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Common ground for farmers and forests: alarmed by signs of extensive deforestation over the past decades, groups in Costa Rica are developing programs that combine ecological awareness and sustainable agriculture.

With more than 25 percent of its land protected in national parks and private reserves, Costa Rica enjoys an enviable reputation as an ecological paradise. Green-hued travel posters tout cone-shaped volcanoes blanketed by forests, home to a variety of flora and fauna all out of proportion to the diminutive size of this Central American nation. Rare toucans, resplendent quetzals, and scarlet macaws delight bird watchers, while adventure-travel enthusiasts wax lyrical about kayaking mangrove swamps, hiking verdant rain-forest trails, and rafting white-water rivers fringed with tropical foliage. Costa Rica's forests have even spawned a new sport: the ingenious canopy tour, in which participants don rappeling gear to zip through the treetops on cables attached to elevated platforms. From this vantage point, the travel posters have it right: broad vistas of undulating green spread toward the horizon, underscoring the tourism slogan, "All Natural Ingredients."

But a look at the landscape from an even loftier perspective suggests trouble in paradise. NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has compiled nearly thirty years' worth of photographs taken from space, which document the tracts of land covered in forest and the growing settlements, farms, and pasturage that continually chew at their edges. In 1993, student interns from EARTH University (Escuela de Agricultura de la Region del Tropico Humedo), with the support of NASA scientists, began interpreting the images. Last summer the results were released in Costa Rica desde el espacio (Costa Rica from Space), a compendium of 125 photographs published in book form with bilingual text by NASA and EARTH, with the financial support of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and Banco San Jose.

The images, which include aerial and field shots as well as photographs from space, cast doubt on Costa Rica's green image. Whereas forest once covered 99 percent of the country, by 1983 it was down to 17 percent. The photographs show traces of fire along both coasts, and great swaths of pastureland replacing old-growth trees. Forests that once spread from the slopes of the Turrialba Volcano in the Cordillera Central to the flatlands of Tortuguero on the east coast have disappeared.

NASA astronauts, including Costa Rica's own Franklin Chang-Diaz, presented the book at press conferences and other public gatherings last summer. Newspaper editorials warned of dire consequences if the trend continued, one going so far as to predict that if San Jose and the surrounding Central Valley are transformed into a megalopolis, "within twenty-five years we would go from the `Switzerland of Central America' to the `Calcutta of the Caribbean'."

The loss of forest lands could decimate the carefully nurtured tourism industry, which has surpassed coffee and bananas as Costa Rica's number-one income earner. But reasons for concern go far beyond the loss of tourism revenue. Forest environments prove their worth in more ways than maintaining habitat for ecotourists or even for the wildlife that dwindles as forests become fragmented.

On a global level, tropical rain forests absorb excess atmospheric carbon, thereby reducing global warming. Locally, even the simple act of providing shade helps to regulate temperatures and safeguard organisms that affect plant and animal life all along the food chain. Moreover, trees and their root systems anchor the soil, keeping erosion in check.

One compelling reason for preserving the rain forest stems from our ignorance about the extent of its resources. In Costa Rica, where 0.035 percent of the earth's surface supports 5 percent of the world's biodiversity, the next medical breakthrough or nutritional supplement may be awaiting discovery among the endemic plants and organisms of a little-understood ecosystem.

Some of the most serious damage comes from commercial logging and roads cut into the forest. The heavy equipment that accompanies logging erodes the soil and suffocates streambeds, killing fish and the animals that feed on them. Roads establish new channels for runoff, thereby altering drainage patterns and aggravating erosion.

In Costa Rica, however, forest loss stems less from commercial logging than from people simply clearing land for farms and pasturage as a source of livelihood. "The possibility to own small farms has been something available in Costa Rica for quite a while," says agroecologist Dr. Stephen Gliessman, who has studied farming systems in Costa Rica for the past thirty years. "It's different from other Central American countries in which much less land is available to small farmers."

But even when the trees disappear as a result of farmers clearing land for cultivation, the resulting erosion and water contamination contribute to environmental degradation. Especially in the tropics, with its torrential rains, deforestation triggers far-reaching consequences. Agroecologist Dr. Reinhold Muschler cites the cropland on the shoulders of the Irazu Volcano as an example.

"We have very steep hills worked in ways that keep them completely denuded at times," he says. "So the rain washes tons of fertile topsoil away, and it's irreversibly gone. This is one of the main problems linked to deforestation. With the loss of forest cover or a permanent ground cover you have this exposure of the soil, and with that you have tremendous erosion, leaving that landscape denuded and causing problems downstream."

Among the problems caused by deforestation, explains Muschler, are siltation in hydroelectric power plants and in marine coastal areas. In Cahuita National Park, for example, clay particles in the eroded material change the composition of the water. This in turn changes the way the water transmits light, and therefore the coral reef suffers. Says Muschler, "We have seen serious negative effects in many marine environments that are due to deforestation in the hinterlands, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away."

