Maconer Carranza, who has lived on the Nicoya Peninsula, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, for about 30 years, recalls community life before the arrival of a now-thriving conservation group. “The difference is like night and day,” he says. “Before on the peninsula we had droughts, fires, and indiscriminate logging. Now that’s all changed.”
The group he credits with the change is the Ecological Association of Paquera, Lepanto and Cóbano (ASEPALECO), named for three main towns on the peninsula. While ASEPALECO has improved quality of life for Carranza and his neighbors, the group is also part of an expansive and complex conservation initiative that stretches from southern Mexico to Panama. Called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the project involves conservation groups, community organizations, government agencies in each country, and international donor agencies, which already have invested millions of dollars in corridor activities.
According to Luis Rojas, technical liaison between the corridor in Costa Rica and headquarters in Nicaragua, the initiative had its origins in the early 1990s, when biologists with the U.S.-based group Wildlife Conservation Society designed and managed a project in Central America called “Paseo Pantera,” with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The idea was to link greenways along the Caribbean coast, so that a panther, an endangered species that needs vast areas of undisturbed habitat to survive, might roam from Guatemala south to Panama without ever having to leave the protection of the rainforest. The concept grew, Rojas says, to encompass southern Mexico as well as wildlands extending from the Caribbean to the Pacific throughout the isthmus. Today the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is managed by the Central American Commission on the Environment and Development and is funded by the Global Environment Facility, a fund managed by the United Nations and the World Bank, and GTZ, a German international aid agency.
Scientists emphasize that unless protected areas are connected with one another via what they call biological corridors, plants and wildlife that cannot venture into open, developed areas — such as cattle pastures, towns, highways, or shopping malls — will be trapped in isolated, forested islands, unable to adequately exchange genes needed to maintain healthy populations over the longterm.
Rojas recalls that the notion of what comprised the ideal biological corridor changed when biologists and policymakers began to consider which areas should be linked and how. “It was recognized that many of these areas had populations, including farmers, indigenous people, or whole communities,” he says. “So we had to look for ways to offer options to them. The corridor can not only be about preservation.”
Now, in addition to protecting forests, he says, corridor activities focus on converting residents’ environmentally damaging activities to more sustainable practices and also rewarding people who keep the forests they own intact, by finding ways they can charge for the services these forests provide. For example, since forests protect watersheds that supply nearby communities with continual sources of drinking water, the residents who depend on the potable water should compensate the forest owners for this life-saving benefit.
Decades ago, farmers, ranchers, and loggers burned or cut down most of the forests that once covered Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula, so the remaining pieces of forests are particularly precious. Rojas and his colleagues hope to establish a corridor that connects 2898-acre [1172-hectare] Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve at the southernmost tip of the peninsula with 5568-acre [2295-hectare] Barra Honda National Park, 55 miles to the north. In an ecological version of connect-the-dots, the corridor would snake up the peninsula, incorporating smaller protected areas along the way.
One of the refuges lying in the Corridor’s premeditated path is Karen Mogensen Wildlife Refuge, managed by ASEPALECO. The grassroots group used funds bequeathed by Mogensen, a longtime Nicoya Peninsula resident and conservationist, to purchase the 1556-acre forested reserve, a watershed that provides drinking water to thousands of peninsula residents. The group is also promoting the kind of change in attitude and sustainable activities that the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor’s grand strategy requires.
“I’ve worked for various organizations, and what I admire about ASEPALECO is that our environmental education program involves more than just speeches — we look for solutions,” says director and biologist María Teresa Cerdas.
For example, when population growth caused serious trash problems, ASEPALECO didn’t wait for a government solution, but raised funds from the Netherlands, the Global Environment Facility-Small Grants Program, and local institutions to build a recycling center and launch a widespread recycling education campaign. Other ASEPALECO Corridor-friendly activities include building an environmental education center and a small eco-lodge for tourists who want to hike through the Karen Mogensen Wildlife Refuge, establishing mini-nature reserves near 35 schools, helping residents plant organic gardens, and starting tree nurseries for reforestation projects. ASEPALECO also works with students at a local technical highschool to monitor wildlife that was trapped when a new road cut through their habitat. Students built a bridge over the road to provide safe passage for such arboreal mammals as monkeys and squirrels.
Maconer Carranza, who volunteers for ASEPELCO, notes that a particularly successful project focused on the training and organization of some 120 fire-prevention volunteers, gathered in 10 community brigades. “The change has been incredible,” Cerda agrees. An effective awareness campaign has helped reduce the number of fires in the region, she says, adding that the group has also used environmental education to popularize the concept of biological corridors. “The idea was always something very technical, involving institutions and researchers, but we want the corridor to be an idea that comes from residents,” she explains. Now ASEPELCO volunteers understand that their efforts help not just the local environment, but also contribute to a multi-national conservation vision.
Groups like ASEPELCO, that can bring together local residents and municipalities, are vital to the corridor’s future, Rojas acknowledges. “The group’s goals to organize land use and manage biodiversity…are really innovative,” he says, “and very much oriented to the objectives of the corridor.”
Rojas wants to encourage a “corridor culture,” so one day communities throughout the region will want to protect the greenways in their backyards and truly value the biodiversity protected within them.
Luis Rojas Bolaños
tel: 506/283-8975 or 283-8004 ext. 154
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:
www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=257 and www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=258.