Conservation Programs

Loss of the world's rainforests and the plant and animal species they contain their biodiversity - is occurring at an alarming rate. People and governments are beginning to realize the scope of the problem and to take action. But the problems are long-established and severe, the possible solutions new, tentative, and difficult to introduce and enforce. To paraphrase one scientist who researches conservation strategies: It is difficult enough to change agricultural practices and implement conservation programs in the USA, a relatively rich, educated, technologically advanced, democratic country; imagine how much more difficult it must be for environmentalists in smaller, poorer countries to try to change longstanding agricultural and forestry policies, countries in which business concerns usually hold sway.

By most criteria, Costa Rica has a very good recent environmental record. By pursuing a number of conservation policies, by establishing and protecting parks, and by promoting ecotourism, the country is doing much to preserve its environmental heritage. Costa Rica has a long history of interest in biodiversity conservation, having enacted strict wildlife trade laws about 1970 and, in 1975, being the first Central American signer of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

Costa Rica's system of national parks, initiated during the 1970s and added to regularly ever since, is the country's main effort at conservation. About 25% of the nation's land is included in parks and reserves that protect a healthy variety of ecosystems in diverse regions of the country. This park system is widely regarded as one of the world's finest. One national park , La Amistad (meaning friendship), adjoins a park in Panama , and another international park, adjoining a potential Nicaraguan park to Costa Rica's north, is being considered (the Peace Park).

A host of private conservation organizations based in Costa Rica or elsewhere have active biodiversity research or conservation programs in the country. I will mention just a few. The Neotropica Foundation (Fundacion Neotropica) is Costa Rica 's main nongovernmental, nonprofit conservation group. It buys ecologically important parcels of forested land to save them from imminent development and cooperates with international organizations. For instance, it collaborates with the World Wildlife Fund's Tropical Forestry Program on a forestry project on the Osa Peninsula . The project, named BOSCOSA, works to maintain the natural forests that surround Corcovado National Park by developing forest management and agricultural practices that are both ecologically and culturally suited to the region, and then teaching the practices to the local communities. The Neotropica. Foundation is also collaborating on plans to establish a protected greenway wildlife corridor that will extend from Mexico to Colombia .

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), established almost 40 years ago to protect sea turtles, is also involved in other conservation efforts, such as protecting the forests that surround Tortuguero National Park . INBio, the privately funded biodiversity organization whose purpose is to collect, catalog, and disseminate information on Costa Rica's plant and animal species, has an important role to play in conservation because before conservation plans are made, it is always a good idea to know which species are in a country, and where they occur.

The Organization for Tropical Studies, in addition to fostering basic biological research at its three field stations, is also engaged in research into sustainable agricultural practices. (Sustainable means using plants and animals in ways that are economically profitable. for the local economy yet not ecologically harmful; the use, in other words, will not lead to significant ecosystem damage or to decline in biodiversity.) At its La Selva research station, OTS carries out a project known as TRIALS that has attracted worldwide notice from governments and conservation organizations. The project's purpose is to identify rapidly growing native tree species that might be used for sustainable forestry. Previously, no one really knew which native trees grew fastest and also provided high-quality wood. Researchers at La Selva , by planting and monitoring large plots of land with almost 100 different tree species, eventually will be able to tell local tree producers which species are best to plant for tree farms (for eventual cutting and marketing) and also for reforesting old abandoned pastures. Already, near La Selva , applications of this research are being put into practice.

The TRIALS project brings up the subject of sustainable agriculture. For effective, country-wide conservation, more than a large system of protected parks is necessary. What goes on outside of the parks, how non protected lands are treated, also matters a great deal. For example, consider Costa Rica's main export crop, coffee. These crops can be grown on plantations in environment -damaging or environment-enhancing (green) ways. The traditional coffee crop on Costa Rica 's family farms had low coffee plants growing beneath a canopy of trees (often Erythrina ), which provided shade as well as protective ground mulch. When large corporations went into the coffee business, they increased yields by switching to sun coffee, growing coffee plants alone on large plantations, using fertilizers and pesticides extensively to do for their crop what shade trees used to. Many other growers also produce sun coffee. Unfortunately, monotonous rows of low coffee plants are a poor habitat for animal life, especially birds. The drive to get large companies to produce only shade-grown coffee is concerned with having them add canopy trees to their plantations, thus improving the coffee's taste (as some insist), decreasing the amounts of chemicals needed, and, not incidentally, greatly enhancing the habitat for wildlife use. You might not think that simply planting shade trees above coffee plants would make much of a difference, but it does! It turns out that plantations with trees and under story crop plants provide habitats sufficiently complex to attract abundant wildlife, particularly migratory birds. The incentive for companies to produce shade-grown coffee is that they can advertise it as such and, hence, charge more for it. Many surveys have demonstrated that consumers, both in Costa Rica and in export countries, are willing to pay more for green products such as shade grown coffee.

In addition to coffee, a broad range of Costa Rica's agricultural products can be grown in green ways, and marketed as green, or organic - fruits such as papaya, pineapple, oranges, and blackberries; spices and herbs such as cinnamon, vanilla, and pepper; and vegetables such as lettuce and radishes. Forest products likewise can be harvested in compliance with a green philosophy. One Costa Rican company that emphasizes strict sustainable forestry practices (harvesting specific trees without destroying the forests in which they grow) successfully markets wood products internationally under the trade name Royal Mahogany (actually a tree species in the mahogany family which is very abundant over Costa Rica's northern Caribbean lowlands). Buyers pay a premium price for the wood because they know it was harvested in an environmentally friendly way.

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