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Ecotourism comes to the rescue of Costa Rica’s people

Howler monkeys woke us. Their voices resounded like maniacal dogs. These loud, gentle primates use their yells to define territory and avoid conflicts. “Good morning to you too,” my partner and travel buddy Kate laughed. The Monkey Howls at Dawn would be a great name for a film noir set in the Tropics.”

Yesterday, a bus from Alajuela brought us through heavily forested volcanic valley and towns of adobe houses painted orange, gold, and lavender. Vendors walked up and down the aisles, selling Cokes, pork rinds, and fruit we couldn’t name. We left the bus in the small mountain town of Bijuagua, and took a taxi to Donald Varela Soto and Pip Kelly’s farm.

Today, we ate breakfast in Casitas Tenorio’s outdoor visitor center. Small flocks of lime green parakeets circled the farm calling “Fweep?” Montezuma orioles answered them with songs like water drops ascending a scale. Clouds and morning fog slid around the twin volcanoes, Volcan Tenorio and Volcan Miravelles. Our traditional breakfast included huevos con Gallo Pinto (eggs with sweet and spicy beans and rice), slices of watermelon, papaya, and pineapple, guanabana juice, and strong Costa Rican coffee.

‘There are jaguars near Volcan Tenorio,” Donald said as he refilled our coffee cups. “We own property near there, and a big cat killed one of our colts last week. It’s good news for them that their population is strong around here.”

“Not good for your horses though,” Kate quipped. Donald laughed, and filled his own cup. We had to finish our meal and tour the farm before the next storm began.

We love Costa Rica. The beauties of its forests and coasts are as immeasurable as its people’s generosity. The absence of a military allows the society to invest in education and social programs. Still, many travelers see only the upbeat sides, and don’t realize it is also a land of deforestation, poverty, and conflicts between development projects and traditional people.

Costa Rican frog

Costa Rica’s hidden problems

Agriculture has been one of Costa Rica’s main economic activities since the 1600s. Settlers mainly farmed on the country’s central plateau. Soil depletion and other factors influenced these people to move towards undeveloped areas.

The coffee industry connected Costa Rica with the world economy in the 1800s and early 1900s. This development also led to consolidation of agricultural land in fewer hands, mainly on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

United Fruit became a powerful landholder there in the 1930s and 40s. Sugar and cacao became major exports, followed by beef in the 1960s. Industrial agricultural practices led to 17% of Costa Rica’s land being eroded or degraded by 1987. Forests once covered 99.8% of Costa Rica; this figure declined to 31% by 1981.

Production of monoculture crops remains the rule. Pineapple plantations dominate much of the Caribbean Coast, while palm oil is a major crop on the Pacific Coast. Palm oil production began in the mid-1950s in an effort to diversify United Fruit’s holdings. It later expanded when the banana industry suffered blight. Palm oil is used in products such as margarine and cooking oils, cosmetics, soaps, and shampoos. It is also considered an important ingredient in biofuels. Palm oil interests have been implicated in deforestation, and in child and international migrant labor issues,

Pineapple production provides 135,000 Costa Ricans with jobs, but communities were contaminated with traces of the herbicide bromacil, which the U.S. EPA considers a carcinogen. Some plantations use paraquat, which is considered carcinogenic and banned in Europe, to clear old pineapple stalks.

Costa Rica began to emphasize the tourist industry in the 1970s. Biologists say that 4-5% of the world’s species live here. The ecotourism industry is noted as providing Costa Ricans with sustainable employment, and tourists with chances to directly experience tropical nature.

Ecotourism projects began as small scale, locally based lodges, but the number of visitors has increased. A US State Department memo noted written in 2001 noted that it was growing at a rate of 6% annually. Costa Rica does not have the resources necessary to create the infrastructure needed for large scale development, and increasingly allows foreign developers build mega projects.

The Indes Mundi lists Costa Rica’s national debt as $10.5 billion dollars in 2011; this factor encourages the government to promote foreign investment in tourism. The government passed the Tourist Development Incentive Law in i985. This legislation provides tax breaks to corporations that develop the tourist infrastructure. These facilities need to include hotels with at least 20 rooms and imposes strict limits on facilities. This law makes it difficult for local people to participate in tourism.

An international airport in Liberia in the Guanacaste Region, on the Pacific Coast, has contributed to mega development there. All-inclusive resorts have caused decreases in native flora and fauna. Privatization of beaches has impacted on local communities, along with competition for electricity and water. While Costa Ricans working in hotels receive higher salaries than they tend to receive in other sectors, chances for advancement are scarce. Management positions usually go to foreigners

Donald commented, “In Tamarindo, everything is foreign owned, including soda stands and window washing businesses.” While some resorts donate to schools, murals, and other social projects, they take large amounts of money out of the country, where the Index Mundi estimates the poverty rate as 24.2% in 2010.


Can local projects help?

We wondered about solutions to these problems as we walked down a steep, rocky road towards Bijuagua. Pure white butterflies danced with chocolate brown ones. Small brown and yellow birds called “Kiskadee!” from electric wires. Dogs ran out of tidy gardens to bark shrilly while cicadas rumbled like tambourines.

