Getting Connected Out on the Osa

In Focus, April 2006

By Ben Jolliffe

By the middle of March, the Rancho Quemado on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula used to be in bad shape. Even though this area of the southern region of the Mesoamerica Hotspot gets nearly six meters of rain a year, by the end of the three-month dry season, the farm often had no more than a trickle left in its water supply, making its name – “quemado” means “burned out” in Spanish – worryingly appropriate.

These days, however, Trino Ureña Granados, who has farmed Rancho Quemado for 40 years, has enough water to last through the dry season himself and to supply 200 others in the area. Thanks to the Costa Rican government’s innovative Payment for Environmental Services scheme, known as Pago por Servicios Ambientales (PSA), he has installed an effective irrigation system.

Facing deforestation from more than 30 years of unsustainable cattle farming practices, the Costa Rican government introduced PSA in 1996. Financed largely by a selective tax on fuel, the scheme allocates about $7-8 million per year to farmers and other landowners who agree to specific uses of their lands, including new plantations, sustainable logging, and conservation of natural forests.

For small farmers, however, or those with few resources and little education, it can be almost impossible to get through the complex application procedure to start benefiting from the government programs.

But with funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Fundación Neotrópica, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), supported 15 farmers like Granados by helping them apply for the scheme for eligible lands. For Granados, this means he is paid by the government to keep 28 of his 60 hectares under conservation.

On land that is not eligible for PSA, Neotrópica helped the farmers introduce sustainable agricultural practices, which will enable Granados and other farmers to continue stewardship of their land for many years to come.

Improving Biological Connectivity

Neotrópica’s work with farmers on the Osa Peninsula has been at the forefront of efforts to improve connectivity between the three protected areas that are critical to the survival of the region’s extraordinary biodiversity: the Corcovado National Park, the Terraba-Sierpe National Wetland, and the Piedras Blancas National Park.

The peninsula is home to between 4,000 and 5,000 species of vascular plants, as well as 124 species of mammals and 375 species of birds, of which 18 are endemic. Situated as they are in different parts of the peninsula, the individual protected areas are too small and isolated to maintain their present high levels of biodiversity, and to sustain viable populations of larger Endangered mammals such as the Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii) or Baird's tapir (Tapirus bairdii).

The Osa Biological Corridor connects the protected areas, enabling wildlife to roam freely between them. Biodiversity conservation corridors link major sites and protected areas in a network across wide geographic areas in order to maintain ecosystem functions and evolutionary processes. In addition, corridors are necessary for wide-ranging species and for ecological processes on which key biodiversity areas depend.

Neotrópica is working with a small group of local farmers across the 85,000-hectare Corridor to restore and reforest degraded land to increase this vital connectivity. The organization is also helping farmers diversify economically by introducing vegetable growing and ecotourism as alternate land uses, which helps to show neighbors and other communities that making a better living is not incompatible with looking after the area’s natural legacy.

Neotrópica’s strategy is shared by CEPF, whose strategy in the region includes integrating connectivity among critical conservation areas through developing economic alternatives for local people.

And in the Osa Biological Corridor, it’s certainly working.

Skills Flow From Neighbor to Neighbor

Seven farms have already joined the original 15 on the project. Together, they have brought 2,200 hectares of forest under protection, of which some 500 hectares are eligible for the government payments under the PSA scheme. These farmers have also planted 20,000 trees, and have grown an additional 15,000 in nurseries established on the farms.

Some of these – such as Tectona grandis – are planted in cultivated areas to help improve the condition of the soil, while others are planted in the protected forest to replace stands of species such as the Vulnerable ira rosa (Povedadaphne quadriporata). In the coming months, the farmers hope to grow other species from seed such as camíbar (Copaifera camibar) and quira (Caryodaphnopsis burgeri) for reforestation.

The Osa Peninsula remains one of Costa Rica’s poorest areas with few jobs, low levels of education, and poor infrastructure. There is also historical mistrust of environmentalists; in some past conservation attempts, local people were often not consulted about protected area creation. An earlier attempt at establishing the Corridor imposed what many landowners considered restrictive measures, and violent protests ensued.

