The fate of tropical hardwood trees outside Costa Rica’s famed national parks would seem in dire jeopardy, since lumber trucks continue to roll across the country daily. During 14 hours of one day last September, conservationists with the nonprofit Grupo Yiski counted 13 twelve-wheelers loaded with 245 massive tree trunks shorn from just one region of the country, the Caribbean Coast. In defiance of the steady drone of the chainsaw, however, a small but growing number of determined landowners are working together to try to keep their forested acres intact.
They belong to the Private Reserve Network, a six-year-old organization that now has 110 members. According to Network director Carlos Sandí, members own forested land that ranges in size from two hectares (five acres) to 22,000 hectares (54,300 acres). Some of the properties are completely forested; others include cabins for tourists or a biological station and facilities for visiting scientists. Other Network members have family farms that are in part devoted to crops and cattle but also hold expanses of untouched forest.
“About half our members own reserves where they are also promoting ecotourism,” says Sandí. “Another half is simply trying to protect an important piece of forest, a watershed or a wetland.”
Most want to find a way to make their forests at least partially profitable, but not by succumbing to the traditional, one-time-only business of harvesting lumber. The government of Costa Rica encourages landowners like these by paying them an established price for each hectare of forest — about $226 per hectare annually. The payment is in recognition of the environmental services the forested lands provide, such as preventing erosion from clogging a downhill hydroelectric dam or protecting streams that feed into the rivers that in turn provide drinking water to Costa Ricans. The Network helps landowners with the paperwork involved in collecting these environmental services fees and also works with government officials to ensure the integrity of the payment program.
Jenny Asch, coordinator of protected areas in Costa Rica’s environmental ministry, says the government wants to encourage the establishment of privately owned conservation areas, since “the state lacks the funds to buy more land and doesn’t have the people on staff to maintain them.”
The Network also assists members in wading through red tape and bureaucracy in order to gain legal titles to property that might have been in the family for decades, but was never properly legally registered. The Network stepped in to assist Billy Montero, owner of a reserve called Montesky, which borders Tapantí national park, not far from the capital city of San José. Both Montesky and Tapantí protect a vital watershed, which provides both electricity and potable water to the urban population of three million. It was unclear where Montesky ended and Tapantí began, so the Reserve Network’s attorneys helped define clear borders. Montero says he feels somewhat “persecuted” by the government’s reluctance to delineate Tapantí’s borders, especially since he is trying to extend the biological value of the national park by protecting the forests he owns.
Montero is also frustrated by the government’s program to pay landowners for keeping their trees standing. He says that even with the Network’s help, the process involved in collecting payments is expensive and time consuming and that “of the three million colones I am owed [$9,000 US], I’ve received only 600,000.” [$2000 US]
He describes Montesky, an inn plus trails that wind through misty, forested hills that he and his mother own, in fervent tones. “I value this place as if it were all the forests in the world. I tell visitors: close your eyes and listen to the water; close your eyes and listen to the birds; embrace that tree that is your brother.”
But his passion doesn’t guarantee profits. He acknowledges that making a living from tourism is a challenge. Since so many Network members are also involved in ecotourism, Sandí believes that by working together they can attract the nature-loving visitors who ensure incomes for small reserve owners. “It is difficult for the smaller operations to have marketing expertise, but as a group we can help members do promotion,” he points out. Members also support one another by exchanging ideas about how to confront the custodial challenges they routinely face, those caused by illegal hunters, fishermen, goldminers, and squatters.
About one-third of Network members are citizens’ groups, which according to a 1999 study of private reserves in the Neotropics, reflects a growing trend. Researchers Carlos Mesquita, Juan Antonio Aguirre, Miguel Cifuentes and Eduard Müller surveyed 118 private reserves in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Dominica, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru. Individuals or families own about 50 percent of the reserves studied, while 25 percent are owned by NGOs, and another 19 percent by businesses. In the past, the researchers note, NGOs raised funds to purchase forest that they then donated to the government to integrate into national park systems. Today, more are electing to manage the reserves themselves, either as biological research stations or ecotourism operations.
The 1999 study also points to another trend: The size of private reserves is shrinking. A similar survey done in 1990 revealed that 31 percent of the private reserves in Latin America held less than 200 hectares, while the 1999 study found 49 percent are smaller than 200 hectares. Half of the reserves in the 1990 study were 500 hectares or larger, while just 37 percent in the 1999 study are in that size range.
Sandí believes that regardless of size, privately owned reserves play an important role in the conservation of Costa Rica’s biodiversity, since many of these forests remnants form corridors that connect national parks. Protected bands of forests prevent flora and fauna species from becoming isolated in islands that are too small, genetically speaking, to ensure healthy populations. Sandí also notes that the privately owned reserves protect many species of flora and fauna not found in national parks. Further, since two-thirds of Costa Rica is deforested and parks comprise just 12 percent of the country, the importance of conserving the 13 percent of remaining forests that is privately owned — or five percent of the country — looms large.
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