“The conservation of biodiversity and biological connectivity are not achieved without the participation of the people. If the farmer is not motivated, we can’t do anything.” These are the conclusions of José Oduber, a project leader with Fundación Neotrópica, a conservation NGO in Costa Rica that, with other national and international organizations, is working to establish a forested corridor connecting two national parks in the country’s wild and biodiversity-rich Osa Peninsula.
Because the Osa was once an island, it holds scores of rare and endangered plants and animals among its 700 tree species, 139 mammal species, 115 amphibian and reptile species, and more than 350 bird species. Neotrópica, along with Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), and the US-based Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, are determined to maintain those numbers, but as Oduber indicates, the work must involve the Peninsula’s residents, many of whom can barely grow enough food to survive.
He explains that because about 2,000 of the Osa’s residents have limited economic options, they end up selling the trees on their land to lumber dealers for nominal amounts. Few local farmers know how to prevent soil erosion, or how to grow crops in a way that is both productive and environmentally friendly, Oduber says. As a result, the biological corridor that conservationists hope to establish is impacted by logging for lumber and firewood, hunting, and problems related to poor farming practices.
To improve the Osa’s landowners’ quality of life, and diversify their sources of income while improving the chances that an intact corridor can eventually link Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks, Fundación Neotrópica is managing a project called “Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Production in the Osa Biological Corridor.” The initiative has support from the Osa Biological Corridor Technical Coalition and the Local Corridor Commission, and is funded with a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
Oduber says that the project will train rural farmers how to use biodigestors, how to reforest eroded land, and how to take advantage of agro-tourism and environmental services payments, which pays landowners a fee for protecting their forests.
The three-year project has already enrolled 15 families that share an interest in learning how to make decent livings from their land while conserving it. They all own forests larger than 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) and while their farmlands have eroded soils and low productivity, they are located in the center of the biological corridor, in the heart of an area where biologists have identified large numbers of unique or rare species. According to research by INBio, the biological corridor protects 183 plants endemic to Costa Rica — 45 of these are found only in the Osa — and 96 endangered species, including Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and the jaguar (Panthera onca).
According to Randall García, conservation director for INBio, the challenge for a region like the Osa Peninsula is to determine the most that can be achieved with conservation, and the maximum that conservation can offer people living there. “In the end, conservation depends on land management,” he says. “After that comes the importance of developing specific initiatives that demonstrate how people and conservation can coexist.”
The Neotrópica project is just one tool in the kit to ensure that the corridor fulfills its mandate. García emphasizes that this does not simply mean uniting forest fragments, but also using biological information to determine which areas are important for regeneration, sustainable farming, or other activities that favor conservation.
In the opinion of Juan José Jiménez, coordinator of the Local Corridor Commission, the project’s biggest challenge is to overcome the residents’ distrust. “People think that the corridor is just another reserve that is going to limit their activities, and we have to continue working so that they see it is something different and will not eliminate or impose restrictions,” he says.
In contrast, the families that become involved in the project decide for themselves what environmentally-friendly activities they want to pursue. Then they will receive the needed technical assistance and financial resources. For their part, they must provide time, hard work, and land.
According to Jiménez, residents will contribute to conservation efforts only in ways that will resolve their needs. “We want to ensure that people understand that the income they are receiving is because they are allied with conservation.”
One way to ensure this is through the environmental service payment program. The government of Costa Rica pays fees for four kinds of services: mitigation of greenhouse gas effects, water protection, biodiversity protection, and scenic beauty. To date, a total of 3,705 acres (1,500 hectares) within the Osa corridor have been enrolled in this system.
Because environmental service payments for forested land are guaranteed for only five years, project directors hope to motivate landowners to obtain income through sustainable farming and other activities, so they will be able to keep their forests intact over the long-term and not be forced to sell their properties.
“Rather than promote the notion that the Osa must be bought by foreigners in order to protect it, our intention is to work with residents and give them incentives to stay, because it is possible for them to produce on their farms,” Oduber explains, adding, “Adapting to the people and their interests is difficult, but when this is achieved, resource protection is also possible.”
Fundación Neotrópica’s project will also support six schools in the Osa, to help them develop activities that will educate students in how to protect and restore the environment, such as tree nurseries and vegetable gardens.
— Katiana Murrillo
Contacts in Costa Rica:
Juan José Jiménez
Comisión Local del Corredor Biológico de Osa
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index: