DIVERSITY AND DEFORESTATION


Its 850 bird species, more than there are in the entire North American continent, make this tiny country a birdwatchers' paradise. Keep your eyes open on a walk through any of Costa Rica's wild places, and you'll see the wonderful ways birds, insects, frogs and reptiles have evolved to protect themselves. Some imitate leaves, flowers, and items of plants; others are indistinguishable from rocks or tree bark. Other animals which are poisonous or taste very bad warn potential predators with their bright coloring (red, blue, metallic green). Some animals hide their brightly colored parts and only display them if attacked. One butterfly's outer wings resemble a dry leaf, but its under wings flash two huge, glinting cat eyes. Several butterflies have a disagreeable taste to birds. Other butterflies which taste good imitate the coloring of the bad-tasting butterflies to gain protection.

Costa Rica abounds in cases of highly specialized interspecies relationships, due to her complex ecosystems. In many cases, both participating species co-evolve by modifying themselves to meet the needs of the other. Many flowers are designed to attract only certain animals which complete their pollination process. Bright colors attract a pollinizing agent with a strong sense of sight, like hummingbirds. If the pollinizing agent has a stronger sense of smell, like flies and some butterflies, the flower will be fragrant. Some of the most fragrant flowers emit their scent only at night. They attract animals with nocturnal habits, like bats. The flower will be shaped to accommodate the part of the body that its pollinizer uses to carry pollen away (beak, wings, feet, etc).

Deforestation

The ecological relationships that are so fascinating to observe in Costa Rica are a lesson for humans in how to live cooperatively with nature, rather than exploiting, exterminating, and controlling, as we are prone to do now. Despite the richness of its forests, Costa Rica takes first place in Latin America for percentage of deforested land. In 1950, 72 percent of Costa Rica was covered in forest. In 1973, it was 49 percent, in 1978, 34 percent, and in 1985, 26 percent. At this rate, Costa Rica 's unprotected forests will be destroyed.

One sees evidence of deforestation constantly. Huge trucks piled with massive tree trunks rumble along the highways from Talamanca, Osa, and Sarapiqui, all areas opened to roads. A flight to Tortuguero will show you the facts a thin border of rich tropical forest lines the shore, and inland, where "nobody" sees, the land is naked. Only a few tall trees remain from the forest that is disappearing every day. Part of the Guanacaste region has become a desert due to four centuries of cattle raising and slash-and-burn agriculture.

According to a study, the reasons for this destruction are the following:

Spontaneous, unplanned expansion of agricultural frontiers, often in response to foreign credit possibilities (in the 1960's millions of dollars in loans were given to Costa Ricans by the US to stimulate beef production); lumbering activity, which often destroys large areas of forest to extract certain profitable (and often endangered) species of trees, leaving the rest to rot; a population that doubled between 1950 and 1970; the concentration of the best agricultural lands into large properties, forcing campesinos to clear and work land on hillsides for subsistence; laws which defined clearing of forest for agriculture as proof that the land was being "improved", a requisite for obtaining land titles; and lack of government ability to enforce deforestation laws.

The cattle raising encouraged by banks during the sixties and subsequent conversion of large tracts of forest to erosion prone pasture have had particularly harmful ecological effects. Raising cattle requires less work and is less labor-intensive than agriculture, but a farmer can make 86 times as much money per acre with coffee, and 284 times as much with bananas. Yet, 23 times the amount of land used to grow coffee and bananas is devoted to cattle. It has been estimated that Costa Rica loses 2.5 tons of topsoil to erosion for every kilo of meat exported. Much of this meat ends up as hamburgers in North American fast-food restaurants.

As a consequence of this deforestation, Costa Rica faces not only erosion, but flooding, long-term hydroelectric shortages, sedimentation in canals and rivers, destruction of beautiful coral reefs from silt, climatic destabilization, loss of forest wildlife and valuable wood resources, loss of genetic reserves of incalculable value, scarcity of drinking water in some areas during the dry season and, of course, loss of natural beauty.

Tripled reforestation efforts, encouraged by government. Most reforestations are directed toward planting fast-growing trees that can be sold in a few years for lumber or firewood. Although this form of reforestation is extremely valid and useful, it is important to understand that rain or cloud forest and the habitats they support cannot be reproduced by simple reforestation. Hundreds of years are needed to regenerate an ecologically viable rain forest. Very little effort is being made to replace the precious hardwoods found in natural rain forest, because investors would have to wait generations to reap the profits.

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