by Michael L. Smith
During the past three decades Costa Rica has become recognized globally as a leader in conservation. For such a small, developing country to set aside a quarter of its land as protected is a decision unequaled. This initiative has helped bring the meaning of conservation to people everywhere. The government, however, cannot continue to buy up more and more land and then protect and manage it, too. Although this may be the desired goal, no government has resources available for such ambition.
Thanks to world awareness and a little help from our friends, assistance is now at hand. In Costa Rica several privately funded projects operate or are evolving to help protect and preserve our natural heritage. One of the most successful is FUNDECOR (Foundation for the Development of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range), a non-profit foundation set up to find ways to save Costa Rica's tropical forests.
Several years ago USAID started the Foresta Project in Costa Rica for reforestation and forest management in the Central Volcanic Mountain Range. AID opened offices in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, staffed it with foresters and began developing regional forest management plans. In 1990, when the project's term expired, FUNDECOR was established to carry on the work.
Since then, FUNDECOR, working closely with MIRENEM and the National Parks Service, has been hard at work to protect the remaining forests in the Central Volcanic Mountain Range. Supported by the interest from a $10-million trust fund established by AID and the Costa Rican government, they have continued and expanded projects to regenerate damaged forests and reforest areas clear-cut in years past. The most encouraging aspect of this is not that it is being done, but how.
FUNDECOR is working directly with the private citizens who own the rain forests, to create management programs allowing these proprietors to earn a decent income from their property by not cutting it to the ground. FUNDECOR's staff of foresters and "management engineers" devise individual plans tailored to the property. They then implement the plans, teaching the owners how to selectively harvest their forests, and acting as agents to help the landowners get the best price for the wood that is cut. Owners realize a comfortable profit, much more than they would have seen had they let a logger come in and clear the land. Their forest is left standing to continue producing and regenerating naturally.
FUNDECOR is entering the tour business. With all the success they are seeing, why bother with a tourism project?
Their commitment is to sustainable development of the forests within the Central Volcanic Mountain Range. The key word here is sustainable--it all has to continue on indefinitely. Landowners must continue to see sufficient income from their properties. Under the forest management program, the landowner realizes a good profit during the harvesting of his forest. But the next "season" in forest harvesting is eight to twelve years away. After the money's gone the kids still need to eat; it becomes very tempting to cut down a few trees. The management plan holds little weight against a hungry child.
FUNDECOR personnel realized the potential problem--and this is where their goal of sustainability really gets interesting.
The Foundation organized the 400 or so landowners into a cooperative. As successful managers, FUNDECOR is teaching landowners to manage their own tourism projects.
Thus was born the ultimate eco-tour. Tourists can now come to Costa Rica, choose from several informative and adventurous tours, and learn just how the forests and their inhabitants are being preserved. And because the landowners themselves are running the show, every dollar the tourist spends here goes right where it should: to the people who are actually saving the trees. (The good guys at FUNDECOR teach them how to do it, then quietly move on to the next project.) Nobody is closer to the preservation of the forests than the people who own them, live in them and work them.
What kinds of tours are available? A one-day tour shows exactly how the forests are being saved. During a hike onto a "farm" where the forest is being managed, see how a typical plan is implemented. Stop at a reforestation project and learn that open pastures can be successfully reclaimed. Visit a nursery and see that all trees used in the reforestation project are native species grown from seeds collected in healthy forests throughout Costa Rica. A fascinating stop near Guapiles shows what one family has done to reclaim a cow pasture. In a perfect example of non-traditional land use, they have developed a medicinal plant garden and nursery, and are repopulating the ground cover and selling forest flora for ornamental use.
For the adventurous conservationist the co-op offers a series of multi-day treks into the rain and cloud forests. These are challenging hikes of 15 to 25 miles that put you in intimate contact with the tropical ecosystem. A naturalist guide (from the co-op) will show you what they're working to save.
FUNDECOR has a long list of goals. Providing the core areas, represented by national parks and reserves within the Central Range, with sufficient buffer zone, is a major concern. Reforesting critical land between those core areas in an effort to consolidate the forest territory and create biological corridors is also an important goal. Their guiding mission is to do all of this in a sustainable way, for the forests and the people. They are doing an admirable job.
For further information on FUNDECOR's environmental and educational programs or the tours send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call their tel/fax number (506) 240-2624 or write to
P.O. Box 025216
Miami, FL 33102-5216
Updated on April 13, 1996 by M.L. Smith