The Construct of Costa Rican Conservation

By Thomas Friestad

Citizen Conservation Efforts

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Streams and trees and soil…oh my! These are just a few of the many environmental items Debra Hamilton must oversee as executive director of the Monteverde Institute. Through her daily work and that of other institute workers, MVI has played a crucial role in Costa Rica’s citizen conservation efforts.

“We’re doing well up here, as evidenced by the number of top predators like pumas and jaguars you can see,” said Hamilton, who also oversees the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation. “That’s great from a biological standpoint, because it means that the rest of the system is okay. Considering conservation was started by just kind of being thrown in with two different cultures, that’s amazing.”

In recent interviews, Hamilton and other experts described a broad array of Costa Rican citizen scenes, the act of locals taking the country’s conservation into their own hands. This can occur via smaller, individual efforts or larger, coordinated conservation programs.

One citizen conservation program in the area is “Adopt a Stream,” which ties into local science education in schools such as the Monteverde Friends School. Through the program, students travel to local streams to conduct various measurements they have learned in class, such as pH, current speed and water pollutants.

Students take their data back to the classroom and assemble it into graphs, which local researchers can then use to fuel future studies. Liam Hamilton, 16, said he and his classmates look forward to “Adopt a Stream” outings because they enjoy getting out of the classroom and experiencing conservation science hands-on.

“Everyone gets really excited because it’s something they all like and have fun doing,” Liam said. “When students are involved with something that can be taken seriously, it’s really good, and doing it from a young age can show you the importance of the science.”

“I now have a huge list of things I want to do in the environment.”

University of Pennsylvania researcher Winnie Hallwachs, who works in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste, said that, in addition to school programs, technology has also played a role in introducing conservation to a new generation. Though she said she recognizes that citizen conservation may not have a grand immediate impact, introducing conservation to children from an early age can create a significant long-term impact.

“The present generation, the ones you hear about who make decisions, have grown up divorced from the real forests,” Hallwachs said. “However, in part because of devices like iPhones, little kids are growing up much more aware of what is going on. A lot of young Costa Ricans who seem to have fallen in love with conservation get a good camera, go out to where the good pictures are, and become exposed to nature.

“We see different responses at different ages, and childhood is the best time to imprint in their minds the power of conservation. They’re open, impressionable and this will play a role for them for the rest of their lives.”

Meyer Guevara, a research supervisor at MVI, said it is important to allow ordinary citizens to participate in scientists’ conservation activities where they can, rather than restricting participation solely to experts. He cited this as a factor behind the success of “Adopt a Stream,” which has existed for many years both in Costa Rica and other countries.

“The Institute has always tried to have involvement at local stream sites, but it doesn’t really matter who is in charge of collecting the data,” Guevara said. “If we involve students, then they’ll grow up and become stakeholders who can work with all citizens locally to solve problems.

“If you know how to solve, you can do anything.”

Another key solution Costa Rican citizens have found for local conservation takes place deep within the Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde. Naturalist guide Esteban Mendez Vargas said 97 percent of the park, an area of 40.5 square miles, is off-limits to tourists. Limits become a different story, however, when volunteers enter the picture.

“Local volunteers and sometimes volunteers from universities from the U.S. and Canada come to the reserve, and we’ll take them inside the closed-off zone to plant trees,” Mendez said. “They plant trees that are endangered species, like avocado and oak trees, and they also do research on plants, insects and the impact of global warming in the cloud forest.”

Mendez said this brand of citizen conservation has had a noticeable impact in the cloud forest over the past few decades.

“You see way more wildlife and trees now than you would 20 years ago, so there’s definitely been an impact,” he said.

Biologist Nat Scrimshaw, former MVI executive director, cited the Pacific Slope Trail as yet another example of the effective work citizens can deliver where conservation is concerned.

“The trail functions as an outdoor classroom for volunteers who are working to connect the mangroves and the cloud forest,” Scrimshaw said. “We’re developing a network of connected communities, and it’s a project for the people, not just for tourism.

“We’re creating a road to bring together conservation in these forests, rather than sealing them off.”

Government Conservation Efforts

During many of his workdays as Operations Manager of Hacienda La Pacifica, Davis Marshall will take a leisurely drive through his property’s forests to check on its rice fields and tilapia ponds. These numerous trees across the 6,550-acre property may have been chopped down for profit, had it not been for Oxygen for the Country, a government conservation program in which Marshall and his company participate.