The good news is that even as rural poverty and the demand for farmland push more people into the forest, concepts of ecology and sustainable agriculture have emerged that promise benefits for both farmers and forests. One group that espouses a holistic approach to conservation and rural development is the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza--CATIE) on the outskirts of Turrialba.

CATIE grew out of an earlier organization established in 1942 to conduct research and train personnel in tropical agriculture. The center began by building collections of coffee, cocoa, and fruit trees, followed by other crops and forest species. Today the twenty-five-hundred-acre campus contains more than three hundred species of trees and crops, distributed among fields, forests, swamps, and lake. The diversity of its ecological niches attracts some 200 of the 850 bird species in Costa Rica, plus numerous migrant birds.

Another organization that educates scientists regarding conservation issues in tropical regions is the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). A consortium of fifty-six universities from the U.S. and Central America operating at three Costa Rican field stations, OTS also embraces a philosophy of reaching out to surrounding communities.

But when Stephen Gliessman first studied tropical biology and ecology at OTS as a graduate student in the early 1970s, he encountered a paradox. "I was thinking about how ecology tells us a lot about how nature works," says Gliessman. "I was confounded by the fact that it didn't look to me like agriculture was using the same knowledge. People were clearing forests and farming for a short period of time, then having to abandon their farms and clear more forest. It just didn't seem like that should be happening--there ought to be a way to apply ecology to agriculture so that agriculture could stay permanently on a cleared piece of land and not continually move into the forest to find more after what they cleared had degraded."

After earning his Ph.D., Gliessman went to work for a small private farm in southern Costa Rica, applying his knowledge of ecology to help make Finca Loma Linda work as a sustainable farm and ecosystem. Gliessman presented the results of his research at the First International Congress of Ecology in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1974. The author of Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture, he later organized the agroecology course for OTS and started the Agroecology Program in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Last summer Gliessman joined Reinhold Muschler of CATIE to coordinate the International Course on Tropical Agroecology and Agroforestry, the first time the course had been offered in Spanish and in Latin America. Twenty-six researchers--agronomists and agroforestry specialists from universities, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations in twelve countries--came together at the CATIE campus to enhance their knowledge of agroecological principles and to explore ways of helping farmers move toward environmentally friendly farming practices.

Participants in the CATIE course also shared their own innovations, describing coffee-tasting rooms in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, micro-credit programs in Huatusco, Veracruz, Mexico, and a homestay internship program for college students at Costa Rica's Finca Loma Linda that offers learning experiences for both farmers and students.

Juan Jose Jimenez Osorio and Rosana Gutierrez Jimenez, from Yucatan, described a one-year training program in Mani in which young Maya farmers learn about Maya history along with sustainable farming practices. "The school is unique," says Roberta Jaffe, Gliessman's partner and a science educator who applies her skills to supporting sustainable communities. "Young farmers, usually eighteen to twenty-five years old, come from the surrounding pueblos to learn how to enhance their farming practices, and they are taught about basic Maya history." Jaffe expressed surprise that these farmers would need such instruction, inasmuch as they were living the culture. "But," she was told, "most of them don't have an education beyond primary grades. Many of them have never even been to the nearby pyramids."

It was the school in Mani, Escuela de Agricultura Ecologica, that inspired Gliessman and Jaffe to start a networking group from among the researchers present at CATIE last summer. They call it "CAN," for Community Agroecology Network. "These groups were working in isolation," says Jaffe. "We saw that they could benefit tremendously from learning from each other."

Many of the researchers at CATIE reported that as they spread the gospel of sustainable agriculture, a common response from farmers was, "That's the way my grandparents used to farm." For centuries, indigenous farmers and forest dwellers had intuitively followed sounder ecological principles than the mechanized methods that came into vogue in the 1960s.

According to Muschler, the traditional combination of maize, beans, and squash is an example of crops that complement one another. The beans convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form of nitrogen fertilizer that is useful to the plants and enriches the soil. The corn produces a crop, and once it is harvested the stalks can be used as climbing poles for the beans. The squash provides additional soil cover and produces a nutritious vegetable.

"This is a traditional system that is not a monoculture," says Muschler. "This is an intermediate step of polycultures. As you go toward further complicated systems you end up with systems that have annual crops and some perennial crops--like maybe some fruit trees or bushes of different kinds--and ultimately you will have some timber species and maybe other tree species that provide a series of ecological functions."

He lists as examples of those functions microclimate improvement, reduction of wind, and balancing of the water availability in a watershed. That's why there's such a big difference between a forested watershed and a deforested watershed, says Muschler: "It's the presence of the trees and their deep roots that helps sustain the soil and helps the rainwater to infiltrate into the soil and to be retained in the soil." Organic matter from dead leaves and plant roots functions as a sponge in retaining the water. At the same time, certain trees can help to fertilize the crops by converting the nitrogen in the atmosphere to a form that nourishes the plants.