The small town stretched along a paved road, and included an internet café, a secondary school, several hotels, produce markets, and a barber shop called “The Modern Haircut”. We browsed a women’s collective craft store that sold colorful earrings made from soda can rings and bottle caps. I bought a cap adorned with a painting of the local waterfall. Can sustainable projects like this one bring stability to the countryside?

Many Costa Ricans believe that a locally based tourism sector provides an alternative to exploitive and environmentally degrading mass tourism. Casitas Tenorio is connected with the Rural Community Tourism movement. COOPRENA (Consortium of Rural Tourism Co-operatives) and ACTUAR (Costa Rican Rural Based Tourism Association) pioneer this effort, with financial and technical support from the United Nations Program for Development.

Rural Community Tourism promotes local land ownership of lodges, and includes residents in this effort. The organizations distribute the economic benefits evenhandedly, supplementing farmers’ incomes. The movement stabilizes communities, and strengthens their uniqueness and idiosyncrasies. Guests find that their visits integrate natural beauty with day to day life in local communities.

Rural community tourism focuses on tourism for development, rather than on development for tourism. An article by Adrianna Chavarria Flores quoted Juan Carlos Marlos, who administers a rural inn near Quepos, Costa Rica. “We offer tourism with human development and environmental responsibility in mind,” he reflected. He commented that rural community tourism is an advanced form of ecotourism, since it incorporates local communities and charges them to preserve the region’s natural and cultural heritage, and to share these with visitors.

Kate and I found our Casitas Tenorio cabin quite cozy; still, accommodations are simpler than those at luxury resorts. The focus is more on bringing travelers to places that don’t participate in the traditional tourism industry. According to Leyla Solana, a board member of the Costa Rican National Chamber of Rural Community Tourism, the objective is to reveal the nature, the history of the people, their culture, their agricultural and livestock production, and the rural community lifestyle.”

“Guests have more authentic experiences than tourists who hear lectures in resorts,” Donald reflected. He hires local residents who share their knowledge of local birds and ecosystems, lead night hikes that focus on local frogs, and take visitors on tours of sustainable farms.

Visitors can participate in farm work and care for the livestock. They can also work with the Cooperativae Juvenile de Bijuaga. This group of twenty youth from the community works on reforestation projects on the Farm and its surroundings. The government cut much of the original forest in the 1960s when it encouraged local residents to engage in subsistence farming. Parts of this forest remain as windbreaks; the young people replant native trees to create a wildlife corridor between the two volcanoes, and to counter climate change.


And elsewhere

Dusk came to Puerto Jimenez by 6 PM in July. Rattling cicadas yielded to the high pitched crickets. Flocks of hundreds of parakeets stopped their cycles around the town and found roosting spots. Pairs of scarlet macaws found shelter in almond trees for the night. Crickets hiding in grass and short herbs beeped, electronically, mimicking Packman. Bachata and other music flowed from single story houses with neat gardens. Wandering dogs passed parked cars and tethered horses.

Downtown businesses included pizzerias, tour offices, and a brightly lit produce market where locals gathered to chat. Others talked at outdoor food counters that served casados and hamburguesas. A natural ice cream store displayed a sign that announced, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can but ice cream, which is close to happiness.”

Light rain didn’t impede the evening’s parade. Barefoot young women wearing grass skirts and flowered tops led the way with complex dance steps along Puerto Jimenez’ unpaved main street. Women combining complex turns with rhythm from their cymbals followed them. Young men playing drums completed the line. Everyone carried yellow helium balloons, including the crowds that lined the parade route.

Kate and I came to the town’s circular bull ring, where bulls always survive their contests with humans, on a Saturday afternoon. Pizza, hamburguesa, and elote stands stood outside the ring. A Peña Cultural took place inside the rodeo . Children and adults gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” to a boy, who received a new blue bicycle. One man taught children to juggle with pins; the kids then gathered for a capoeira lesson.

“This is the seventh Peña Cultural,” Ifigenia Garita Canet,. who calls herself Ifi told me. She owns Osa Wild, tour operator promoting sustainable in the Osa Peninsula. Osa Wild’s slogan is “Supporting our community through tourism.” Ifi is also the president of ASCONA, a grassroots organization that organizes the Peña Culturals.

“Our office in town helps tourists find projects they can visit,” Ifi said. “We write grants to support the projects; for example, to get money for mattresses. Young volunteers from the U.S. and other countries also spend three weeks with ASCONA, circulating among the projects. They can paint signs, write essays, translate from Spanish to English, work on trails.”

The Osa Peninsula is home to half of Costa Rica’s native species, and is considered one of the most biologically rich places on earth. Corcovado National Park’s many inhabitants includes many wild inhabitants,, such as four species of monkeys, jaguars, the largest population of Costa Rica’s scarlet macaws, and a huge range of plants. The Golfo Dulce, which separates the Peninsula from the mainland boasts the presence of whale sharks and humpback whales.

