Thursday, February 16, 2017

High Altitudes and High Hopes

Being from the relatively flat Midwest, high altitudes have always mesmerized and slightly intimidated me.  Thus, everything about our time at Cuericí, a montane biological station surrounded by oak forest and susceptible to visits from the stray drifting cloud, has been thrilling and new (except for the cold; that I was quite familiar with).  Cuericí is unique not only because it is the highest elevation station that we will visit (the station is located approximately 2600 meters above sea level), but also because it houses a small, family-run trout farm in addition to a biological station that hosts student groups.  Our activities at the site were divided into three categories/ecosystems: the trout farm/finca, the surrounding montane moist oak forest, and the páramo, a unique high-altitude ecosystem.
My initial impression of Cuericí was one of a blissful environmental utopia.  Upon our arrival in Cuericí, we met Don Carlos, owner of the trout farm and manager of the field station.  He took us on a tour of his trout farm that he runs with his daughter, Ana.  While trout are non-native to Costa Rica, Don Carlos has done a good job of creating a sustainable enterprise that works with and not against nature.  Don Carlos spoke to us about how he grows his trout without hormones, and how he only uses non-genetically modified fish.  He noted that it is his responsibility to keep the water that courses down from the mountain as clean as possible since there is a town downstream from him.  It is evident from our discussions with Don Carlos that he has a deep respect for nature.  While his grandfather, who owned the land on which Cuericí was founded, cut down the forest to create cattle pasture, Don Carlos now is replanting the forest and conserving it; the woods surrounding the field station that consist of secondary forest (what used to be cattle pasture) as well as untouched primary forest.  During a hike in the primary forest, Don Roberto pointed out ancient oak trees who were hundreds of years old and a magnolia tree that he could obtain thousands of dollars for cutting down, but that he protected because he believes that the forest takes years to grow and money can be spent fairly quickly.  His other conservation efforts include replanting palms, which are cut down and used for food. 
Our high-altitude adventures took us beyond the boundaries of Cuericí and up to an elevation of about 3000 meters above sea level.  By far the highlight of my time at Cuericí was our hike in the páramo.  After this semester, if someone asks me what my favorite ecosystem is, I can answer without hesitation that this is it.  The best way that I can describe this ecosystem to fellow Midwesterners who may not have seen mountains is a high-elevation desert.  The páramo is dry and full of stout, clumped vegetation with waxy and/or hairy leaves.  These physical characteristics minimize the desiccation the plant experiences and protect the vulnerable plant tissue from cold temperatures.  I was surprised at how diverse the vegetation was, despite the generality of these shared characteristics.  On our tour, we identified a member of the cilantro family, a relative of St. John's wort, and pink sphagnum moss which stores water, essentially becoming the water bottle of the páramo.  Along the way, our guide, a native of the páramo, pointed out plants that could be used to treat insomnia and menstrual cramps.  Unfortunately, the páramo is not immune to sustainability issues.  For example, our guide, Jenny, explained that the beautiful sphagnum moss that provides water for other plants in the ecosystem is often harvested to make baskets.  According to Jenny, even scientific research on the páramo can hurt the ecosystem, as digging or manipulating the ecosystem in order to see how it reacts can harm the ecosystem.  After seeing all that the páramo has to offer, I want to protect this unique ecosystem that sustains both visitors like our group and people like Jenny whose homes and livelihoods depend on its health.  
Wanting to preserve the páramo and the oak forest at Cuericí is one thing, but how does one go about actually protecting these spaces?  An interesting question that was raised during our time here was whether the Cuericí model—the biological station, the trout farm, the conserved forest—is sustainable.  Although Don Carlos’ intentions are good, the operation of Cuericí is not flawless and there are certainly challenges inherent to the running of the station.  For example, trout is non-native to Costa Rica and, although Don Carlos may try to keep the water leaving his farm clean for those who live downstream of him, trout eggs may still be swept into the watershed from the finca.  Additionally, the mission of Cuericí may shift in years to come.  Don Carlos may be the caretaker of Cuericí, but he is not its sole owner.  An association of conservation-minded lawyers and doctors purchased the land of Don Carlos’ grandfather and helped turn it into the conservation utopia that it is today.  It is unclear whether the children of these socios who will grown up in the city and will inherit ownership of the site will have the same respect for and dedication to the forest at Cuericí that the current owners do. 
The case of Cuericí exemplifies how conservation does not exist in a bubble; many factors (and people) are involved in creating a space where conservation thrives.  It is not only selfless individuals like Don Carlos who can see conservation efforts through.  After seeing how Jenny and her family make their living as guides who host tourists and teach them about why the páramo is interesting and worth preserving, I find myself doubting whether conservation necessarily entails extreme financial sacrifice.  While ecotourism can be destructive, with regulation and common sense, it is an important opportunity to teach citizens about the wonder of their country.  I believe that programs to incentivize conservation could entice more people to devote their lives to protecting nature than just selfless individuals like Don Carlos.  In my opinion, we do not need to sacrifice to conserve natural habitats like Cuericí.  I think that we need to commit to creative and perhaps unconventional or new solutions to protecting the natural beauty that surrounds us.  I look forward to learning more about what concrete solutions, such as government programs or community-based efforts, are being implemented currently, and what new solutions are being proposed here in Costa.
Emma Roszkowski, Grinnell College

