Thursday, August 21, 2014

Voodoo forests of Benin

Inside a sacred forest near Allada


Fishing in the bay, Cotonou
Bonjour! Just wrapped up an exploratory expedition to the West African nations of Benin & Togo, where I have been laying the groundwork for both research and study abroad opportunities with local contacts along with colleagues from Michigan State University. We spent much of our time with local voodoo practitioners learning about the sacred forests spread throughout this part of the world, with a focus on the interactions among their spiritual practices, stewardship of the sacred forests, and the biological diversity within and around the forests. My colleagues and I are especially interested in exploring the social and scientific issues that form the backdrop for these interactions. For my part, I'm interested in how arthropod diversity both within and around sacred forests may play a role in both the spiritual and the scientific (conservation) aspects of this interplay. For instance, forest stewardship may bolster ecosystem services such as pollination and biological control in nearby agricultural fields. I'm looking forward to setting up some experiments with colleagues at the university in Abomey-Calavi (Cotonou) to test some hypotheses related to these and other interchanges - as well as creating opportunities for UW Tacoma students to explore the myriad rich cultural and scientific aspects of life and conservation in West Africa.
Mono river, border between Benin & Togo


Market in Ouidah

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Human-forest mutualisms in Kenya

Preparing to enter kaya Kinondo
















I have just wrapped up a  two-week expedition in coastal Kenya, where, along with colleagues from Michigan State University, I've been helping lay the groundwork for research that explores the mutualistic relationship between coastal forests and nearby local villagers. Working with local collaborators that include the National Museums of Kenya, A Rocha Kenya, and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, we have been meeting with members of local Community Forest Associations around Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Dakatcha Woodlands, Shimba Hills, and a few sacred forests ("kayas") around Mombasa and the South Coast. Many of these villagers (which consist of members of several of the nine tribes that constitute the Mijikenda coastal tribes, who originated from Somalia) rely on forest products such as cut stems/poles for fuelwood, charcoal production, and wood carving - all responsible for negative effects on forest ecosystems that are well-documented in this part of the world. At the same time, many villagers living adjacent to forests also contribute positive benefits to forest ecosystems, including such activities as planting native tree and plant species and beekeeping. Our interest is in documenting such human-forest mutualisms, comparing them with biodiversity metrics in a range of habitats subject to different governance systems. Furthermore, we hope to engage local residents in participatory planning processes to positively increase the scope and impact of these human-forest mutualisms.



Wood carvers at Lunga Lunga, Kenya-Tanzanian border


Colobus monkey, kaya Kinondo

Sunset, Indian Ocean

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The coast!

Mastatal sunset










Tarantula - Mastatal night hike

Thursday morning we said farewell to Mastatal and headed westward down the road towards Parrita and the coastal plain. Cruising through miles and miles of oil palms (a major crop on the Pacific side of Costa Rica - oil from the fruits are processed at factories along the coast), we entered the more heavily developed Pacific coastal zone and headed south to Quepos and Manuel Antonio. We spent most of the day in Manuel Antonio - Costa Rica's most popular national park - which was indeed very popular as it was filled with both international and domestic visitors taking advantage of the Semana Santa holiday! We had a guided nature hike in the morning, featuring many wildlife sightings (including bats, sloths, and monkeys!) followed by some downtime to enjoy the beach during the afternoon.
At Manuel Antonio National Park

Smiling sloth!
Chestnut-mandibled toucan















We spent Thursday and Friday nights at Hacienda Baru, a wildlife refuge about a half hour south of Manuel Antonio; Friday we headed north again for a tour of the mangrove ecosystem on the coast. Boarding a small covered boat, we wended our way through a network of canals lined with several species of mangrove.  We wrapped up our stay on the coast Saturday morning with a visit from Jack Ewing, the founder and proprietor of Hacienda Baru before heading north to San Jose and the flight home!

Mangrove tour
Jack Ewing discussing the history of Hacienda Baru



Sunday, March 31, 2013

Life in Mastatal

In Santa Maria de Dota



We are finishing up our fourth day here in the small rural village of Mastatal – we are  now over halfway through our Costa Rica expedition. We rolled in Saturday evening after spending the morning in San Marcos visiting a coffee farm way up in the highlands and stopping for lunch in town…all settled into open-air bunks upon arrival in Mastatal, and were greeted by a cacophony of bird sounds the next morning. A tour of the Villas Mastatal, the sustainability center and organic farm where we are staying, was followed by a hike through the rainforest to a waterfall – terrific relief from the heat and humidity down here in the lowlands!  Sunday night we all went into town to have dinner at the community center, followed by a rousing evening of Bingo (Nicole was our big winter, taking home two different prizes!). Monday morning we had a tour of another nearby sustainability center (Rancho Mastatal)  and then took another hike through tropical forest to a river where we all swam with local Costa Rican families enjoying the afternoon. This week, the one before Easter, is Semana Santa – kids are out of school and many families are on holiday.
Villas Mastatal, with La Cangeja National Park in background

Enjoying fresh watermelon in the dormatorio, Villas Mastatal


Nicole with a big win at bingo night in Mastatal!