The vaunted "Green Revolution" of the 1960s, however, focused on increasing crop yields without concern for environmental or health problems. Massive applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides depleted soil fertility and contaminated water, while single crops reduced genetic diversity. Far from today's understanding of "green," the revolution led to an industrial and technological approach to agriculture.

"The Green Revolution with its overemphasis on high yields undermines all of our understanding of applying ecology to agriculture," says Gliessman. "Technology did increase yields, but it created imbalances in other areas. Agroecology gives us a framework for understanding not just the ecology, but how we connect to the health and viability of the communities in which people live."

Although agroecology applies to crops in general, the topic that kept coming up at CATIE was the global coffee crisis. A glut on the world market has caused a steep drop in prices, so that the grower now earns only 5 percent of the retail market value--or less than production costs. Coffee, an important crop in other Central American economies, is Costa Rica's largest export. One out of four agricultural workers derives a livelihood from coffee growing, and 75 percent come from small farms. "They're at the stage where they're pulling out plants," says Jaffe. Worse yet, some workers and small farmers have been forced off their land and into urban centers.

For those growers affiliated with CATIE, the center has set a minimum fair price paid directly to the farmers, who receive training in farm diversification with native trees, soil conservation, and biological pest and disease management.

As coffee connoisseurs have learned, shade-grown, organic berries produce a better quality coffee than berries exposed to the sun. Several coffee companies that promote shade-grown coffee subscribe to fair-trade practices as well, in which coffee farmers receive a fair share of profits regardless of world price fluctuations. The problem is that so far, in the United States, only two-tenths of 1 percent (0.2 percent) of the coffee sold is fair-trade coffee.

The solution, some believe, lies in paying farmers for the environmental services they provide. Muschler offers the example of members of a village at the bottom of a hill paying fees for the drinking water and irrigation water that's dependent on the watershed farther uphill. Payment would go to those farmers who maintain their land intact in such a way that it can provide the hydrological services of a forest.

Muschler wants to make every consumer of water aware that water comes ultimately from a spring. In addition, everybody who turns on a television should understand that "hydroelectric power (in Costa Rica we have 90 percent of electricity from hydropower) can only function as long as the dam is intact and the lake that feeds the turbine is not subject to siltation from all the soil that is eroded on the hillsides around it."

"We're talking about forest structure and the services a forest can provide in terms of protecting the soil, producing water, tying up carbon dioxide, and protecting biodiversity," says Gliessman. "The bosque de cafe [coffee forest] can do a lot of things a forest does, yet provide a livelihood for the farmers who manage it. When farmers sell their coffee they ought to be able to get a different price based on coffee from a system that protects natural resources, keeps people on the land, reduces the need to cut down any more forest, and maybe even opens up those forests for a certain degree of reforestation."

That's precisely the idea behind a program started two years ago at Finca Loma Linda. Speaking for the farmers in four cooperatives that have banded together as Programa Pueblos, Darryl Cole-Christensen, who owns Loma Linda, puts it this way: "Treat us fairly in your purchase of our coffee, and we will manage more competently your environment and ours." But despite the high quality of their coffee, the farmers of Programa Pueblos are struggling economically.

The missing link, says Cole-Christensen, is a marketing organization in the U.S. Programa Pueblos has enlisted former student interns to help with direct marketing, as well as faculty, family members, and friends. "From month to month the number of people involved in this marketing structure is increasing," says Cole-Christensen.

Jaffe sees CAN, too, as a way of cutting out some of the middle-man profits and "taking back the concept of global village--where global village has been co-opted by multinational businesses--but maybe we can make global village a way of connecting consumer and producer to the benefit of both."

Programa Pueblos is currently building a community center where interns work with families on community and environmental policy. The interns have launched a market study to enable farm families to earn income through diversified, small-scale produce production. They plan to welcome visitors to demonstration plots to showcase pilot research projects that can later be extended to co-op members' farms. Cole-Christensen envisions creating links between producers and consumers by way of a network of e-mail communication and video and multimedia. The hope is to extend "reforestation of our watersheds and the high summits of our mountains to an entire region of Costa Rica." Ultimately, says Cole-Christensen, "we are creating a model that demonstrates how lesser developed areas of the world can achieve economic stability and well-being while also maintaining environmental integrity."

Even now, Muschler sees reason for optimism: "While some ten or fifteen years ago the prognosis for the forest cover of Costa Rica was rather negative and there was a series of satellite images and aerial photographs showing rampant deforestation, over the past five or six years there has been a lot of effort to reforest. I think we are through that trough of deforestation. We have seen a reverse trend, and now Costa Rica has more forest cover than ten years ago."

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a California-based travel writer and frequent contributor to Americas. Aerial and space photographs are from Costa Rica from Space and appear courtesy of Heliconia Press, San Jose, Costa Rica. Readers interested in further information on agroecology in the tropics should refer to the website
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:2COST
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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