In Costa Rica, Residents Living Near Popular National Park Find that Their Futures Are Linked to Wildlife Conservation

One of the last tropical wet forests in Mesoamerica’s Pacific coast lies protected in Corcovado National Park in southwestern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. The biodiversity-rich peninsula is home to more than 400 species of birds, 140 species of mammals, 117 species of amphibians and reptiles, and at least 500 species of trees. An alarmingly high percentage of these plants and animals is endangered, due to logging and hunting. Approximately 5,000 people also inhabit the Osa, and most are unaware that their future greatly depends on the survival of these other species.

“The people living in the peninsula seem to believe that these species will be around forever,” says biologist Grace Wong of the Regional Program for Wildlife Management for Mesoamerica and the Caribbean of the National University. The University, along with the State Extension University and the Ministry of Environment and Energy, launched an environmental training program in the Osa, with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and World Wildlife Fund.

“One of our main goals is to make people understand the relationship between humans and animals,” Wong explains. She recalls that initially it was difficult to engage local residents, because the Osa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and the program did not include development funding. So Wong and her colleagues sought out established organizations, particularly youth groups, whose members already had a basic understanding of the importance of conserving biodiversity in the peninsula, but needed training on how to communicate that important message to their neighbors.

Tapir and ManThirty people were selected from local organizations, including Save the Natural Environment Now, The Jaguars, and the Association of Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development. They received intensive training in such subjects as communication techniques, using educational materials, natural history, environmental legislation, and the status of wildlife in the Osa.

The leaders visited Corcovado National Park to obtain first-hand information on the species and their habitat. The Osa is one of the wildest areas of Costa Rica — wildlife found there include jaguars (Felis onca), white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari), Baird’s tapirs (Tapirus bairdii), pacas (Agouti paca), and scarlet macaws (Ara macao), all of them endangered. Their status was spotlighted nationwide in late 2005, when dozens of monkeys and toucans were found dead, and the park was closed for several days. Biologists pinned their deaths on unusually heavy rains, which caused a fall in temperature and scarcity of food.

Wong explains that the scientific data available on the peninsula’s species was transformed into user-friendly information that will appeal to the communities. The trainees helped develop news bulletins, posters, fact sheets, and table games, including bingo. The games were designed to help players understand how their actions affect the environment and measure how well they know the natural resources on which they depend.

The educational materials created aim to reveal the interdependence of communities and species. For example, information on poaching points out the impact of illegal hunting on forests, wildlife and the local communities whose residents are increasingly dependent on nature tourism.

Alex Retana, a participant in the environmental education workshops and a member of the Association of Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development, points out that the forest and wildlife will survive only if people are willing to learn about what’s at risk. Retana, a young tourism entrepreneur, developed an experimental farm he named Cobo, which means “dreams” in the indigenous Guaymi language. From this 124-acre (50 hectare) farm that he runs with his four brothers, he offers tourists the opportunity to learn about rainforest species and organic agriculture. Visitors can also savor some of the farm’s produce in a lunch that includes cacao, fruit, and cheese.

Retana believes that conservation needs to address three main factors: the environment, the human population, and sustainable agriculture. He shares his conservation philosophy with tourists and children from the nearby communities by explaining the importance of flora, fauna, and ecofriendly agriculture, and he organizes games with the environmental education materials.

“I tell the students that I consider them to be more important than the tourists who come to the farm, because they are my neighbors, and we share this great biodiversity that surrounds us,” Retana says, adding that the workshops taught him to prepare and develop topics for different audiences. He plans to organize more visits to the farm with help from Costa Rica’s environment ministry.

According to Wong, statistical data presented in simple terms has an impact on people. “People have come to understand that it’s not true that animals will survive forever if problems such as hunting persist,” she notes.

A poster produced to encourage people to report hunting violations was added as part of the materials and now adorns walls in local grocery stores and community centers. “Many people know who hunts the pacas, peccaries, and other species,” the biologist says. “They even eat meat from these animals, but don’t believe that they have committed an offense because they didn’t hunt the animals themselves.”

Wong believes that the project’s most important achievement has been the training for environmental educators in the communities. “Environmental education needs to be a long-term goal that is integrated into sustainable development efforts,” she emphasizes. “People must understand what is happening to the plant and wildlife species and how this can affect the human population.”

— Katiana Murillo

Contacts in Costa Rica: Grace Wong, National University, tel +06/277-3596 Alex Retana, Finca Cabo. Tel +506/351-8576

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