Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, at the southern tip of the country, dangles into the Pacific Ocean and stows a treasure chest of wildlife and plant species, many protected in eight parks and reserves. The jewel of the Osa is 105,000-acre Corcovado National Park, home to 400 species of birds, 140 species of mammals, 117 species of amphibians and reptiles, and at least 500 tree species.
Since the peninsula is also home to some 5,000 Costa Ricans, illegal logging and hunting are inevitable. But a conservation group called the Corcovado Foundation is determined to find a way for residents to live peacefully with the flora and fauna and the laws that protect them, by directly involving communities in natural-resources protection.
“Community members are proud of the place they live, and they know that it isn’t going to stay this way forever if they don’t do something,” says Alejandra Monge, executive director of the Corcovado Foundation.
The Foundation is supporting environmental education and jobs training in six of the peninsula’s communities, while also providing salaries for park rangers of a government program, the Osa Biological Corridor, which aims to establish a forested swath that will connect Corcovado and nearby Piedras Blancas National Park.
One of the communities working with the Foundation is Agujitas de Drake, located near Corcovado National Park, where the local young people have formed a group called the “Jaguares.” According to Monge, the Jaguares involves some 22 boys and girls who have attended environmental education classes and organized activities such as recycling and beach cleanups. She notes that some of them come from extremely poor families and have few options for extracurricular activities.
Some 55 adults from various Osa communities have also volunteered to defend the region’s natural resources, forming local groups known as Natural Resources Vigilance Committees (COVIRENAS, for its name in Spanish). The Corcovado Foundation supports most of Osa’s COVIRENAS with training, transportation, food, and communications equipment. Armed with information about the country’s environmental laws, the committees have been active in denouncing environmental crimes to such government bodies as the Environmental Tribunal, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Supreme Court. Even though park rangers are the only people authorized to arrest offenders and confiscate equipment, Monge emphasizes that these groups exercise significant pressure and moral authority.
Two years ago, Eduviges Pomares joined the Natural Resources Vigilance Committee in Drake. He says that the committee has informed the authorities about several people who were illegally cutting down trees in Drake, and the offenders were brought to court. “We are the voice of the people, and we denounce anomalies,” he says firmly, but adds that as a result, some people in the community view the COVIRENA members as heroes and others as their enemies. Still, he believes the group’s efforts to protect the area’s natural resource are worth any ill feelings amongst their neighbors.
According to Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment and Energy, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the COVIRENAS’ work complements the efforts of park rangers in and around protected areas. “Given the scarcity of resources at the ministry’s disposal, we need the support, good will, and commitment of civil society,” says Rodríguez.
Álvaro Ugalde, director of the Osa Conservation Area, believes that the COVIRENAS need their own operating plans and resources in order to be self-sustaining and not dependent on government funding. “In the past, there have been more differences than there’s been cooperation between park guards and COVIRENAS in Osa, so it is important that the relationship be strengthened through collaboration and constructive criticism,” notes Ugalde, one of the founders of Costa Rica’s national parks system.
According to Monge, lack of government resources, like vehicles and gas, and the inherent slowness of bureaucracy means COVIRENAS are often able to react more quickly than the protected-areas officials. The groups have already notified the authorities about such problems as irregularities in forest-management plans, the hunting of endangered species, and stream diversion.
In addition to their role as environmental watchdogs, the committees provide environmental education lectures to their neighbors and tourists who visit the zone. For example, in the community of La Gamba, outside Piedras Blancas National Park, members of the local COVIRENAS greet visitors during Easter Week, a peak time for tourism and also the time of year when parakeet chicks hatch in the wild, and explain why those newborn birds shouldn’t be captured and sold as pets.
Monge believes that the success of these groups can be explained by the role Osa’s protected areas play in sustaining their communities. “Many of these people benefit directly from tourism and natural resources and are thus concerned about their protection,” she says.
As part of its strategy to strengthen organizations that are trying to create economic options for the region’s inhabitants while protecting biodiversity, the Corcovado Foundation also supports the Local Association for Sustainable Tourism Development. The Foundation, in turn, receives support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Global Environment Facility.
— Katiana Murillo
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