Interview by Dipika Chawla, Rainforest Alliance
In the 1940s, Don Lindley Lumsden and his family came to own the 52 acres (21 hectares) of tropical Costa Rican rainforest they would eventually name Chilamate Jungle Private Reserve. This tract of land, part of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor, is one of the most biologically important areas in the world. At a time when endless incentives and virtually no restrictions made cutting down trees extremely profitable, the Lumsdens remained staunch protectors of the flora and fauna under their care-and continued to do so for more than 60 years.
In 2006, Meghan Casey and her husband Davis Azofeifa became the new owners of Chilamate Jungle Private Reserve and took up the mantle of environmental stewardship. They immediately began building Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat, the sustainable tourism project which now welcomes visitors to explore the private reserve. We talked with Meghan Casey, who co-founded the retreat with her husband, about her experience maintaining a private nature reserve and starting a sustainable lodge.
Question: The Chilamate private reserve was founded more than 60 years ago – how did you and your husband come to own the property?
Casey: I had originally come to Costa Rica on behalf of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to work with coffee growers. During that time I met my husband, who is from Sarapiquí, the province in which Chilamate is located. Just after the birth of our daughter, my husband and I were trying to come up with a family project that would really make a difference in the area, in terms of conservation. One day, we were walking by a river very close to where his family lives and decided to explore a little farther than usual-I remember coming upon a sort of hidden place with all of these beautiful flowers. We came across some people who turned out to be the caretakers of the property, and they let us look around for a bit. We asked if the owner was selling the property, and they said that they had no idea, so we went back home. A few days later, we got a call from Don Lumsden’s daughter, who by then was in charge of the reserve. She had been having trouble maintaining it herself for some time, but for years she had refused to sell because she wanted the next owner to be someone who was from Sarapiquí and committed to protecting the land. It turned out that she knew my husband’s family, and when she heard about our ideas for a family conservation project, she was extremely supportive.
After that phone call, it was like a dream come true. We didn’t already have the necessary financing, but we basically moved some mountains to acquire the financial backing we needed, and in 2006, we became the new owners of the reserve.
Q: What are you doing to manage the Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat so it has minimum impact on the environment and contributes to the local economy?
Casey: As soon as we started our sustainable tourism project, we got the Rainforest Alliance’s manual for best tourism practices and started from there. We attended that first training session thanks to our participation in the Costa Rican Bird Route, a trail in the northern region of Costa Rica where there is a very high diversity of bird species. I think we might have been invited because some of the larger, more established hotels were not going to show up. For those hotels, it wasn’t that important to learn about sustainability, but for us, it was tremendously important-it was why we bought the reserve and started Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in the first place. So we participated in all the training events we possibly could, and continue to do so now.
We learned a lot from the training sessions, but we learned even more when the Rainforest Alliance’s Verification program auditors came to our property and gave us some really great advice about improvements we could make. While my husband and I have always been committed to sustainability, we were not exactly “business people.” When the auditors came the first time we had no computer, no website, no written materials, and no real business plan. They gave us ideas and examples for the business side of our project, and that was extremely valuable. They helped us develop a sustainability plan and a mission statement, and they told us that we needed to keep track of everything we were doing in terms of our work in conservation and with the local community. They said that we were doing great work for sustainability, but that it was very important for us to put it all down on paper and have evidence of what we were doing.
We’ve had an incredible amount of support from the Rainforest Alliance team down here in Costa Rica, more than we had ever imagined we would. The Alliance has even helped us with making connections-for example, they referred us to a student from a nearby technical university who is here now helping us to become certified by the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program.
Q: What are some examples of sustainable business practices you’ve adopted?
Casey: We exclusively use biodegradable soaps and cleaning products, and we have solar panels that provide a large percentage of our electricity. We also use live bacteria in our drains and sinks to clean the plumbing system. All of our organic waste is composted, and we recycle everything we can. Unfortunately there is no municipal recycling program here, but we are always finding creative ways to deal with our trash.