The Osa’s isolation and lack of deep water ports led to its relative lack of development until recent times. United Fruit maintained banana plantations here in the 20th century; the company pulled out in 1985, leaving a legacy of deforestation, environmental contamination, and poverty. Cattle ranches also contributed to the loss of native forests.

The government has promoted the development of monocultural tree plantations in the Osa and in other parts of Costa Rica as a source of lumber, and as part of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. These projects have led to disappointing timber yields, and have distracted attention from the needs of wild forests. Officials ignore local peoples’ knowledge about forest, and communities have been displaced to make way for the tree plantations. In one case, five hundred families in Southern Costa Rica had to move.

Monocultural teak plantations have been implicated in soil erosion when their leaves drip large amounts of water. Palm oil plantations expand into wetlands, and eucalyptus projects have absorbed water that would have flowed into local aquifers. Ifi and other activists know people in the Osa need alternatives to these tree farms.

Ifi agreed with Donald that most tourism interests are owned by foreigners. Many Costa Ricans fear that a proposed international airport, which will be built near the Terraba-Sierpe wetland, will hurt the region. Both local communities and wild species, such as migratory birds from North America rely on that ecosystem.

Ifi knew that alternatives must be strengthened. “Osa Wild only supports local projects,” she commented. “We try to give local people confidence, and to keep money in the communities.”

The Osa Peninsula’s ecological uniqueness makes it a great location for small scale diversified projects. The many types of soil and pollinating animals, its landforms, ranges of exposure to sunlight and wind, and the accessibility to fresh water encourage many types of agricultural and restoration projects.

“Tourists can choose among eight projects,” Ifi said. Visitors to Dream Valley will find themselves on a working farm where they can hike, learn about agricultural practices, and milk cows. The Bellanero family teaches tourists about livestock care, and cheese production. Eduardo Cortez from La Tarde, six kilometers from La Palmas at the end of the Ngobe indigenous reserve and his family live on property that includes more than 250 acres of rainforest. Guests can ride horses, watch birds and frogs, and visit an Indian community. The Biological Station Tamandua offers visitors cabins on a river, and opportunities to identify tropical trees, watch birds, and hike to a range of waterfalls

Osa Wild also offers nature tours and kayak trips in the Golfo Dulce, one of the best regions for kayaking in Costa Rica. This Gulf is a tropical fiord, unique to Central America, home to 5 species of mangroves, with endemic birds such as Yellow billed cotinga, the mangrove warbler. The diverse activities that this young business offers, includes tourists to participate in scientific surveys around the Gulf, where a local center, called CEIC, takes visitors dolphins and whale watching.

A recent review on Lonely Planet rated Osa Wild among the best 28 things to do in the Osa Peninsula. The writers also stated that Ifi, who is a university trained biologist, is the best guide in the region.


Sustainable Agriculture

Donald whistled towards a tree as we walked; a sloth lifted its head to watch us. A native of Bijuaga, Donald met his wife Pip, who came from Australia as an environmental volunteer in the early 2000s. They both worked as guides for the Heliconas Lodge, and bought the land for Casitas Tenorio in 2008.

The farm is organic and sustainable. “Plantations give their pineapples hormones to make sure they are all the same size when they are harvested,” Donald commented as we walked. “We use no hormones, and pick the pineapples when each appears ready.” The farm produces corn, beans, coriander, yucca, pineapples, and medicinal plants for use by local residents, and by the Casita’s guests. Cattle, pigs, and the free-range chickens add their unique personalities to the project. A biodigestor converts these animals’ manure to fuel for cooking stoves and electrical generators.

“I use scientific farming methods, and I also rely on traditional knowledge,” Donald said. He mentioned his grandfather’s practice of watering pineapples just before the full moon. Research shows that the moon’s gravitational helps pull water up the plant’s stem.


Local Empowerment

Osa Wild shares its office with ASCONA. Founded in 1972, this NGO strives to foster an appropriate attitude towards the Osa Peninsula through environmental education. It conducts scientific research on the Peninsula’s ecological health, and monitors the impact the tourist industry has on local communities and biodiversity.

ASCONA’s website reflects that the Osa is one of the last regions in Costa Rica to experience big tourist development. The organization participates in review of tourist development projects, and promotes sustainable development. I bought a dark blue t-shirt with an owl image at Osa Wild’s office. It proclaims, “Desarrrollo sin Destruccion” – “Development Without Destruction.

ASCONA sponsors the periodic Peña cultural events, which strive to empower celebrate local culture, and to encourage children to take responsibility for their community and surroundings. Representatives visit schools and present workshops on recycling, rainforest animals, and conservation

Ifi hoped that ASCONA’s work would that make children feel confident about their artistic, athletic, and other talents. Many of these proud children to stay and contribute to their region’s stability.

Ifi and I watched the children dance to the rhythmic capoeira music and agreed it empowered them.. “My father wonders why I don’t start a business that will make me more money,” she said. “I want to make the people of Costa Rica confident and strong.”

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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