New generation of leaders spearheads sustainable vision of Costa Rica

By Kristi Luther and Daniela Vidal 

SAN LUIS, Costa Rica – Standing 1,300 meters above sea level at La Trocha de San Luis, the cliff provides an uncanny view for miles of Costa Rica’s rolling hills, forests and farms. A cool mist blows the hair of mindful tourists that step onto the overlook for a tranquil moment.

Where others see the mere beauty and immensity of a biologically diverse region, Costa Rican Conservation Foundation (CCF) president Evelyn Casares Cespedes sees a project encompassing 66,000 hectares and connecting more than 16,000 people.

The Bellbird Biological Corridor extends from the mountains of Monteverde down to the mangroves of the Gulf of Nicoya. Over 16,000 people live in the area.

The Bellbird Biological Corridor extends from the mountains of Monteverde down to the mangroves of the Gulf of Nicoya. Over 16,000 people live in the area.  Photo by Kristi Luther

The project is the Bellbird Biological Corridor, targeting the region extending from Monteverde to the Gulf of Nicoya. The corridor’s 2007 inception resulted from a think tank of various conservation organizations, including the CCF.

The corridor strives to reach “from the cloud forest to the mangroves.” The Bellbird project uses the endangered bellbird as both a revitalization project and a symbol for the people in more than 10 life zones by creating a common goal of sustainability and preservation.

“Costa Rica sin ambiente no sería Costa Rica,” said Casares, 36. Costa Rica without its environment would not be Costa Rica.

Education is a key element of the foundation’s work, but a lot can get lost in translation between the administrators and the people they hope to reach, Casares said. She was born in San Ramón and said outreach and education about the environment were not common for her as a child, but fortunately her father instilled in her a respect for the earth and everything in it.

This is not the case for all residents of the corridor, however. These educational programs are often more common in forest areas like Monteverde.

Learning from the past

During the peak of deforestation in Costa Rica during the 1980s, a generation of environmental leaders took it upon themselves to be the educators their country lacked. From former foundation president Debra Hamilton at an organizational level to Casares’ father at the grassroots level, these people slowly but effectively reversed some of the devastating effects of deforestation.

“There’s a strong influence from those before us who built the base for us,” Casares said. “Debra Hamilton has worked a lot of years [in the foundation]. She helped me and guided me for 10 years so I could be working now.”

Casares comes from a background in herpetology and received a bachelor’s degree in tropical biology with an emphasis in sustainable development.

Evelyn Casares and Randy Chinchilla speak with fishermen at the Gulf of Nicoya on Tuesday. Both of them work for the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation.

Evelyn Casares and Randy Chinchilla speak with fishermen at the Gulf of Nicoya on Tuesday. Both of them work for the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation. Photo by Kristi Luther

Despite having few resources and funds at times, the foundation takes concrete, small-scale steps in hopes of a larger impact. For example, the foundation has teamed with a local bird foundation to plant trees in an effort to save the bellbird. Although a strategy to be used sparingly, the conservation foundation also has purchased private land from farmers so trees will not be cut down.

The leaders of tomorrow

Organizations like the CCF have helped repair some of the damage from deforestation in the 1970s and ’80s, and now a new generation of leaders like Casares is arriving to the scene with fresh eyes and new goals for the country.

One of the youngest leaders on the scene is Randy Chinchilla Ramos, 25, the new coordinator for the Bellbird Biological Corridor. He will act as the link for all the institutions involved with the corridor’s efforts.

Growing up in Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose, Chinchilla said he received a basic overview of sustainability and resources in his public schooling.

That didn’t hold him back from falling in love with the environment.

“I was always inclined toward the environmental disciplines,” he said. “I would think to myself when I was younger, ‘I don’t want to be behind a desk all the time, working with numbers and I didn’t want anything to do with law.'”

Chinchilla embraces his public school experiences as a learning tool in work with education and the corridor.

“In school they taught us that water is a renewable and endless resource. You could use it indiscriminately,” he said. “Now that dialogue has changed. We now know that water is neither renewable or endless and we need to protect it.”

Accurate environmental education is a change Chinchilla said is vital to achieving the goals of the biological corridor.

“It is with education, at the smallest level, that communities can begin to appreciate their environment and protect their resources,” he said. “I think that from 5 or 6 years old you need to begin to show kids the importance of conserving the environment. That way, we start to form people dedicated to protection and conservation.”

For the people

Chinchilla said getting the sustainability message through to the community in the corridor presents challenges. But he always emphasizes that even the smallest efforts contribute to a larger goal.

This message is most clearly communicated with active leadership.

Randy Chinchilla sits on an overlook at the Bellbird Biological Corridor area, which begins in Monteverde. Chinchilla recently became the coordinator of the corridor.

Randy Chinchilla sits on an overlook at the Bellbird Biological Corridor area, which begins in Monteverde. Chinchilla recently became the coordinator of the corridor. Photo by Kristi Luther

“You have to lead by example, because I can talk a lot and if I don’t do anything, well…” He shrugged his shoulders. “If people, and again, young people, kids, see conservation in constant action, they will see its importance and follow that example.”

In the span of 1,800 meters, there is as much economic and social diversity as there is natural diversity.

This diversity is a nuance leaders like Chinchilla and Casares recognize. Closer to Monteverde and San Luis at the top of the mountain, community organizations prosper — anything from the San Luis community center to educational institutes. But farther down the mountain, this changes rapidly.

“It’s harder for people who live in the flatlands to get together and do activities,” Chinchilla said. “In the mangrove region, you don’t have large areas of forest….The populations there suffer from a lack of resources because of [low] educational and economic levels.”

However, part of the leadership Chinchilla and Casares envision is one that empowers residents regardless of status. Instead of forcing ideas of conservation and sustainability, they try to engage and acknowledge the sometimes strenuous livelihoods of the people they serve.

“We can start to say to them, ‘You have the full right to use those resources, but we’re going to do it in a more adequately ecological way,'” Chinchilla said. “It’s vital to work with [the community] and make them understand that they are the experts because they are the ones living there.”

These environmental leaders are experts in their respective fields. But they realize they must also see themselves as part of the communities they serve.

“It is important to have humility, strong values and a sense of commitment to reach the communities and achieve that ‘click,’ that special connection between the community and the leader who is speaking,” Casares said.

Casares and Chinchilla provide people with sustainable knowledge, giving them the opportunity to truly live a “pura vida” in its most literal sense.

The people have to organize themselves, Chinchilla said.

“That’s the hardest part — convincing people, organizing them,” he said.  “That part takes effort, a lot, a lot, a lot.  But I think we can. We have to. We must. And we will do it.”

He flashed a huge grin.

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