Photocredit La Selva forest: greenvacationhub.com
La Selva Biological Station is situated at the very tip of a massive green corridor that comprises the second largest tract of lowland rainforest in Caribbean Costa Rica. To me, it is a constantly astonishing place, with a staggering diversity of plants, insects, birds and mammals. There are sloths on the bridge, caiman in the river, toucans outside the classroom and enormous ctenid spiders in the forest.
The station demarcates the last frontier of this forest and is the buffer between the forest and the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. Just outside the station, the Dole company has established a vast banana plantation that employs people from local towns around the area. We were given a tour of this plantation and as we walked through the orderly rows of bananas, I was struck by the contrast between the plantation and the forest we’d walked through the previous day. The plantation contained orderly rows of banana plants with all but the smallest weeds obliterated, each with its own water pipe. Each fruit was covered in a plastic bag to protect it from the elements and ravages of insects. In contrast to the magnificent sprawl of the forest, here was order and mechanism.
All my biology classes had trained me to have a strong negative reaction to the plantation. To me, being in the forest was infinitely preferable to the monoculture of the banana plantation. The forest is a haven for biodiversity, harboring animals and plants embedded in complex cycles of biotic and abiotic factors. It controls the microclimate without the area and contains untapped medical and edible resources. The way I see it, preserving the forest is important for the economic, social and environmental health of the region. Cutting it down to make plantations like the one we toured is a huge waste of this potential.
As my initial reaction died down, I began to ask myself whether I was truly qualified to make a value judgement between the forest and the plantation. While I am familiar with the scientific reasoning behind conserving the forest, I am also completely removed from these landscapes and not dependent on the land for my survival. I suspect that this was true for many researchers working in La Selva. Yet, the opinions of the scientifically educated elite are still considered more relevant to policy than local knowledge and local opinions.
What does La Selva look like to the people of Sarapiqui? Their access to it is highly limited and the work done here is largely irrelevant to their lives, although the station director Carlos De La Rosa is working to change this. It does function as a source of income for several local people, but very few get to experience the payoffs of the research done here. Perhaps then, it looks like a bubble inhabited by rich gringos, largely inaccessible.
The plantation, on the other hand, is a source of income for the community. It also employs women along with the men, which could empower them. More people from rural areas like Sarapiqui are leaving agriculture behind for jobs in the cities, in search of a better life. Plantation work may be the first step in this process for them. However, it comes with its own set of problems including low job stability and the health consequences of the high fertilizer and pesticide use. Regardless, choosing between the plantation and the forest would be a lot harder for the local people than it is for me.
This situation, to me, illustrates one of the greatest challenges of modern conservation: reconciling the need to protect forests with the needs of local communities. It seems a rather unfair battle, as most conservationists come from places of privilege and their opinions are given more weight than those of the less privileged local communities. Although there may be many points of agreement between the two parties, there seem to be many more points of contention. These disagreements are often exacerbated by the privileged nature of science and the often dismissive attitude of conservationists.
This friction may explain the continual failure of most conservation efforts. Perhaps if conservation is opened up and discussed openly with communities, and if conservationists make efforts to check their privilege, these programs stand a better chance of working. Climate change is affecting most people’s lives, in both large and small ways. Examples include loss of land through sea level rises, inflation and erratic weather patterns. More inclusive conservation programs can help secure a better future for all of us.