Often people are drawn to certain environments. Personally, I am drawn to the tropics, specifically the rainforest. For this reason, I chose to do my internship for the last semester as a graduate student in the Professional Science Master’s Program for Environmental Management and Sustainability Master’s degree program at St. Edwards University in Costa Rica. As I lay awake in bed on my first night in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica, excited for what lays ahead, I think about where I am, how I got to this place, and what my goals are here.
Tres Piedras is a rural village located about 40 minutes inland from west coast of Costa Rica if you drive. For about 60 years now, the main source of income for the residents has been cattle farming. In a rapidly changing global economy, however, the people here are being forced to look outside Tres Piedras for work to support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, opportunities are often lacking and hard to get to from this area of the country. People are having to travel to Dominical for work, which is the nearest costal village with some opportunities (typically cleaning and maintenance jobs). Also, people here are having fewer children and farming less because of how difficult it is to raise a family on cattle grazing and subsistence agriculture.
I first learned about Tres Piedras while getting my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies at Binghamton University in New York. As summer approached during my sophomore year, I was looking for a way to escape the drudgery of waiting on tables at the local restaurant back home in Queens, New York, when I came across a flyer detailing a trip to Costa Rica. During the month of July, I would have the opportunity to take a tropical ecology class and receive internship credit for reforestation efforts and participating in sustainable development projects. I quickly contacted the professor directing the initiative, Dr. Richard Andrus, to secure a spot for myself in 2012. After having such an incredible time on the first trip, I decided to volunteer and go a second time for the month of July of 2013.
Moreover, I am extremely lucky to currently be back in Tres Piedras for my last semester internship of my Master’s degree program. The main purpose of the internship is to design and carry out a scientific research project for a company or organization anywhere in the world, which has the potential to lead to a job after graduation. Ever since my first trip to Tres Piedras in 2012, I fell in love with the place and its residents, and for this reason I had a strong urge to return here.
Although my undergraduate school no longer returns to Tres Piedras, I contacted the current owner of the property that I studied on in July of 2012 and 2013 to see if it was possible for me to carry out a research study there. Maricel, a lifetime resident of Tres Piedras and now owner of the 350 acre property, was happy to hear that I wanted to come back to the area and offered me and another classmate of mine a place to stay for the duration of our internship, which is recommended by our professors to be 6 months long. One of the reasons why I wanted to return to this location in particular is because there are both secondary and primary tropical forests on site. For my project I will be comparing the biomass of the trees and woody vines in the secondary forest to the biomass in the primary forest. The property is ideal for scientific research because of the two stages of forest growth, as well as for its the tremendous amount of biodiversity.
In addition to carrying out our own independent research projects, my classmate, Tessa, and I agreed to help Maricel figure out a way to attract people to this incredible property once again. For Tessa and I, this is crucial to our stay here. Without any incentive to keep this property intact with all its biodiversity, it is almost certain that the property will be developed to accommodate homes for more people. It makes no economic sense to keep this property as it is now because it is too large for Maricel and her family to manage while they spend most of their time working in Dominical, Costa Rica. The fact that it does not provide them with any revenue is a real problem, so Tessa and I have been thinking up ways to conserve the property while providing some economic benefit to Maricel and her family. Hence, ecotourism was an idea that we thought would be a great way to accomplish these objectives.
According to a paper written in 1965 by Hetzer, ecotourism has four main principles or pillars. The four principles “are minimizing environmental impacts, respecting host cultures, maximizing benefits to local people, and maximizing tourist satisfaction” (Buchsbaum 2004). Tessa and I proposed the idea of ecotourism to Maricel last week, and she was excited about the idea. We will be working to build a website for her to make the property known once again. Additionally, we are considering paying to put the property on a ‘work to stay’ type website like WorkAway.info or WWOOF.net (World Wide Opprotunities on Organic Farms) to recruit experienced people willing to help us start up some gardens and complete other maintenance tasks on the property.
Eventually, it would be great to form another connection with a university that is willing to send professors and students to carry out research, teach ecology, and complete internships here. This would provide Maricel with a steady stream of people coming to the property. Unlike ecotourism, this kind of partnership with a university has the potential provide long term stability to Maricel and the community of Tres Piedras.
The goals we set forth for ourselves seem overwhelming at times, but I have faith in our ability to convince the local and global community that tropical ecosystems, such as this one, can produce economic, social, and environmental benefits Tropical forests are in desperate need of conservation for a variety of reasons, and this property is the perfect place for us to start recognizing and realizing this essential truth. Personally, I have various things to consider before planning to live in Costa Rica long-term, but I am grateful and excited to just have the opportunity to help some amazing people here in Tres Piedras for the next 6 months.