Hiking the river at Villas Mastatal
Monday evening everyone had a chance to experience a homestay, pairing up to spend the night with local families. This morning all reunited at the local primary school and did some service work, transplanting some grasses and trees onto a steep slope adjacent to the school.
Yesterday afternoon we were visited by a local “medicine man” from the nearby indigenous village of Zapaton. He described several various local forest plants that are traditionally used for medicinal purposes – a great chance for students to get a glimpse of a different (and fading fast) world! We finished off the afternoon by making straw baskets in the traditional manner of the residents of Zapaton.
Visiting with Gerardo from Zapaton




 
Tree planting in Mastatal






Today we started off the day by planting native trees around a spring (water source) at Villas Mastatal - in addition to offsetting our carbon footprint stemming from the flights to get to our Costa Rice Expedition, these plantings will help shade the water source and help stabilize the riparian zone. We planted over 45 plants in under two hours - hitting our estimated 2-3 plants per person target to offset the carbon output associated with our trip. In the afternoon we hiked up to see a cacao plantation belonging to local farmer Juan Luis - and then spent a few hours learning about chocolate production - including a hands-on session extracting seeds and grinding them to make chocolate confections (which we also sampled extensively!). We celebrated our time in Mastatal with a big send-off, eating homemade pizzas made in Javier's earth oven. Tomorrow it's off to the coast!
Hiking down from cacao plantation
 
With Juan Luis in the cacao plantation



Processing cacao
Crossing the river during our cacao hike
 


Enjoying confections at La Iguana Chocoolate!



Pizza night farewell to Villas Mastatal!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

TarrazĂș - coffee, coffee everywhere!



Leaving the Central Valley behind!


 
We began our first full day in Costa Rica with an open-air breakfast in the Alajuela hotel, followed by a drive across the Central  Valley through the old capital city of Cartago, and up into the highlands to the TarrazĂș coffee growing region. In the town of Santa Maria de Dota, surrounded by hillsides covered with coffee fields, we had lunch at the home of a local coffee farmer. In the afternoon we had a tour of the CoopeDota coffee mill and roaster in town (which included lessons in coffee tasting - and the chance to buy coffee directly from the cooperative) followed by a terrific barbecue dinner this evening. Spirits were high as everyone retired early in anticipation of a long day tomorrow  - we’ll get up for an early breakfast before heading out to explore some more coffee farms en route to the rainforest.


 
Checking out Dota coffee varieties
 
The group checking out the sun-dried coffee process
 
Coffee tasting at Dota
 


Visiting a coffee farm
 
Lunch in Santa Maria de Dota
 

On the bus!
 
The Expedition Fellows group, consisting of freshmen and sophomores from UW Tacoma, along with Peer Advisor Gloria Shin, had a chance tonight to meet a UWT graduate who is living in Costa Rica with his family for the next few years conducting research for his Ph.D. Levi Keesecker, who was an Environmental Science major, is now a graduate student at the University of Idaho in an interdisciplinary program that culminates in a two-year fieldwork stint in Costa Rica in conjunction with CATIE, a university in Turrialba that focuses on applied ecology & sustainable agriculture. The students had a chance to hear about Levi’s pathway to graduate school (including international experiences doing research in Costa Rica and Yucatan while an undergraduate at UWT) while enjoying tonight’s barbecue dinner – hopefully an inspiration for some as they learn more about opportunities available to them!
 


Friday, March 22, 2013

Expedition Fellows 2013 - Costa Rica!





UW Tacoma Expedition Fellows is underway - we are all settled in Alajuela, Costa Rica, ready for an exciting 10-day adventure. Tomorrow morning we are heading up to the highlands, where we'll spend a few days exploring the process of coffee production, from farm to roasting...then we'll head down into the mountains to spend several days in a small farming community doing some community service, restoration planting, and learning about tropical forests and cacoa plantations....then it's off to the coast for a few days to check out mangrove ecosystems and explore coastal ecotourism development. Stay tuned for more updates on our adventure!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sampling wrap-up!

Wrapping up sampling in the shambas

Orb weaver - one of many beautiful specimens around sampling sites!


We finished up our sampling of shamba habitat this week, collecting from two more farms on the eastern side of the Gede National Monument. Some anxiety during our last 24hrs of sampling, as the farm in which we set up was full of goats - some of whom seemed to be eyeing our malaise tents with a lean and hungry look (see photo below). Luckily all of our traps survived the night intact - concluding 27 plot samples over the course of the past several weeks. We celebrated with an overnight trip to nearby Tsavo East National Monument and some rugby viewing this weekend - Monday we'll do some gps mapping in the Gede ruins, and then prepare for our long journey back to the U.S.!

The goat menace!


Sunset over Tsavo East National Park, east of Gede research site
Staple foods at Mwamba (ugali and sukuma wiki - delish!)