But Vicente Granda, another farmer who lives not far from Rancho Quemado and also participates in the scheme, is pleased with the results. “Once it began, I didn't have any doubts,” he said. “It all seemed good to me – well-organized, well-planned, and people seemed motivated to move forward. The best thing about the project has been the friendship of the group and the companionship which we share.”

Making Sustainable Farming Successful

It’s too early to say whether the PSA project is achieving conservation targets, but farmer Franklin Valencia, also a participant, reports seeing more target species in the forest around his land.

Six farms have been introducing “silvopastoral” farming which combines cattle rearing with tree planting in hedges and elsewhere in fields. Much of the rain forest lost on the Osa was cleared by unsustainable logging and for cattle rearing in the 1980s, despite the soil and the terrain being unsuited for large-scale ranching. The farmers are discovering, however, that it is possible to raise cattle sustainably on smaller holdings.

Some 3,000 trees have been planted on these six farms. The pink trumpet tree (Tabebuia rosea) provides shade for cattle while Gliricidia sepium provides a useful source of cattle feed and can also be used for fuel wood.

A number of farmers have installed small “biodigesters” in which methane can be captured from decomposing vegetation and converted to fuel. This provides them with gas for cooking, and cuts down on the need for wood. Others are also improving degraded pasture with more nutritious grass species such as Brachiaria humidicola and Panicum maximun.

Improving Communication, Achieving Results

Granados worked on earlier reforestation projects run by the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, but he points to important differences in the current work. “The seed quality wasn’t always so good before, and now there’s careful consideration about which trees will be suitable for each individual farm. Before, it was a group decision.”

According to Jose Oduber Rivera, Fundación Neotrópica’s project manager, one of the main reasons for this success is the close cooperation between the technical and administrative arms of the project. Care is taken that both sides are fully informed of what the other is doing so that communications both internally and with the farmers on the project have been unusually effective.

Neotrópica has also benefited from being a partner in the Coalición Técnica de Apoyo al Corredor Biológico de Osa (CTCBO), a technical coalition of the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio), and a number of other leading local NGOs including Fundación Corcovado, a CEPF grantee who is coordinating park patrols for the Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks.

Important mapping data gathered by INBio – in another project funded by CEPF– has shown which areas of the Corridor are most critical for conservation of water, biodiversity, and other natural resources. The mapping project has also helped clarify disputed land rights in the area.

The CTCBO has helped produce pamphlets, booklets, and posters to raise awareness about Neotrópica’s project, the threats posed by hunting and unsustainable agriculture, and how others can join in the conservation effort.

Neotrópica representatives have attended workshops with other CEPF grantees to share what they have learned and have also visited nearby communities such as Perez Zeledon and Rio Claro to spread the word. But attempts to develop a regional organization representing local farmers and other citizens have unfortunately proved more difficult. Few people have come forward and those who have do not have the necessary experience.

The lack of good roads and communications mean many live in isolated and fragmented communities. History doesn’t help either. The majority of the population are immigrants from other areas in Costa Rica drawn to the Osa over the last 100 years in search of work, first in the 1930s gold rush and later on the fruit plantations. These immigrant populations have kept mostly to themselves, with little intermarriage even as the generations pass, so a shared sense of responsibility for the area is difficult to foster.

A Brighter Future on the Osa

Even if such regional organizations are not working formally, many of the farmers involved in the Neotrópica project have remarked on the sense of trust and openness that has developed between them. Links with local schools are also developing. Thirteen of the farms and five local schools have planted orchards and vegetable gardens, growing chilies, celery, peppers, tomatoes, and other produce.

The produce helps boost the poor diet that many suffer from in the region, and vegetables that are not eaten locally are sold on. The majority of the gardens are now making a profit, according to Arturo Ureña of Neotrópica: while the school gardens cost about $400 to establish, they have so far brought in $1,000 in income. The farms are seeing a profit as well: start-up costs were $900 but income is now at $2,000.

With his water supply secure, Granados is hopeful about the future and is already experimenting with growing pineapple and breeding agouti paca, a small rodent known for its good meat. Neotrópica director Carlos Pérez is positive although he remains nervous about upcoming elections, in which Environment Minister Carlos Rodríguez will leave office.

But with support for a sustainable future gradually growing at the grassroots level, perhaps conservation on the Osa peninsula is entering a new phase, a phase which might even require the optimistic Granados to look for a new name for Rancho Quemado.

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