Each August 2, more than two million of Costa Rica’s faithful begin their journey to visit the Basilica of La Virgen de los Angeles, the nation’s patron saint, at her home in the Cathedral of Cartago. Pilgrims begin their journey from many places throughout the country—some even walking for days to reach their destination.
The pilgrimage has taken place for decades. The romeros (pilgrims) know well the story of the saint they honor today: in 1635, a peasant girl found the Virgin’s small statue on a rock in Cartago, where the cathedral now stands. It miraculously reappeared at the rock numerous times after she had taken it home and even after church clergy had safeguarded it. In 1824, she was declared the nation’s patron saint. Today, pilgrims can visit her shrine of sparkling jewels on the Cathedral’s principal platform.
Through their journey, pilgrims seek to show the Virgin their spirit of gratitude, make requests, or to repay her for a favor she has done them. In this way, Costa Ricans demonstrate their great respect, devotion and love for her.
The image of this sacred tradition has been somewhat tarnished in recent years as it had left behind mountains of garbage in its wake along the roadside. So, in 2011, EARTH University, together with the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications decided to change that. To do so, they developed a public education program during the Romería to teach citizens how to properly dispose of waste. Thus the EcoRomería was born.
The results? The message reached more than three million people in a country of about four-and-a-half million inhabitants. In turn, raising people’s consciousness and giving them an opportunity to recycle correctly translated into a 96% reduction in waste: from more than 84 tons of litter to just over one ton.
With the support of the Catholic Church, municipalities, non-governmental organizations and private businesses, the second EcoRomería will take place this week. It will begin in the municipality of Curridabat on August 1; from there pilgrims will find 70 recycling bins along the 10 miles to the Basilica. An estimated two thousand volunteers will also guide them in managing their waste properly.
Additionally, at Tres Ríos Park, pilgrims will find a traditional rest stop that also serves as an educational demonstration center for sustainable environmental practices.
In the past several weeks, EARTH and its partners have implemented an educational public relations and advertising campaign on the Internet, radio, television and in newspapers reminding pilgrims to keep the vow they made last year to care for the environment.
In the city of Cartago, communities have especially appreciated the campaign’s success. At a recent press conference, Mayor Rolando Rodríguez remembers how the streets used to be filled with garbage. He now celebrates how the picture has changed: “We’re very proud to say this campaign really did have positive effects.” The streets are clean now after the EcoRomería, and the funds raised from recycling the waste have been invested in school environmental education programs for children.
In the municipality of La Unión (another town along the route), too, the streets are cleaner, and the proceeds from recycled materials have similarly contributed to an environmental awareness campaign.
Yet the campaign’s benefits reach beyond the communities along the pilgrims’ route—its organizers embrace it as an opportunity to teach the whole country to live more ecologically. Indeed, Ms. Ana Lorena Guevara, Vice Minister of the Ministry of the Environment, Education and Telecommunications believes the EcoRomería is a meaningful way to help the nation toward its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2021.
As EARTH president Dr. José Zaglul explains, “It’s a campaign of peace with our resources and with ourselves… We need more peace, harmony and respect. We need more love for each other to build a better country…. With this year’s campaign, we hope to have the same success as 2011—or more.”
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