West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, February 09, 2009

For the past two weeks, I have been at Las Cruces Biological Station beginning my work as a professor for undergraduate study abroad courses. The job is exhausting, inspiring, overwhelming. I think I’m learning at least as much as the students are. We begin the day with breakfast at 6:30 (orange juice, gallo pinto, coffee, bread), then classes or field trips all morning and lectures at 2, 4, and 7. Time alone for reflection is a rare commodity. Mondays are our nominal day off, although I have spent most of the day catching up on correspondence, fine-tuning my lectures for next week, and helping a friend with some plant identifications.

The students are a diverse group: three Costa Ricans, two from South Africa, one from Japan, and the rest from the US. All of them are a joy to work with. They ask great questions and approach their work with determination and good humor. I was a bit nervous about teaching, but I have found that my nervousness disappears the minute I step in front of a crowd and start lecturing. It’s funny—if I had to stand up there and talk about myself I’d be tongue-tied with stage fright, but when I’m sharing information and making connections I get so engaged in the material that I forget to be nervous. I guess it’s a good thing I like teaching so much—I am pretty much overqualified for any other career!

Las Cruces in the dry season is almost preternaturally beautiful. It rains a bit at night, the morning dawns clear or with a little mist over the valley, and the days are endlessly blue except for the cap of distant clouds hovering over the summits of the Talamanca range. Part of the field station is a botanical garden, which includes the second-largest collection of living palms in the world. (My favorite: the Asian genus Zombia, with fearsome rows of spines adorning every part of it.) The manicured hillsides have gardens of bromeliads, gingers, anthuriums, tree ferns, and thousands of other plants. Venturing out of the garden, you can walk through a fragment of the remaining forest in this area. The steep slopes support stately, moss-covered trees with an understory of shrubs and broad-leaved herbs, with less lianas than the lowlands. It took me a few minutes of close observation to realize that most of the big trees here are actually oaks. With their small, unlobed leaves, they don’t look anything like the temperate oaks, but the fruits (acorns) are identical. Many are flowering now, dropping their catkins onto the forest floor.

As a tiny fragment of forest surrounded by degraded pasture land, Las Cruces is hardly the pristine rain forest that many people come to see. It’s an ideal place, though, for studying fragmentation and the way organisms persist in human-dominated landscapes. A friend of mine is engaged in a long-term project studying the movement of bats and birds between the forests and the small farms and pastures around the area. In a lot of ways, this landscape is more typical of the tropics than the places I studied in Sarapiquí. There’s a lot less natural forest remaining, the soils are much less fertile, and people have been present as a dominant force in the landscape for a much longer time. The amount of forest regeneration, and the rate at which forests come back when the land is abandoned, are correspondingly reduced. It’s a hard place to balance the necessities of conservation and human livelihoods. A few days ago, though, I had an experience that gave me a lot of hope for the future of the forest and the people here. We visited a coffee farmer, Roberto Jimenez, who is making a real effort to balance sustainability and economic viability on his 6 hectare (15 acre) farm.

We have a unit on coffee production in our environmental policy course. Some facts I didn’t realize: coffee is the #2 traded commodity on the world market, after oil. The price of coffee on the world market sometimes drops so low that it costs more to produce it than farmers can receive for their crops, yet the consumer price of coffee remains pretty high. From bean to cup, there is a markup of nearly 100x. The people who get the profits are the middlemen, rather than the farmers. Coffee production, as it’s practiced in most countries today, is a monoculture crop with huge chemical inputs. Conventional coffee processing (from fruit to bean) causes extensive soil and water pollution. I didn’t realize, either, how closely Costa Rica’s culture and national identity is tied to coffee. Costa Rica was a country of small farms, mostly producing coffee, since before its independence. Donations of coffee from farmers all over the country financed the building of the national theater in San Jose in the 1890s. Even in the idioms here, traces of this history remain. Someone who is mortally exhausted is hecho leña—literally, “made into firewood”—just like the coffee plant that has exhausted its productivity. But with the price of coffee dropping so low on the world market, many farmers have been forced to turn their land into cattle pastures—or sell out to land-speculating gringos.

We got to see an alternative a few days ago. At Don Roberto’s farm, a canopy of shade trees covers the coffee, providing habitat for birds and other animals that need forest cover. Living fences and erosion barriers protect the soil. He only uses chemicals where it is absolutely necessary, for instance in controlling fungal outbreaks. Usually he uses natural pesticides that he manufactures on the farm, based on sugar cane and distillations from native plants. For fertilizer, he relies on compost from pig waste, discarded coffee fruits, and rice hulls, along with the organic matter from the shade trees and from pruning the coffee plants. He collects methane from the pig waste as well in a biodigestor that provides nearly all the gas they use for cooking. He and about 50 other farming families in the area have founded a cooperative dedicated to environmental sustainability. They built a new coffee processing plant, based on new methods that minimize water use and compost solid waste. The cooperative markets directly to consumers, mainly in the US, in partnership with an organization called the Community Agroecology Network. Rather than selling through a middleman, direct trade allows the farmers to actually make a living wage. It’s also allowed them to return parts of their farms to the wild. Don Roberto has reforested almost 1/3 of his farm. Fifteen years ago it was all degraded pasture, and now there are trees in many areas providing shade, protecting the watershed, and allowing birds to return to the landscape. A recent study by a visiting student found 50 species of birds visiting Roberto’s property. In Costa Rica, the decision to reforest is not one to undertake lightly. Once an area has been in forest for more than 15 years, the owner is not allowed to cut it or extract wood without a lengthy permit process. (While this law has protected some areas, it’s also caused a lot of damage: rather than letting their forests survive, many people will cut them back to the ground before they get more than 15 years old so that they don’t lose control of the land use on their farms. Several of the young forests I surveyed in Sarapiquí have since been cut for this reason.) For Don Roberto, reforesting part of his farm has been an act of faith. It was so inspiring to hear him talk about what motivated him to change. Here I translate and paraphrase, but this is pretty close to what he said:

“The way I learned to farm was a destructive way, with chemicals that poisoned the earth and our families and the people who bought our coffee. In recent years we started to realize that these methods don’t work in the long run. The coffee plants produce a lot of fruit, but they die faster. Our families were getting sick. We decided to start a new cooperative based on new ideas. It’s not organic farming—the humidity here makes it almost impossible to get an organic crop to grow—but we reduce chemical use as much as we can. We use the leaf litter from the shade trees for compost. And we plant trees so the birds can come back. I love to see birds on my farm. We try to be in harmony with nature. For so long we were fighting against nature on our farms, and now we are learning that we need to work with it instead.
“I hear people talk about the third world. What is the third world? There is only one world, and it belongs to all of us. The good that we do, however small, is good for all of us. The bad things we do come back to all of us. We can’t change everyone all at once, but we can make small changes for the better, and if enough of us do, it becomes a big change.”

I wish more people thought like Don Roberto Jimenez. One of the most inspiring things here in Costa Rica is that so many people do think this way, and they are taking steps to change the world in little ways. Here is a way to start: if you drink coffee, get it here instead of Starbucks. I don’t think I’ve ever used my blog to advertise a product, aside from my own books, and I don’t intend to do it very often. But this one deserves your consideration. The profits go right to the farmers, allowing them to continue taking their own steps toward sustainability. The coffee is marvelously flavorful. When you taste it, imagine the green slopes of mountains in the distance, the shade trees full of birds, the families with enough money to send their children to school, and the forests coming back across the landscape.


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