Reflections on Conservation: Costa Rica Part 5

Reflections on Conservation: Costa Rica Part 5

14:15 13 August in General News

Costa Rica is well-regarded as a country that has successfully merged eco-tourism and conservation, a model for other developing countries to follow, and a mecca for tourists seeking exceptional beauty and tropical diversity. As a conservationist and anthropologist, I have spent my professional life trying to understand how to reconcile the needs of people and the needs of the environment. I started my professional career working in African elephant conservation, quickly understanding that conservation was dependent upon people and the communities we live in and create. As a fledgling anthropologist I had an overarching question that I kept returning to – how can we successfully conserve our environment in a world full of people? My husband and I moved our young family to Zambia for me to observe a community-based wildlife conservation program that focused upon distributing the income from the safari industry to local communities as a way to simultaneously support both local development and conservation. 

Monteverde cloud forest

What I found was a complex system of relations, and a program that while it may have shared out some of the benefits of conservation, did not produce adequate resources to overcome the burden of conservation local people had to bear – exclusions from traditional hunting areas, incursions from both wildlife and armed gangs, and lack of roads, infrastructure and markets. Admittedly, the Zambian program was still young, and certainly has changed considerably since I was there, but it did not seem to be providing the “magic bullet” I guess I had hoped to find. Despite this, I still came away with an overwhelming confidence that people and the environment can co-exist in a positive, nurturing relationship. And this belief has shaped how I have approached the last dozen or so years of my professional life – whether working to develop Pittsburgh’s newest regional park on 257 acres of degraded hillside, or supporting people who wish to restore their own futures, and who do so while restoring our shared land, I believe that somehow we can find a formula that works for us all. 

Travelling to Costa Rica, with its well-marketed reputation for doing this well, has reignited my passion to understand if it is possible, in this market economy within which we function, for people and the environment to not only co-exist, but to support each other to thrive. Clearly, the answer is far more complicated than what I can write in a blog, extending to international relations, economic structures, decisions made far from the resources to be conserved or the people who live there, but also extending to the local relationships, politics, culture and history of that specific place. It is also much more nuanced than what I could understand from a 3-day visit to the region, with limited time, access, and language ability. Despite this, I learned a lot, and am deeply appreciative of the time people gave me to help me answer some questions about how eco-tourism/community-based conservation is practiced in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica.

Massive ficus trees are prevalent throughout the cloud forest

Monteverde, located in the northern half of Costa Rica, along the country’s mountainous spine, is a land of cloud forest, where massive ficus trees, ferns, moss, and an incredible diversity of wildlife are found. Cloud forests tend to occur in the saddle of mountains where clouds can settle and maintain a perpetually moist forest, cooler than typical rainforests because of their altitude.  The story of conservation in Monteverde is often painted in the broadest of strokes, beginning in the 1940s with the arrival of the region’s first Quaker settlers who established cattle farms, clearing forests on their own land, while beginning to protect upstream forests and waterways. (And here, recovering academic as I am, I feel compelled to point out that beginning the conservation story with foreign settlers, even if what they did was truly remarkable, is problematic because it ignores what was likely a very long history of land use that would have involved a conservation ethic that predated the settlers’ arrival. It also ignores a parallel conservation effort that was underway at the national level.) At any rate, by the 1970s it seems that the local and national conversations had begun to change, and a growing interest was emerging in Western-style conservation through protected areas combined with tourism. It was at this point that it seems that the Costa Rican government began working to buy large swathes of land from peasant farmers to accumulate land for conservation areas and that areas like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve were born.

Arriving in Monteverde under the thoughtful and generous care and guidance of Lauren Diaz Arias and her colleague Andrea Marín from Nueva Oportunidad was likely the best way to be introduced to the region. One of the conversations they organized for me was with a local man named Don Eladio who had long been involved with conservation in Monteverde. He had started his working career as a dairy hand on a cattle farm, but became involved with the Monteverde Reserve since its founding – marking the limits of the conservation area, building trails, and patrolling and keeping people out of the reserve. As Don Eladio explained it, in the beginning people didn’t understand what a reserve was since their income had come entirely from dairy farming. Conflict arose between farmers and those who were trying to buy their land. It also meant farmers felt deeply conflicted — they often wanted to sell their land, but simultaneously feared their land was being stolen. Often people used the money to go to other areas where dairy farming was easier. According to Don Eladio, it took a long time for people to start understanding about conservation. But ultimately a national conservation organization was formed, and now there is a whole new generation, including him, who are interested in protecting the environment. As the eco-tourist industry began to grow, business-savvy farmers began to let the forest return to portions of their farms so that they could sell night hikes, install zip lines, or otherwise become more integrated into the eco-tourism market. Now, the entire town is somehow involved in tourism, either as land owners, as coffee growers, or as employees to hotels, restaurants or other businesses. 

Precautions are taken to move water off of the surface of the trail.

