Interview by Nuria Bolaños, Rainforest Alliance
“A wetland system is much more than the sum of its bodies of water; it’s like a labyrinth — a network of creeks, lagoons, and pools. What’s important here is the interaction of these water bodies or wetlands with the forests and the communities that are in Maquenque.”
The Maquenque Mixed National Wildlife Refuge (MMNWR), created by executive decree in 2005, holds more than 123,500 acres (50,000 hectares) of tropical moist forest in northern Costa Rica. It is considered to be the core area between protected areas in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and it is part of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor and the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. It is a sanctuary for endangered species, as well as a reservoir of diverse and fragile ecosystems such as wetlands; lagoon systems, rivers, and creeks make this refuge an area of national and international interest. Of all of the wetlands present in the region, four were selected — Maquenque, Tambor, Canacas and Colpachí — for a study to gather data and generate a solid, science-based picture about what is really happening in these wetlands. Now that threats, challenges, and possible solutions have been identified, researchers are developing and implementing a comprehensive sustainable development strategy and working to achieve the declaration of these wetlands as sites of international importance or Ramsar sites. Because the wetlands in Maquenque are unique in the nation, their representation in the Ramsar portfolio is very important.
Question: There are still lands in many places that could be designated for conservation; what must be undertaken for a determined area to become protected?
Monge: Principally, there has to be something that motivates protection of the area. For some, this could be the water resource, for others an endangered species. Or, it could be the kind of ecosystem or a unique forest in the region, but there always has to be something. In our case it was the green macaw (Ara ambiguus).
Q: When you began 14 years ago, did you ever imagine you’d be where you are now?
Chassot: We didn’t, no. Perhaps George Powell, who launched the Green Macaw Research and Conservation initiative had an idea. We began with that project, and over time we turned it into an integrated conservation project. We began to work with groups, organizing people, and implementing change. Something that made a big difference was visualizing this project as a permanent program and not just as a project with a beginning, a final objective, and an end.
Monge: We began with the green macaw, the issues regarding the species, and what had to be done to conserve it, but we could see that the species is not alone — it depends on its habitat and all that this implies, and that’s where the idea for the protected area came from. At that time there was already talk of forming a biological corridor and we began to see that the area was suitable for consolidating the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor. Later we realized that what was happening in Nicaragua was affecting us, and this motivated the bi-national aspect of the project and we began working in alliances. It began as scientific and biological research that then expanded.
Chassot: This initiative is different from others because, instead of doing a study and submitting it to the government so that they could create the protected area or impose a wild almond tree-cutting ban, we decided to lead the changes ourselves and we assumed responsibility for the outcomes.
Monge: There is an alliance that we [Chassot and Monge] coordinate that is made up of 24 different organizations. To date, we have not had any differences or problems, and the alliance has placed its complete trust in us as coordinators and in the Tropical Science Center. There haven’t been any discussions, feuds, or anyone who does not agree with how the funds are managed.
Q: To what do you attribute the success of this work group?
Chassot: There is emphasis on leadership, ethics, trust, and a solid scientific foundation that allows us to make decisions and simplify our work. All of the members of the group go through the learning together — we have all passed through different stages and we have grown together. We have been making progress level by level and we are constantly evaluating our work, which has enabled us to grow little by little. Without the joint effort of all the members of the alliance, it would not have been possible for a conservation initiative like this to advance.
Q: You have already succeeded in having Maquenque declared as a Mixed National Wildlife Refuge, so why is it necessary to have the area declared as a wetland of international importance?
Monge: The Maquenque wetlands were already protected by decree, but they still continued to deteriorate. Then the Refuge was consolidated, which meant that the wetlands were given a higher category — they went from being wetlands established by decree to being the Maquenque Mixed National Wildlife Refuge (MMNWR). Even so, the wetlands continued to deteriorate and be altered by human activities. Raising its category again to a Ramsar Site gives it an international recognition, which allows Costa Rica to focus on the area and facilitate negotiations and requests for funds from donors — it is more attractive to fund a project that is executed in an area with a Ramsar designation than in a wetland established by a national decree only.
Salas: Although the wetland is in Costa Rica, it involves the San Juan River and other wetlands in southern Nicaragua. Therefore, it is important to talk about a wetland of international importance in Costa Rica that encompasses a trans-boundary area and that reflects the attributes that Nicaragua and Costa Rica share, such as the species that cross from one side to the other.
Chassot: The idea is to focus on the conservation activities in the MMNWR and to consider the importance of these wetlands in the proposal for the refuge and the creation of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
Q: What are the advantages of having a region declared as a Wetland of International Importance?
