This small isthmus boasts an amazing diversity of culture and topography, from volcanoes to rain forests, dry grasslands to forest covered hills, and some surprising discoveries (like a small restaurant in a converted house near a volcanic beach on the Atlantic Ocean specializing in “Canadian cuisine”)
During these annual visits, I was impressed with key aspects of the Tico identity – the rejection of an army after 1948 (then entrenched in the country’s Constitution 1949), universal education and health care, the resilience of civil society, the pivotal played by Costa Rica to help end civil wars and military strife in Central America in the 1980s (for which Costa Rica’s then President, Oscar Arias, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987), and a growing commitment to environmental justice (including a regional high of 25% of all land protected through national parks). This is not to say Costa Rican society is without problems, including a history of racism and discrimination towards its northern, Caribbean/Atlantic zone and Indigenous peoples, lingering challenges of sexism and homophobia, and the complicated consequences of its own colonial past.
You cannot go far in Costa Rica without encountering the phrase “Pura Vida” – often translated into “the pure life” or “the good life.” The more Costa Ricans you speak with, however, the more diverse interpretations you come across. For example, some use it to convey the idea that no matter how bad your problems might seem, someone less fortunate would look upon you as lucky. Others take it to convey a focus on simplicity and ensuring one’s life is uncluttered. Still others invoke it simply as a form of “don’t worry, be happy.” I once heard someone say Pura Vida represented the “law of the land.” This is in part why New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff referred to Costa Ricans memorably as the happiest people on earth!
Because of its distinct history, culture and location, Costa Rica has become a centre for the promotion of human rights and civil liberties in the region – indeed, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is located in San Jose, among a wide range of NGOs, Centres and Institutes. The University of Costa Rica Faculty of Law is a vibrant catalyst for this legal community. My hope in cultivating a stronger partnership between Osgoode/York and UCR is to create more opportunities for students and scholars to examine (and enrich) their understanding of law and its role in society through encountering approaches to justice in other systems. I hope Costa Rica has the positive impact on them that it has had for so long on me!