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A global view from a mountain town: how conservation became ingrained in Monteverde

  • Beginning with Quakers arriving in the 1950s, Monteverde has become a distinct community in Central America.
  • In 1972, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established, securing a home for many rare species.
  • Today, many locals take conservation as a way of life, from organic farming to scientific endeavors to mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Sitting in a cloud forest on top of the Cordillera de Tilarán, the mountaintop town of Monteverde, Costa Rica seems isolated. But, its view stretches far beyond its boundaries. In today’s world, many believe that individual actions cannot make a difference. However, in Monteverde one community, made up of many individuals, has become the driving force behind conservation.

Monteverde is an exceptional place. It is an epicenter for biodiversity, international communities and scientific discovery. It was in these fog-shrouded forests that upslope migration of species was first documented. Unfortunately, in the tropics, mountain ecosystems – like cloud forests – are like canaries in a coal mine: they show early warning signs of climate change.

“Conservation is important in Monteverde because it happens because of grassroots efforts,” says Dr. Karen Masters a biologist, professor, and resident of Monteverde for over thirty years. “It happens because individuals feel empowered to do something.”

Farmers, scientists, and conservationists work hard—and work together—to be models and to have a global reach.

In a time of rising sea levels, changing climates, dwindling biodiversity, and shifting landscapes, “Costa Ricans on a mountaintop get it, they value it, they believe in it, they think critically about it, and they act on it,” says Masters.

The conservationist

Looking to live in a truly peaceful place, 41 Quakers relocated from Alabama in 1951 to settle in the Monteverde zone in Costa Rica – the country without an army. The Quakers divided the land between families, but set aside one third of this land to protect the watershed of the Río Guacimal.

Eladio Cruz was the first person to sell their land for conservation in Monteverde in 1986. After working with a biologist in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, he had a new appreciation for nature. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby.

In 1974, the Quakers formed the Bosqueterno, a reserve and organization created to protect this watershed. The Bosqueterno decided to lease approximately 550 hectares of this land to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve established two years before. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was created by the Centro Científico Tropical, an organization based in San Jose created for conservation and research of tropical forests.

From 1972 to 1982, Eladio Cruz worked in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve helping biologists conduct their research. The brightly-colored golden toad (Incilius periglenes) – now extinct – made scientists around the world flock to the mountain town to study the unique biodiversity found only in the cloud forest.

Agriculture and deforestation threatened both sides of the mountain range. With a new appreciation for nature, Cruz sold his farm to the Centro Científico Tropical in Peñas Blancas for conservation in 1986. He was the first person to sell land for conservation in Monteverde.

“I went back to Peñas Blancas, and my mentality was different. I wanted to preserve what was left and didn’t want to cut anymore,” Cruz said.

The Monteverde Conservation League formed the same year that Eladio sold his land. The League focused on purchasing land for conservation and gaining long-term protection through education, reforestation, sustainable development and scientific research. Cruz remains a board member of the League to this day.

To this day, Eladio Cruz works with conservation organizations—like the Monteverde Conservation League—to help protect more land and build biological corridors. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby

Cruz’s land was not only an important spark for conservation, it continues to provide a benefit. Situated in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, scientists can stay at his old farmhouse as they conduct fieldwork. Students studying abroad even stay there to learn and do research projects.

Conservation is embedded in the culture here. And unlike many areas in the tropics, Monteverde is greener because of it.

The farmer

Walking through Hermida Porras’ seventy-hectare farm, there is a wide diversity of plants. Her farm is full of coffee, bananas, avocados, chayote, pumpkins, yuca, chilies and many other types of produce. Not only does Porras grow her own coffee, but she roasts it as well.

Having a farm that is organic and environmentally friendly is not always the easiest choice, but Hermida Porras makes it her mission. She grows a wide diversity of produce, and sells it at the local farmer’s market. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby.

