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

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