Conservation focuses on reforestation of farmland in Bellbird Biological Corridor
By Courtney McBay
SAN LUIS, Costa Rica — Viewed from the Trocha lookout over San Luis, rolling hills once covered by thick forest now have random patches cleared for pasture. Cows for beef and dairy now graze where monkeys once swung from tall trees while brightly colored birds sang.
Farmland took over the wild landscape before ecotourism became the primary economic activity in the Monteverde area. Agriculture was the key to mountainside Ticos’ success.
Now, as guests flock to hike through Monteverde’s natural attractions, the community’s focus has shifted to preserving forests rather than producing food.
Guillermo Vargas, a farmer in the area, focuses his operation on sustainable agriculture. His farming decisions are based on planning for the long term.
“People enjoying life now, not economy, is the number one goal,” Vargas said. “We need to be preparing for 1,000 years from now.”
The first Ticos came to the forest areas in the early 20th century as Costa Rica’s coffee industry began to suffer, he said.
“They needed a new avenue,” he said.
Vargas said the “Great Grandpa Ticos” were told to go to the forest, cut the trees and farm. The government promised the farmers titles to their land after they had farmed it for 10 years.
The introduction of chemical fertilizers and herbicides along with strains of resilient pasture grass contributed to the widespread deforestation that took place prior to the tourism boom in the late 1980s.
Marcos Mendez, a nature guide, said agricultural technology assists in farm success.
But despite “cows loving it,” these innovations are “the number one enemy of environment and conservation,” Mendez said.
Mendez has guided visitors through the dense Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve for 10 years, pointing out colorful plants and identifying whistling bird calls. He calls on memories of lost endemic species, such as the extinct golden toad. He said he doesn’t know of another cloud forest guide who has seen the fiery throated hummingbird, a creature that formerly fluttered about the forest freely, in eight years.
Mendez is not a scientist, but based on his forest observations, he attributes the loss of species to climate change and deforestation.
Anibal Torres of the Monteverde Institute leads the organization’s Sustainable Futures Program. The ecotourism boom has reversed some of the deforestation caused by agriculture, he said.
Torres said education outreach initiatives equip farmers with the knowledge to “make better use of the land.”
But conversations about reforestation can be difficult in Monteverde’s neighboring towns, where most economic activity still thrives on agriculture.
Even with education emphasizing the importance of forest preservation, many farmers are faced with the choice to feed their families now or to conserve their forest for the future.
“There is no conservation for the hungry,” said Victorino Molina Rojas, founder of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation.
The foundation joined forces with six other conservation-minded organizations to form the Bellbird Biological Corridor in 2007. The project advocates for reforestation in at least 10 life zones extending from Monteverde to the Gulf of Nicoya.
FCC president Evelyn Casares Cespedes said convincing farmers to plant trees on their land is never easy.
“It is always a fight,” Casares said through a translator.
Although the government gives incentives for planting trees on deforested land —$600 per hectare over five years – it is simply not enough to live for most farmers.
“They can cut down three trees and make as much as that payment,” Casares said.
Casares and her fellow Fighters for the Forest are convinced the conservation conversation must be a compromise with farmers.
Reforestation is a cooperative effort for the communities in the biological corridor.
The Monteverde Institute and the conservation foundation plan to continue collaboration with farmers to ensure sustainable futures for both farms and forests.