Jessa Reid Bolling
Costa Rica has had some of the highest rates of deforestation in Central America.
People are now working to save what was lost.
The land is covered in a blanket of emerald grass, soft to the touch. The grass sways as a light breeze sweeps across the field. Cows stand in groups of two or three, basking in the sun.
There isn’t a trace of the rainforest that once stood where farm animals now graze. Trees do not tower over the earth, blocking the sun and wind. Monkeys do not dangle from vines or jump from branch to branch. Sloths do not sleep nestled near the tops of trees. There are no bird calls. Instead, just the occasional moo carries across the field. There is no sign of what once was.
People like Rebecca Cole, director of the Las Cruces Biological Station and Wilson Botanical Garden for the Organization for Tropical Studies, are now tasked with researching the mass deforestation that has occurred in Costa Rica and finding ways to save the forests.
“I’m originally from Costa Rica, and my parents were some of the first settlers of the south frontier of Costa Rica, so I like to tell people my parents were some of the people that helped cut the rainforest down, and that all happened very quickly,” Cole said. “Now my job is to figure out how to get it to come back, and that’s a long, long process.”
Costa Rica had one of the highest rates of deforestation in Central America in the 1980s and ‘90s. According to the organization REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), in 1960, 63 percent of the country was covered in forest. In 1987, that number dropped to about 21 percent.
Cole moved away from Costa Rica at age 12 and returned to the country as an adult. Living out of the country for so long, Cole can see the difference a few years can make.
“When I was a kid here, I remember there being a lot more forest,” she said. “We’ve lost, in this particular area of Costa Rica, 40 percent of the forest cover. There was this time of wholesale deforestation, and that pretty much stopped.”
“When I was a kid here, I remember there being a lot more forest.”
One of the biggest causes of deforestation in Costa Rica was cattle ranching. People cut down areas of the forests to create land suitable for raising cattle. This has been a popular practice across much of the country.
Another problem Costa Rica has faced is land ownership. In the 1950s, the government opened up areas of land in southern Costa Rica for settlement, Cole said. This paved the way for more deforestation.
“People could get titled to land, so people who were really poor, who didn’t have land elsewhere, could come here and actually eventually get ownership of the land, but they had to improve it, and of course, improving it meant cutting down the trees and planting crops,” she said.
Tropical hardwood plantations have also played a role in deforestation. Farmers have often cleared out forests to make room for those plantations. In addition, plants like bananas and oil palms are efficiently produced in low-land areas, so forests in such areas were often cleared to make way for farming.
Another cause of deforestation is swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture. This is when a family or a small group of people burns a plot of forest to clear it. They then plant in the ash that is left behind.
“The ash acts as a fertilizer for a few years before the soil gives out, then they’ll abandon that area and move on to the next one, and that just keeps going,” said Michael Steinberg, associate professor of geography and deforestation expert at The University of Alabama.
When the families move on, they leave the the land without replanting the forests. Though this is usually associated with other areas of the world, Steinberg said this can still be seen in some areas of Costa Rica.
“You still have poor people who are struggling to live sort of very hand-to-mouth existences,” he said.
"We need to be willing to take care of nature overall. Not only the forests but the oceans and everything around."
Deforestation has caused several other problems in Costa Rica that became apparent over time, such as pollination and watershed destruction. The loss of creatures like bees and some birds, who call the forests home, causes a problem with pollination of plants. Fewer pollinators leads to less productive crops.
Watersheds separate flowing waters. Getting rid of forest cover causes watersheds to erode, and over time that can cause both water quality and quantity to decrease. In addition, without forest cover on hills, water runs right down hillsides, causing flooding in low-land areas. This water can carry silt into the oceans, reducing the productivity of fisheries and damaging coral reefs.
To combat deforestation and climate change, organizations like Reforest the Tropics create projects to plant various trees and plants. These projects are meant not only to replace any trees that have been cut for purposes such as timber, but to take carbon dioxide out of the air.
The worldwide concentration of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, according to a 2013 report from the Mauna Loa Observatory, a research facility that has monitored carbon dioxide levels in the air since 1958. This shows a nearly 24 percent increase in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels since the observatory began their monitoring 60 years ago. To counter these high carbon dioxide levels, RTT creates tree nurseries funded by donors looking to take part in their carbon offset farms project.
When companies, for example, release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the process of creating products or using electricity, they can purchase carbon offsets. Offsets are projects where trees are planted that will release enough oxygen into the atmosphere to counter the carbon dioxide generated by the company.
Just outside of Guacimo, RTT has a new project growing under its care. At only seven years old, many of the trees have grown to nearly touch the surrounding canopy while others grow at a slightly slower pace, content to stay closer to the ground for a while longer. This project is the result of multiple donors seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.
Victor Martinez, a forester with RTT, said that the contracts they offer involve the donor providing the materials needed for the project, and then RTT trains foresters on how to maintain the land for the duration of the contract. RTT creates contracts with donors 25 years at a time, meaning they will plant and maintain the donor land for the duration of the contract. When one contract runs out, Martinez said that often donors will agree to another 25 year period.
Superior Nut Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of RTT’s biggest donors, first partnered with RTT in 1998 with the goal of becoming a carbon-balanced company by the end of their 25-year contract. They achieved their goal ahead of time, becoming carbon-balanced in 2013.
“If we make four contracts in a row, that will make 100 years of permanent forest,” Martinez said. “When you have over 100 years of carbon sequestrated from the forest, that can make a real impact against climate change.”
However, even with the success RTT has seen from donors eager to make their businesses or organizations more environmentally friendly, Martinez said that there just aren’t enough companies willing to mitigate their carbon emissions to slow down climate change.
Despite the resistance he encounters, Martinez remains dedicated to his work in combating carbon emissions. He occasionally travels to schools across the region, educating the future generation on climate change and the importance of combating it.
“I’m trying to do my part,” Martinez said. “When I give my little speech to students, I tell them that I’m trying to do my part.”
Over 130 miles west of the project sits the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a protected forest of over 35,000 acres atop the Continental Divide where the Atlantic and Pacific slopes meet. Within the reserve are many species of flora and fauna that draw visitors into the misty trails.
Oscar Perez, a guide for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, said that the reserve is already seeing the effects of climate change, such as animals moving higher up the mountain into the cloud forest to run from rising temperatures.
One of Monteverde’s most famous animals, the golden toad, was once a species found only in the reserve. It has not been seen since 1989 and is now presumed extinct, potentially the victim of climate change, among other contributing environmental factors.
Perez, however, believes that the warmer weather caused by climate change made the golden toad climb higher into the cloud forest. He holds on to hope that one day it will be found again, hiding in the upper areas of the forest, and he believes its’ disappearance emphasizes the importance of protecting nature and the animals that call it home.
“We need to be willing to take care of nature overall,” Perez said. “Not only the forests but the oceans and everything around.”
Many people are already conscious of the environment and conservation. For Cole, the tides are changing.
“The good news is in the last 15 years, forest cover has actually increased, and the conversation that people have about this is totally different,” she said. “People talk about conservation here. They talk about how much was lost, that we really need to reforest, that we really need to take care of the land and our natural resources. Despite the fact that the forest was laid to waste, the people are really conscious of the need to do better at this point.”