Thursday, April 21, 2016

Say Cheese!

We spent a great week at San Gerardo field station in Monteverde and after a long uphill hike back to the road and a shower at the hotel, the group went to visit the tourist areas of the town.  We weren’t there to be tourists, though; instead we were discussing the impacts of tourism on the region of Monteverde with our professor Mau. We learned a lot of interesting things, but what stuck with me was our visit to the Monteverde cheese factory.
The region of Monteverde is very famous for their dairy products sold under the name Monteverde. We visited the factory and the ice cream store inside, which sold the most amazing ice cream I’ve had. After eating our ice cream, we talked about the history of the cheese factory. When it first started, it was the only company selling high quality Costa Rican cheese, which was sold in San Jose for high prices. The excess whey from the cheese making process was dumped in a nearby stream.
Eventually research was done on the effect of the whey on the stream, which found that the pollution from this waste product was causing a lot of harm to the stream ecology. After some pressure to stop this pollution, Monteverde cheese came up with what seemed like a perfect solution. They would start a pig farm with 400 pigs and feed them the excess whey in addition to other food.
Unfortunately for the surrounding residents, the people who planned this didn’t think about all the ecological consequences of this project. Right after the project was started, these problems became very evident to the nearby landowners. A pig farm is very loud, very smelly, and the ponds used to treat water were a wonderful breeding ground for mosquitos. Not only did these problems lower the property value of the land, the neighbors to the pig farm couldn’t go about their daily lives without being affected by the pig farm.
The company listened to the major outcry and tried to fix the smell problem by planting water hyacinths in the treatment ponds, which are very good at taking pollutants out of water. Yet like before, this plan wasn’t fully thought out. The hyacinths did help with the smell slightly, but they also created even more surface area for mosquitos to breed. With their efforts of controlling the situation failing, they called in experts to help, aka our wonderful professor, Mau.
Mau and his team suggested a form of biological control using bacteria that targets the mosquitos and kills them. The bacteria population crashes when the mosquito population crashes, ensuring that it does not contaminate any other surrounding water sources. This plan worked very well for many years, but their original struggles show how complicated ecology can be. Without understanding the system or thinking of the consequences when changing the environment, a lot of damage can be done despite the best intentions.

Erin Gaschott
Grinnell College

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