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 TarrazĂș 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 TarrazĂș 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.

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