Salas: Uniting the national conservation strategy with an international strategy. It gives greater scope to the conservation vision.
Q: How does this declaration happen?
Salas: Representative wetlands are selected, in this case within the MMNWR, which are representative of the area. Canacas is a raphia palm swamp located near the San Carlos River and it is an ecosystem that has been extensively damaged by cattle ranching and by drainage systems that have dried up the wetland. Maquenque is a very large wetland in the western sector that is comprised of a series of lagoon systems that discharge into the San Juan River. The Tambor wetland also flows into the San Juan River — here we tried to evaluate how altered this wetland was, because local knowledge and scientific studies indicate the presence of manatees (Trichechus manatus) in this area. The Colpachí wetland is surrounded by farms where there are many problems with deforestation and/or cattle ranches — it is one of the wetlands that we know to be most threatened.
Q: Are human activities continuing in Maquenque?
Chassot: Yes. The wetlands show very strong anthropogenic effects at their boundaries. They are officially defined as bodies of water or flooded zones, plus 164 feet (50 meters) beyond their edges. In many cases there are farms with pastures or forestry plantations with exotic species or human activities that are having a direct impact at the boundaries, and the 50-meter rule is not respected. Luckily, there are many places where the anthropogenic effects are no longer as strong as they used to be — for example, extensive cattle ranches are rarely seen in the area, but the pastures are still not undergoing restoration because landowners keep their pastures so as not to lose their usage rights. What this conservation initiative seeks is to regulate land use according to management category type.
Q: How will you manage to establish this regulation?
Monge: At the local level, with landowners or organizations, we are making an effort in all of the open areas to leave them to natural regeneration or to reforest them with native species. Some landowners no longer have cattle and if they are interested in restoring the land, the trees are acquired for them so that they only have to plant and maintain them. This is meant to involve the landowners, raise their awareness, and stimulate ideas or joint activities about how to make progress.
Q: What was it that motivated the landowners to abandon cattle-ranching? Was it an economic situation or was it this conservation movement?
Chassot: It was due to historic changes that have occurred that are quite typical of rural zones with difficult soil conditions and low population densities. Maquenque is a zone that is apt for forestry — lands with potential for forest cover, but when the forest is removed they are not suitable for farming or ranching activities. It is a zone that is not very fertile and that presents many difficulties for farmers. Access is difficult and complicated and not good enough for farmers to get their harvests out, among other things. In the 1980s, logging prevailed in the zone, which had an impact on the forest remnants that were already fragmented at that time. At the end of the 1990s, with the new forestry law and the changes in forest policies, the forestry industry also lost interest in the area. These are the economic and social factors that had an influence. Moreover, there was also our conservation initiative, but we cannot say that it was the main cause of these changes that in reality were structural, economic, and government policy changes.
Q: What impact do agricultural activities have?
Chassot: Apart from the pineapple plantations that are surrounding the refuge and that are encroaching at some points, their impact is reduced because they are localized. The major impacts are occurring in the refuge’s buffer zone, and right now we could say that this zone is not fulfilling its role because it is almost non-existent.
Salas: We see changes in the land cover, but agrochemicals also have an influence. What concerns us is the effect of pineapple plantations in the areas surrounding the reserve and how this could damage water bodies in the future.
Q: How is all this human activity reconciled with the wetlands in Maquenque?
Salas: The social sector uses the water resource and other resources derived from the wetlands, such as fishing and transportation. The entire sector near the Sarapiquí River uses it for travel to the main population centers. When we talk about wetlands, we are not talking only about the lagoons but also the rivers that cross the whole protected area. Local people view conserving the refuge and the aquatic systems of which it is a part as a good initiative. In this study, we consider the lagoon as a whole — we try to include the watersheds that feed the wetlands and think about the impact that is being generated, for example, in the main sources that reach the lagoons, and on the farms that are in the main transit routes that are a little more accessible, and determine what is going on there. Other problems are occurring such as the pineapple plantations in the surrounding areas, and some plantations that are even inside the refuge. We try to visualize the watershed as a whole while thinking about a strategy for sustainability.
Q: The declaration as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance refers to the wetlands studied or the entire refuge?