Fishing, Hiking, and Surviving the Cold Wind


When I was picturing Costa Rica cold weather and oak forests definitely did not pop into my head. So when we arrived at Cuericí and were given three heavy blankets I was a little shocked to say the least. In the orientation packet it said to make sure and bring enough warm clothes and in my mind I thought, “I go to school in Minnesota it can’t be much colder than that. I’ll be fine.” However, once you get up above 2600 meters it’s a whole different story. Our visit to the Cuericí biological field station and the Páramo, which is a special ecosystem that occurs above 3000 meters, demonstrated the true diversity of ecosystems in Costa Rica.
At 2600 meters Cuericí is, in my mind, a very special and unique biological station. Tucked away in the Talamanca mountain range it has protected oak forest in addition to a trout farm and some pastureland. Don Carlos, who has always lived on the land, runs the station. We first arrived at this station by driving on a very bumpy, windy road. The combination of the much colder weather and the cabin style of the station made it feel like home. We first toured Don Carlos’s trout farm, which was not only interesting, but a good test of my Spanish listening ability as well. Although trout are not native to Costa Rica, the farm is an important income for Don Carlos and keeps Cuericí running. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I’ve always heard a lot about fishing and the problems that are encountered in the industry but I didn’t realize how delicate the process of raising trout could be until touring Don Carlos’s farm.  Don Carlos farms his trout in a very natural way without using hormones or fancy machinery. They even sort through the eggs they plan to use for breeding the trout by hand. Don Carlos has learned all of his methods by experimenting, which is something that I found particularly astonishing. Several days after touring the trout farm we had the opportunity to catch and clean trout for lunch. I had the exciting experience of catching absolutely nothing, but in the end it tasted delicious.
In addition to our fishing experience we went on several hikes to experience the higher elevation ecosystems. Our first hike was through the oak forest at Cuericí led by Don Carlos. Here we heard hummingbirds singing their hearts out to attract mates, saw a multitude of butterflies and examined the differences between secondary and old growth forests. I was surprised to find out that whole trees would sometimes be cut down to harvest a moss that is used in nativity scenes around Christmas time. As we went along the hike it amazed me that in the past part of the forest used to be pastureland and recovered naturally to become the secondary forest that it is today.  As we learned at our previous site, reforestation is not always so simple.
The next day we took the OTS car up the road to go hiking in the Páramo. In the Páramo the temperature changes rapidly and ranges from about 26 ºF at night to 85 ºF during the day. It is also windy, dry, and subject to strong sunlight as 97 percent of ultraviolet light entering the atmosphere makes it to the ground. These extreme conditions result in unique adaptations that give the Páramo a high number of endemic organisms, meaning they can only be found in this ecosystem. For example, plants benefit from being shorter to the ground because it’s warmer in low temperatures and provides more protection from the wind. Therefore the plants we observed were mostly grasses, small shrubs, and herbs. On our tour of the Páramo I felt like every other plant we learned about had some kind of medicinal or practical purpose. From the Lycopodiaceae family to the Asteraceae (daisy) family we learned about plants that when prepared the right way could cure ailments from a UTI to a stomachache. In addition to the medicinal properties, we learned what tasted good if we ever happened to be lost in the Páramo. To my surprise, we tried a berry that tastes like a mixture of apple and banana. As we sampled and examined plants we made our way higher up to a point where we could look out and see the Pacific Ocean and the town of Cartago off in the distance. If it had been a little less cloudy we would have been able to see the Atlantic Ocean as well. As we headed back down to the car I remember thinking about how crazy it is for these plants to adapt to such extreme conditions and on top of that many of them have practical uses for humans.
Cuericí and the Páramo gave me my first taste of the amazing diversity of ecosystems in Costa Rica. Learning about the uniqueness of these ecosystems also helped demonstrate the importance in conserving them. While we were there our lectures and discussions covered how conservation works in Costa Rica. We also discussed this with Don Carlos who explained how difficult it can be to live and conserve yet conservation is still so important. Listening to Don Carlos was very inspiring since he is so passionate and committed to protecting the forest at Cuericí even when it is difficult financially. Although we were only here for four days, there are many aspects of life at Cuericí that I will miss such as seeing the sunset over the mountains, feeling the slight mist from the clouds directly overhead, and especially the cups after cups of hot chocolate that we had every night trying to stay warm. Hopefully I’ll be able to return one day.

Hayley Stutzman, Macalester College

The Thousand Year Oak

Today we exist in a world where things come and go at a relatively rapid pace. Movies or songs that people swear to be the greatest that ever will be, seem to be so rapidly forgotten and replaced. It is incredibly rare for something to last one hundred years let alone a thousand. Thus, it is exceedingly difficult for humans to comprehend the magnitude of something that has existed for a thousand years.

While hiking in the forests of Cuerici, a biological field station positioned high in the mountains along the continental divide of Costa Rica, we came upon a towering old oak by the path. As we marched through the high elevation primary forest, our guide and the manager of the land, Don Carlos, an older but clearly still powerful and intelligent man, turned to our group and asked how old we thought the tree was. Someone shouted out, “One hundred and fifty years old!” Personally, I thought it could not be more than three hundred. Much to our collective surprise, Don Carlos stated that the tree was estimated to be over one thousand years old.

To think about that concept is utterly insane. Civilizations have expanded, innovated, overreached, and withered away time and time again and still that oak stands, uncaring. No satellites orbited the world when this tree took root, nor did any cars buzz through the night. There were no atom bombs to destroy us or airplanes to unite us. This tree has continued its quiet and peaceful existence deep in these back woods watching children grow up and bring their children to it, who would in turn do the same themselves.

The sheer impressiveness of this tree can be inspiring, yet it can also be harrowing. To think that trees of this stature are felled regularly by humans who have been on this world for a literal fraction of the time that this tree has stood is a crushing blow. How is it fair that any member of a species whose existence ends far before they as an individual can fully comprehend the world around them have such power to alter and ultimately destroy it? To stand next to a tree like this brings on a creeping humility. Without words, this tree demonstrates how little time humans are given on this world.

Luca Grifo-Hahn, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland