Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Universidad de Costa Rica

I spent Monday morning at the University of Costa Rica with a colleague on the biology faculty, Paul Hanson. He is a specialist in the taxonomy of hymenoptera (bees & their relatives), and has been helping out with identifying the specimens we have been collecting in the coffee fields of Tarrazú for the past few years. This type of collaboration is essential in such a project – without proper identification, it would be impossible to understand the critical ecological roles played by the various bees we’re investigating – and hence the relative importance of the forest fragments where we’re working.

I also spent some time sterilizing some soil samples in the autoclave at the university – they were collected with the help of Earthwatch volunteers over the past few weeks as part of a collaborative effort with another UWT faculty member, Dr. Erica Cline. Erica is interested in mycorrhizal fungi, a symbiotic relationship between plant roots and fungi that is a good indicator for soil health (e.g., resistance to erosion, soil nutrition, etc.). It turns out that mycorrhizal fungi are the only producers of a substance called glomalin, which is a heat-resistant highly stable protein that can be easily detected in soil samples. With samples from many farms across the Tarrazú region, Erica is hoping to detect patterns connecting farmer practices (e.g., fertilizer use) and glomalin – which will give us yet another clue into sustainable best practices for coffee production in the region.

The bustle of San Jose is a stark contrast with that of the sleepy agricultural towns of the Los Santos region – truly like a different country. And further west, development along the Pacific coastal region is running rampant – this is definitely a country in flux. Martha Honey, who has written prolifically on ecotourism - and in particular the tradeoffs between economic development and the loss of socio-cultural and environmental integrity - wrote a poignant and blunt editorial this week in the Tico Times about the current state of (un)sustainable development in western Costa Rica. In the article she highlights the results of a study conducted by the non-profit Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) on the state of tourism development along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, noting especially that a disturbing trend towards larger resort-style hotels and cruise-ship tourism is on the rise. This type of tourism is generally characterized by an increase in foreign-owned properties, and too often results in environmental degradation and the loss of local cultural as well as socio-economic stability – any increases in tourism-related jobs in resorts of these types tend to have little effect on the local economy as money tends to stay with the foreign owners and/or foreign staff they employ. The report, which you can read in full here, outlines strategies to balance this trend with deliberate movement back towards more sustainable ecotourism that provides benefits to both visitors as well as local people & the environment – usually yielding the type of travel experiences for which Costa Rica has become famous. As Oscar Arias (pictured below with me & my girls a few years ago in the village of Mastatal) winds down the last week of his second term as President here (his successor, Laura Chinchilla, will take office this coming weekend), it will be interesting to see the direction in which the new aministration leads the country.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day in Tarrazú

We’ve wrapped up yet another week of fieldwork in Tarrazú, with a second team from Ernst & Young working in the field as well as in the lab discussing strategies with officials from CoopeTarrazú aimed at increasing farmer participation in supplying coffee to the cooperative. This latter issue is complicated by the fact that independent coffee buyers sometimes offer very competitive prices to farmers for their premium coffee beans, luring them away from contributing their coffee to the cooperative, which can undermine the cooperative’s ability to deliver the estimated volumes of coffee promised each year to their own buyers.

The EY team gave a presentation to CoopeTarrazu officials on Friday, in which they did a terrific job of providing cost-benefit analyses of different levels of farmer engagement and pricing schemes, as well as offering up some innovative solutions/incentives for increasing member participation. This was a great way to cap off a week of terrific work from the EY team – looking forward to working with more EY volunteers in the future!
In the field, we finished sampling hymenoptera (bees & their relatives) in all twelve of the farms involved in the current study – in a few days, I’ll bring all of the specimens to the Universidad de Costa Rica, where I’ll meet with a colleague who is a specialist in hymenopteran taxonomy. In the meantime, I’m organizing lab equipment and supplies, preparing for the next group of teams and more fieldwork when I return here in July.