“I have visited farms where people use chemicals and I have noticed they don’t have many things, and you can see all the things that I have on my farm,” she said.

Porras’ organic farm is over thirty years old, and she is a prominent supplier at the local farmer’s market. She explains that she does not use chemicals because “nature has everything that the farm needs: herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.”

Nothing goes to waste. She uses scraps from her coffee production as fertilizer. She also described another trick where she mixes ripe mango or guava with water to fertilize.

Not only does Hermida Porras grow coffee on her organic farm, but she dries and roasts the beans as well. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby.

Giggling, Porras points to a citrus tree she just planted. Her neighbors just cut down a tree – and this was an act of defiance. Every time they cut down a tree, she grows something in its place on her land.

Porras takes her environmentally philosophy outside of her farm. She is in the process of making reusable bags for the farmer’s market out of old clothes, and charges people for single-use plastic bags.

Outside of Monteverde, she advocates for sustainable farming. She attends meetings and workshops, and is always trying to learn new techniques.

Having an organic farm is a fight Porras explains, “although we produce less than other farmers we have to keep producing in the right way.”

Every time her neighbor cuts down a tree, Hermida plants a new one to replace it. Here, she sits defiantly with her newly planted citrus tree. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby.

The scientist

Looking for an adventure, Karen Masters came to the mountaintop town for the first time 33 years ago. That sense of adventure is still present as she spots a puma on her camera trap. She set up about a dozen traps in the forest near her house simply out of curiosity.

A biologist, professor, and director of the Council for International Educational Exchange Sustainability and the Environment study abroad program it’s amazing that she has time for a scientific hobby. But, for Karen, conservation is a calling.

Dr. Karen Masters first came to Monteverde over thirty years ago. She is a biologist, professor, and director of the Council for International Educational Exchange Sustainability and the Environment study abroad program in Monteverde. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby.

“The environment is really important to me because as a biologist, as a mother, as a teacher, as a human being, I have come to realize that the environment gives us everything that we need to live,” she explains.

Karen not only conducts research in these forests, but she creates future conservation leaders through her study abroad program. Students learn about conservation and sustainability, and they see how it is done from the inside.

Living in Monteverde for decades, she sees the effects of climate change.

“Climate change is in Monteverde is not caused by activities in Monteverde… you can probably plant as many trees as you want and climate change will probably still proceed,” she said.

But, people here are doing something very noteworthy to respond.

Monteverde is now building biological corridors – in the context of climate change – to make these forests and the species that inhabit them more resilient. The corridors connect preserved land so that plants and animals can move up the mountain when lower elevations become too hot and dry due to global warming.

They also use a lattice framework that stretch across elevation bands. This way, there is room for plants and animals that already live at a specific elevation; they will not be immediately forced up the mountain in response to the newcomers.

Karen Masters checks her camera traps with Jessica Hoffmann. She deployed nearly a dozen traps in the forest near her house to see what types of mammals were roaming through the area. Photo Credit: Caitlin Looby.

The power of one – and the potential of many

Over 200,000 ecotourists – and potential cloud forest ambassadors – visit Monteverde every year. Even though hundreds of thousands of people come to this area each year, the community and their grassroot efforts still shine through.

In a world that is quickly changing, it is hard to know what will make a difference.

“It is really disorienting,” Karen explains. “And then you look at Monteverde, and everything that has been done here. It started with an idea that one person had, and it got communicated to someone else.”

Small actions changed everything because decades ago “people thought there would be no land to work in the future, but now the mentality has changed because people in Monteverde live for nature,” says Cruz.



Citations:

Nadkarni, N.M, Wheelwright, N.T. (2000) Monteverde: Ecology and Conservation of a Tropical Cloud Forest. Oxford University Press: New York.

Townsend, P. A., Masters, K.L. (2015) Lattice-work corridors for climate change: a conceptual framework for biodiversity conservation and social-ecological resilience in a tropical elevational gradient. Ecology and Society, 20. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07324-200201