My husband is really creative with devising eco-friendly alternatives for running our business. For example, he built a system of diverting rainwater for washing purposes and the toilets. Not only do we recycle everything we have, we also buy recycled materials from the local garbage company. We use recycled wood, stone, and glass in all of our buildings-all of the windows in our lodge are made out of recycled glass. If we need any wood, my husband picks up the “waste” wood from the local tree farm. The wood is perfectly sturdy and good to use, but may be a little crooked, or for some reason un-sellable for aesthetic reasons, but it ends up giving the lodge a more rustic look.
Q: Has doing all this helped your business financially?
Casey: Yes, purchasing “waste” wood and recycled materials from local businesses definitely brings down costs significantly. And, because we use live bacteria to clean our sewage system, we don’t need to pay to have our septic tank cleaned. We find the biodegradable products we use to be more effective in the long run. In addition, our commitment to sustainability attracts visitors, particularly the kinds of visitors we’re looking for-those who themselves are passionate about sustainability and conservation.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in implementing sustainable business practices?
Casey: I think the hardest thing about running our businesses is trying to find a financial equilibrium. We want to charge reasonable prices while generating enough income to support our conservation efforts. We have very clean and comfortable lodging, but it was never our intention to be a high-end luxury resort. We don’t want to fall into the error of trying to please everyone, and we want to make sure the people who come to stay with us genuinely want to support sustainability and the environment. We explain to all of our guests that every dollar they give us goes to helping to sustain our project, our work in conservation, and the community.
The rest of it just comes from our hearts, so it hasn’t been all that difficult.
Q: How does the Chilamate lodge support the local community?
Casey: We make it a priority to support our neighbors’ businesses whenever we can. We’re lucky to have a place close by where we can buy cheese, eggs, milk, chicken, and even fish. As I mentioned before, we buy recycled materials from local businesses for our lodge. We also recommend our guests go on tours with local companies.
In addition, Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat facilitates a program with Earth University and about 60 families in our community who run small farming operations. We meet periodically, and the farmers learn how to integrate affordable sustainable practices into their every day farming. As a group, we brainstorm and discuss ideas for the sustainable future of our community.
I used to teach English and environmental education at our local school, and now I run a program in which we coordinate homestays and volunteer work in the community for international visitors. For those who want to stay at the retreat, we offer a very low rate to short-term volunteers and give free room and board to long-term volunteers who commit to staying for at least 6 months. We also give discounts to guests who make a donation to the community, do service days, or support the community in some way.
In addition, in partnership with an organization called World Leadership School, we organize global education projects with students in our local schools where we connect students here in Sarapiquí with students in the United States so they can share pictures, videos, and stories through distance learning.
Q: How else can guests be involved in practicing sustainability?
Casey: In addition to coordinating volunteer work in the local community, we receive volunteers who want to work on our property and help us with our sustainable tourism project. We try to play to our guests’ individual strengths and find a job that’s right for them.
We also have a very thorough guest welcome package to educate our guests on sustainable practices. Everyone here helps us recycle and compost. We also recommend that our guests do off the beaten path activities that support local businesses, like taking tours of our neighbors’ farms, learning how to make cheese, and participating in traditional fishing. We have an association of neighbors close by in Sarapiquí who do tours of the area, so we send as many people their way as we can. We try to make sure all the income from our guests’ activities goes directly to the community, and we try to help our guests make interesting and sustainable decisions about what to do during their stay.
Q: What are your plans and hopes for your work in Chilamate?
Casey: We’d love to expand our reserve so that more of the region’s biodiversity can be protected. We also want our neighbors, the small farmers, to be able to continue their work-it’s not easy for small agricultural businesses to sustain themselves, and we want to continue to support them in any way we can.
We are part of the Chilamate community, and it’s a wonderful place to live, work, and grow up in. We have a two-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter who are both in the local school system. This is our community and we feel passionate about supporting it in every way. I know that some of our neighbors were not conservationists and didn’t understand the importance of conserving Chilamate’s biodiversity-and maybe some of them still don’t understand-but they are learning, they respect what we’re doing, and they have been really supportive of our work. It’s so rewarding to have the support of the community and feel like we’re making a difference here. When we first got here, I kept meeting kids and parents who had never even been in the rainforest before. I am proud to say that today, there is not a single child in any of the three closest schools who has not visited us. This year we’re developing a program in the local schools so that students of every grade level can come to the reserve at least once a year and have the amazing experience of walking through a rainforest.