Costa Rica - restoring hope in the clouds

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Lisa Bowen

Author Info: Lisa Bowen is Media Director of Conservation International. She was assisted locally by Laura Tangley, a freelance journalist.

The largest tract of cloud forest in Central America, spanning the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica and Panama, is under pressure from a rapidly growing population. Lisa Bowen travelled to the area to report on a project which aims to help people in the buffer zone improve their incomes and protect the forest.

Tenaura de Ortega keeps her eyes fixed on a piece of wood she is carving. Loud buzzing from an electric drill drowns out the sound of footsteps and a greeting. It1s not until she is tapped on the shoulder that Tenaura breaks her concentration to look up. She smiles shyly, and offers a tour of the small workshop, where about a dozen women are at work over a single long table in the centre of the room. They are intent on learning how to create designs on wooden plaques to sell in a local artists' co-operative.

The handicrafts course opens up new economic opportunities to the women of Cerro Punta, a small village in the mist-covered mountains of Panama just outside La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. The reserve spans the Talamanca Mountains from western Panama into southern Costa Rica. Covering 2.7 million acres, much of the area is undisturbed rain forest including the largest tract of high-elevation cloud forest in Central America. La Amistad's natural riches include 10,000 higher plant species, 400 bird species, 250 reptile and amphibian species and six species of tropical cats, including the jaguar. More than a third of La Amistad's plant species are found nowhere else on earth.

The communities of Cerro Punta, Panama, and San Rafael, Costa Rica are sites for a project designed to protect La Amistad's rain forest habitat while helping local people improve their standard of living. Called AMISCONDE - combining Amistad (friendship), Conservation and Development - the project is sponsored by Conservation International, Clemson University, Texas A&M University, and McDonald's Corporation. Locally, it is co-ordinated by the Fundacion para el Desarrollo Sostenible in Panama and the Tropical Science Centre in Costa Rica.

A rugged terrain and heavy rainfall once discouraged colonization of the Talamanca region, but today the population is growing rapidly and already numbers more than one million. Agriculture is the chief source of income for the region. In Panama, for example, the area produces 80 per cent of the vegetables consumed in the country. Yet while most farmers have only small, subsistence plots, the combined environmental impact is enormous. Fragile soils, heavy rainfall and steep slopes lead to quick exhaustion of crop and pasture lands, and farmers abandon degraded plots to clear new ones from the forest.

Through agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, environmental education and community development, AMISCONDE aims to restore degraded lands in the reserve1s buffer zone and prevent encroachment into the reserve's forest. The five-year programme covers some 33,600 acres in Costa Rica and Panama. This includes most of the watershed area in the buffer zone where agriculture is taking place, potentially reaching more than half the population, or some 8,500 people.

Helping farmersBecause agriculture is the primary economic activity in La Amistad's buffer zone, the project's main focus is to help farmers improve the productivity and marketability of their crops while reducing negative impacts. About 120 farmers receive technical assistance directly from AMISCONDE, and many more are indirectly assisted by learning new techniques from other farmers. Soil conservation and reforestation are taking place on several hundred acres surrounding the reserve, and an estimated 7,000 acres are recovering as second-growth forest as a result of forest fire control in the region.

"Involving the local people from the start of the project and ensuring that their needs are addressed is the guiding principle of AMISCONDE's efforts," explains Manuel Ramirez, In-Country Director for Conservation International's Costa Rica and Panama Programmes. "The approach is to provide long-term rather than short-term incentives for conservation. Participants receive agricultural credits, which must be repaid, creating a sense of ownership and promoting long-term success. And, AMISCONDE's emphasis is on the entire family - not just farmers - with both women's and youth groups eligible for credits as well as other project benefits."

It was with the support of AMISCONDE that Tenaura de Ortega helped organize and now serves as president of Conservacionistas de Cerro Punta, a local women's group with 28 members, ages 18 to 60.

"The group works to provide something to the community. It's not just for women, but for the well-being of the entire community," says Tenaura, 49, whose husband, a local farmer, participates in AMISCONDE's soil conservation programme.

"In the beginning with AMISCONDE, it seemed that all the projects were on the hills, with the farmers. The needs of the women are also economic, to learn something to improve their well-being," she explains. "There is also a social need to unite the community, and an educational need."

Training coursesTraining courses offered through AMISCONDE have included basic accounting, food preservation, first aid, arts and crafts, sewing, community organization, natural resources management and ecotourism. AMISCONDE has supported the creation of 35 community groups in Panama and Costa Rica, including farmers' associations, women's groups and youth organizations. The project sponsors environmental education programmes in all of the 12 primary and secondary schools in the area, and works with organized community groups to strengthen these goals.

"Before AMISCONDE, other agencies might have provided training, but now there is an integrated vision," Tenaura says. "Before, some people might have received training and gone home, with nothing to give back to the community."

Giving something back to the community is how 18-year-old Omayra Arauz describes her participation in AMISCONDE's efforts.

Bright red flowers border the narrow walkway to the modest wooden house in the community of Los Nubes (The Clouds), where Omayra lives with her mother, father, brother and sister. Vibrant gardens brighten the entire community, providing a small source of income for the struggling families, many living in tiny huts of only one or two rooms.

© Tony Morrison / South American Pictures

"Before AMISCONDE, people would throw trash in the street, and nobody seemed to care. When AMISCONDE arrived, we started to wake up and to think about what is happening and how important it is to keep the community clean," Omayra says. "Before, if we needed wood, we would go and cut a tree, without thinking. Now, if we cut a tree, we think of whether we really need to, and about replanting another one."

Omayra leads the youth group, Compañeras del Parque La Amistad, with 12 members ranging in age from 14 to 20 years old.

"Through community development, AMISCONDE has allowed women and children to escape a repressive cycle and blossom into productive leaders of their communities," says Ramirez. "Women who have spent most of their adult lives in smoky kitchens are now learning ways to earn money and gain independence. Young people are more enthusiastic about their education, and they invest their knowledge back into their communities."

James Nations, Vice President for CI's Mexico and Central America programmes says: "More than any other project in CI's portfolio in 21 countries, AMISCONDE has reinforced our belief in achieving conservation by focusing on human beings. The project has taught us that the protection of biodiversity is a natural by-product of helping people improve their economic livelihoods."

Much of AMISCONDE's success will be measured in how long its benefits endure after the programme's sponsors have closed the local office.

"The community and the group will be prepared to continue on their own after the official AMISCONDE office is gone," Tenaura de Ortega says. "Even with difficulties, women are persistent, because of the desire and need for growth that they have."