Salas: The declaration encompasses the entire refuge. The wetlands cannot be seen as isolated sectors. The Maquenque wetlands area involves five or seven lagoons that are interconnected and flooded areas that are part of the refuge. There are certain conditions for considering the MMNWR as a site of international importance, for example, endangered or flagship species — the green macaw, the jaguar (Pantera onca), the manatee, and other important species that need rescuing. Likewise, the concept of international importance for being a trans-boundary area; the refuge has all of the rivers that cross the San Juan River and Lake Cocibolca watershed, the largest watershed in Central America. The area has many aspects that underscore the necessity of adopting it as a wetland of international importance — not just for the wetlands, but for all they represent in terms of biodiversity and for being the center of the entire strategy for the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Chassot: A wetland system is much more than the sum of its bodies of water — it is the interaction of those wetlands with their associated creeks. It’s like a labyrinth — a network of creeks, lagoons, and pools. It’s all there! What’s important here is the relationship or interaction of these bodies of water or wetlands, in general, with the forests that are in Maquenque. The types of wetlands present in Maquenque are unique in Costa Rica — we do not find these associations or these kinds of wetlands in other regions. They are a unique interaction and landscape, and are still being formed from a geological viewpoint. They are places that can change a lot in style, composition, and biophysical traits in the coming years. Since they are unique in the country, their representation in the Ramsar portfolio is extremely important.
Monge: There is characteristic vegetation in the Maquenque wetlands. The Maquenque area has been identified as the only site that allows connectivity between Nicaragua and Costa Rica for the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, this and the binational approach are the key pieces that we are promoting.
Q: Have the political problems surrounding the San Juan River affected your work?
Monge: In reality, those are problems at the government level in national capitals. We have continued to work closely with all of the groups in the San Juan River area. We hold Binational Macaw Festivals, and Nicaraguans come here and we go there. There is an effect in the sense that a visa is needed to travel by boat in the San Juan River, but nothing more.
Chassot: What is affected is implementing shared conservation initiatives on a larger scale. It makes it very difficult to reach an agreement; for example, we serve as a bridge between the Ministry of Natural Resources of Nicaragua and the Ministry of the Environment and Energy of Costa Rica. We work well in the field, but we cannot influence the presidents or ministers to agree to ratify conventions. The political level affects us. For this reason, there are projects that cannot go beyond being preliminary assessments or evaluations because they cannot have impact at higher levels.
Salas: It may be that one significant aspect for Ramsar is that it encompasses wetlands or trans-boundary systems. I hope that in the future, our being in a trans-boundary or bi-national sector can help us obtain funds for studies of the wetlands.
Q: How would the declaration as a Wetland of International Importance support the sustainable development of the area?
Salas: We did an economic study that considered what people thought about the hydric resource to continue seeking an integration of the ecological, human, and economic factors. The refuge’s management plan analyzes what can be changed and what can be improved, how local people view the wetlands, how to get them involved with the refuge’s management, and how to know if they are willing to participate in the conservation of the wetlands. Perhaps these small actions and a bit of direction on how to use or perfect the management plan can assist sustainability.
Chassot: For me, it isn’t so much the declaration itself but rather the research that Salas carried out. His report is the sum of available knowledge about the wetlands, their characterization, and their threats, problems, and possible solutions. Therefore, on the basis of this document, we are going to be able to carry out an entire strategy for sustainable development focused on the wetlands which includes ecotourism, visitation, research, and education. In the end, these wetlands will be an integral part of the conservation initiative — not just as an element of the landscape, but as a central part of the development of the refuge, local populations, and economic benefits.
Q: What still needs to be done for these wetlands to be declared a Ramsar site?
Salas: 2008 is the year of the Conference of the Parties and the goal is that the Ministry of the Environment and Energy will collaborate and we will present the technical sheet for its adoption. From that point, we will begin to seek solutions for the problems found in the field at the level of the wetlands, the refuge, and the populations that use the wetlands. The study is a platform.
Chassot: Mauricio’s study is a milestone because the wetlands of this zone have never been studied with this level of detail.
Salas: Going into these wetlands is an adventure in itself. Just entering them creates a sense of ignorance about how far we can reach and many investigators do not like this. You have to go in with a whole work team and have contacts in the zone. This was possible thanks to the funds that the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund provided, and funds in hand.
Monge: CEPF has supported three basic studies: the land tenure, the management plan, and the analysis of satellite images, all are part of the project to consolidate the MMNWR. Then they funded a thesis on the structure and composition of a fragmented forest landscape and later came this project for the application of Ramsar Convention guidelines in the conservation of the wetlands of the Maquenque Mixed National Wildlife Refuge.
Q: What do you see for the future?
Monge: The dream is to see this zone converted into a national park by obtaining resources to acquire all of these important lands, with forest in good condition, for absolute conservation. Also, to be able to conserve this zone in order to have sources of water in the future.