As eco-tourism began to grow, and local people began to see the economic benefits of conservation-based tourism, the local high school began working on a grassroots effort to turn what had been agricultural land that their students used into a forest reserve, Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena. Santa Elena is a public reserve that has been set up as a way of distributing the benefits of conservation to the local communities. The reserve is 310 hectares and employs 27 people as administrators, educators, guides, laborers, café and visitor shop workers. In 2018 there were 47,000 visitors to the reserve. (Given the huge number of visitors and the constantly wet conditions, here’s a Landforce shout out to both the Santa Elena Reserve and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve for the quality of their trails amidst what must be an onerous maintenance challenge. They definitely deserve the golden shovel!) The staff of the Santa Elena Reserve works closely with local high school students to connect their education to the local forest through bird studies, monitoring wildlife cameras, and scientific studies of the reserve (reminiscent of some of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s local programming efforts). They also have a Board of Directors that is made up of community members charged with distributing any “profit” from the reserve to community projects (the entrance fee for a foreign national is $16.00, for a Costa Rican national it is less, and for local community members it is free). 

So, does this all mean that here is the example I’ve been looking for all my working life? After all, not only are there biologically significant conservation areas being successfully preserved, but farmers who were once cutting down forests are now maintaining and expanding forests on their own properties so they too will benefit from the eco-tourism industry. And, there have been mechanisms established so the local communities can benefit from conservation / tourism activities. Yet, while Monteverde and Santa Elena seem to be truly remarkable examples of the eco-tourism / community-based conservation models, there were a few signs that Monteverde may be hitting some bumps along the road. As Don Eladio pointed out, because so many people left when their land was bought from them, the social fabric of Monteverde and the surrounding communities has been fundamentally altered. They used to be a close-knit community, but when people sold their land and left the area, this changed dramatically. Now crime is on the rise, and there are a lot of people moving in that he doesn’t know. More than one person explained to me that the youth of Monteverde were struggling as their parents had to shift their attention away from their children in order to care for the visiting tourists. There was some discussion about the clash between a more small-scale traditional life and the relatively flashy wealth the tourists brought with them, and how this was affecting youth in particular. There was mention of an increase in youth drug use and even suicide. These are considerable difficulties that were discussed in a handful of meetings I was fortunate enough to have. I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with community members outside of those most closely involved with the conservation efforts to understand whether the community-benefits model was actually working for them or not.

Equal to questions about the social sustainability of this model, it became apparent during our visit that we need to ask about the economic sustainability as well. More people, in the form of tourists, new investors, and employees to fill the tourism needs, means that the stresses on the environment and local economics are significant. Affordable housing is becoming a rarity. Sewage disposal is problematic, and the Monteverde Community Foundation is funding an integrated waste treatment system for the municipality. And, in order to protect downstream waterways, the water company is no longer selling new water rights for new water lines. So, while the local economy has almost completely switched to a tourism-based economy, the region seems to be pushing against the limits of their environmental carrying capacity. 

There are many questions I have leaving Monteverde, including a host of questions about the longer term history of conservation/environmentalism in the region, how the community-based conservation in Santa Elena actually works, whether it has brought more equity to the community or just reinforced existing power relations, and above all, how sustainable is this model of eco-tourism as it exists in Monteverde and the surrounding towns? 

Wet conditions mean that moss grows on surfaces throughout the forest, including bridges.

Yet, there may be an even more powerful issue that Monteverde is facing. In every conversation I had in Monteverde, the issue of climate change was brought up. In fact, according to Johnny, a guide at the Santa Elena Reserve, in the 1970s, there were an average of only 20 days of sunshine in Monteverde, but today there are between 180 and 220 days with some sunshine every year. This doesn’t mean there’s less water, but rather that there are longer dry periods between rains and the area receives more intense and dramatic rain storms, rather than persistently moist conditions as should happen in a cloud forest. (This article explains it well.) The daily variations in air moisture are difficult for species that depend upon consistent moisture to survive. This dramatic shift in local weather, according to Johnny, means there already is no more cloud forest, even though there is now more forested land than there used to be. And conservationists in Monteverde are already seeing the effects of climate change. Bird species have been affected, a local research project has found a massive reduction in quantities of insects in Monteverde, and the golden frog, a species endemic to a 4 km2 area, has already gone extinct. The fundamental type of forest is shifting, and the people who treasure the cloud forest, either for itself or for the tourism industry that has been built around it, are very nervous for what this means both for their environment and for their economy. So it seems that, while the people of Monteverde may have made good progress towards finding a balance between environment and development, decisions and actions that are happening on the global scale will ultimately decide whether people and conservation can actually work together successfully.

This is part five of a multi-part series written by Landforce Executive Director Ilyssa Manspeizer about her reverse exchange with Costa Rican nonprofit Nueva Oportunidad. Be on the lookout for the final blog post about the trip coming soon. 

Funding for the reverse exchange program has been provided by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs via Meridian International Center as the implementing partner.