“By keeping the larger trees and not cutting them, we can use them for anything else, especially air,” Marshall said. “We would make a lot more money if they were cut, so what we do with the government is that they pay us to keep the trees up and alive, and to preserve them. This government program works alongside a little tree-planting volunteer group called Mano Verde [Green Hand], and we try to bring more people into caring and being part of the solution.”

Javier Perez Chavez has worked as a tour guide at Rincón de La Vieja National Park for the past four years through his company Costa Rican Northwest Tours. In the process, he has begun to observe a government conservation effort undertaken in an effort to make the park more accessible to tourists.

“There’s a new trail renovation going on in the park right now, which is the first time something like this is happening from the government,” said Perez, pointing to a fenced-off section of park. “The trail will be wider so that people in wheelchairs can access the park, and there will also be gravel put down. It looks bad at the moment, but in the next six or seven months, it’s going to be nice and healthy for the forest.”

Perez said that the park’s trail renovation was a decision that came down from the Costa Rican government, but not Costa Rican citizens, though he said most do not mind the construction.

Biologist Dan Janzen, who is famous for having studied conservation and evolutionary ecology for the past 55 years, has decidedly mixed opinions on government conservation efforts in Costa Rica.

“This is a nation of businessmen,” Janzen said. “That’s part of why conservation works so well here. Tourism as an industry is worth multiple other industries all combined…it’s worth $2.5 billion and one-quarter of the national budget. If you take away our great parks, people won’t come here anymore, and Costa Rica is acutely aware of that from the top down. The government conservation that happens here is not because of some philosophical love of nature.”

Janzen recalls an instance where he attended a San Jose meeting during which cattle ranches, which comprised 49 percent of Costa Rican land at their peak, were up for some other use after the industry collapsed. Three hundred prominent cattle ranchers attended, Janzen said, along with many government officials.

“I’m sitting up on the podium and worrying that the cattle culture is resistant to doing something else conservation-related with their pastures, when the Minister of Agriculture stands up in the back,” Janzen said. “He says, ‘Dan, tell us what we can do for better profit with this land and we’ll do it.’ That’s why it seems easy to do conservation here, but unlike the U.S., where people in government care about a park like Yellowstone as a thing, we focus on dollar bills.”

Janzen said he worries that Costa Rican conservation may suffer if anything occurs to persuade the government it is not in its best financial interest. He does, however, believe that limited conservation efforts that do not fix all the damage in national parks is better in the long run than no efforts and severe damage.

Although Marshall appreciates the work the Costa Rican government has done with Hacienda La Pacifica, he sees room for improvement with regard to punctuality and magnitude of involvement.

“The government tries to do something, and we appreciate that, but I think they have to do a lot more,” Marshall said. “Sometimes, they delay with their payments and that has made some other companies and farms decide not to take part in mutual programs. They depend on this money, and when they don’t get paid, they just start cutting down trees.”

Like Janzen, Marshall said he sees a counterintuitive conservation philosophy within the government, and tries to compensate by going above and beyond federal conservation agreements with his company.

“Costa Rica has a double message: on one hand, they want more development and on the other, they want to have a green country,” Marshall said. “This can be possible as long as you create real regulations people need to follow, to both develop and conserve, but I think in some areas, we’re slanted toward either end. On our end, we continue to try to have more than our agreement in our conservation philosophy and our way of management.”

Perez said a key way to improve government conservation efficiency moving forward is to continue environmental education programs for youth who could, eventually, become part of that government.

“They have programs that involve about 16 villages and 2,000 kids around Area de Conservación Guanacaste, and every month, the teachers from the conservation area go to the schools and bring the kids to the ACG and teach them what goes on there,” Perez said. “Those kids could be part of Congress, could become presidents or directors of the institute, and since they already have that base of environmental education, it will be better for everybody.”

Perez cited this long-term impact as a reason citizen and government conservation tactics complement each other nicely: the government’s larger scale conservation actions can provide solutions to problems more quickly than citizens’ smaller ones, while citizens can gradually gain more influence within the government to improve its efficiency over time.

“In 10 or 15 years, it will be awesome,” Perez said. “All of the young people will be doing their part, which is probably nurturing the environment and not trashing the roads or putting things in the river, things like that. Eventually it will turn into exactly the kind of conservation we need in the country, and the system will be better as a result.”

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