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Agriculture, Sustainability and Pura Vida

Growing up beside the beautiful South Bay Wildlife Refuge in rural Vermont, I developed an interest in the intersection between conservation, agriculture, and rural development when I encountered the problems of eutrophication plaguing the Lake Memphremagog watershed in my hometown. I was perplexed as to how a community so connected to our forests and lakes had polluted our lifeblood with wastes from dairy farms and other lakeside developments. It ultimately took two summers of working as an intern for the U.S.D.A., where I interviewed farmers and helped implement nutrient management plans to address water quality concerns, that I finally appreciated the complexity of factors contributing to the environmental degradation and developed a better understanding of the challenges farmers face in addressing water quality concerns.[CB1] Fueled by my passion for conservation efforts within rural communities, at Dartmouth I wanted to continue exploring the underpinnings of problems associated with rural development and agriculture in ecologically-rich regions across the globe. It was due to this interest, as well as discussions with a biology professor whom I’d been volunteering for, that I set my sights on applying to work for a rural watershed monitoring project near Corocovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. With the help of the Dickey Center, I am currently working at a non-profit conservation organization known as Osa Conservation, which specializes in ecology/biology research and community outreach programs. Currently, I am working on Osa Conservation’s fledgling program titled “Healthy Rivers” (Ríos Saludables), which is a community-oriented water quality monitoring initiative engaging local researchers and communities in environmental education, data-collection, and evidence based decision-making.

The Osa Peninsula has 46 watersheds crossing protected rainforest habitats, cattle ranches, and teak-production lands before emptying their contents into the Pacific Ocean and Gulfo Dulce and feeding into irrigation and drinking water systems. As an intern, I am currently working to establish community-supported monitoring points at several of these watersheds, where community members and researchers will continue to collect data ranging from chemical water tests to measures of benthic macroinvertebrate community health, thereby allowing researchers and local communities to observe the impacts of different land use practices on their water sources. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been helping the program coordinator establish consistent water quality protocols so that the data collected at the river sites can be utilized in academic publications, and I’ve also been working to develop macroinvertebrate assessment protocols for younger students to take part in the watershed assessment process. The Ríos Saludables program also has several years’ worth of watershed data at their disposal that I am working to put into an online database and analyze.

Sustainability is at the core of the Ríos Saludables program, as the ultimate goal is that the data will be made readily available to farmers and local developers so that they can make informed decisions regarding agricultural or construction practices by taking into account the health of their local watersheds. As I’ve witnessed at several of our sampling sites, local cattle ranchers and teak plantation owners continue to raise their crops and cows directly alongside major riverheads with little rotation and no riparian buffer zones, thereby exacerbating erosion of nutrients and the already thin tropical topsoil. One of the main hopes is that by involving community members in educational workshops or in the watershed assessment process, they will be able to pinpoint areas of conservation priority and also have more incentive to implement sustainable measures (i.e.- buffer zones or crop rotation techniques) that will not only protect the health of the watershed, but also allow them to sustain their agricultural practices.

Engaging agricultural workers, local eco-lodge employees, and children alike has been a priority during our data collection excursions as we’ve recognized that for the program to be sustainable itself, the support of community members is vital. Part of my job in engaging communities involves speaking about the connection between the importance of healthy watersheds for both animals and humans. The peninsula’s forests are a conservationist’s dream, boasting nearly 2.5% of the biodiversity of the entire world and 2% of its endemic plants and animals in an area covering less than a thousandth of a percent of its total surface area (a feat that warranted National Geographic to describe the region as “the most biologically intense place on Earth”). Although the plethora of plants and animals often catches attention, humans have had a long presence in the area as indigenous communities have called the same forests home for thousands of years. Today, in addition to the plethora of amazing animals I see while working along the rivers, ranging from howler monkeys to frog-eating bats, I’ve had to recognize the connection that humans still have with the rainforest watershed system as well. One of the most thought-provoking aspects of my work has been learning about the ways in which local communities are connected to the conserved forests that zigzag across the Peninsula, often through conversations with stakeholders ranging from farmers to schoolchildren during watershed workshops.

Aside from monitoring local rivers and conducting watershed workshops, I’m also volunteering at Osa Conservation’s organic farm, which produces organic fertilizers, pesticides, and produce for the research station, practicing my Spanish, and soil sampling for a long term reforestation study that will be comparing low, medium, and high-diversity tree plots over time on Osa Conservation’s property.

Although the work has been challenging at times due the formidable heat, biting insects, and occasional language barriers, it has been an enriching experience to draw connections between the struggles of rural farmers in northern Vermont to those living amongst tropical rainforests in Costa Rica, and also to help form a program that will help conservationists and local policymakers better understand the peninsula’s complex water system, dispense water quality monitoring supplies and expertise, and allow rural communities to supplement and analyze real-time watershed data from across the peninsula. Through these efforts, I hope to foster communication between rural communities and conservationists in this unique corner of Costa Rica, and to equip rural communities with the tools necessary to manage their agricultural and town lands in a manner maximizing human and ecosystem health.

Working at the Osa Verde organic farm to plant native rainforest tree seedlings. These seedlings will be utilized in a number of reforestation plots on former cattle ranching lands.

Heading to our first sampling site at the cattle ranch near Puerto Jiménez.

Explaining nitrate test procedures to Alex, a local farm co-op employee, at the spring which supplies drinking water to his hometown.

Aside from monitoring rivers and helping at the organic farm, I’ve been able to help various biologists who pass through the station and experience some of the amazing wildlife. Here I’m holding a male riverside wren which we caught as part of a study investigating how songs are passed from mating pairs to their offspring.

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