Monday, April 26, 2010

Earth Day in Tarrazú

We celebrated Earth Day in Tarrazú by planting a tree in the garden of one of our Earthwatch colleagues. Tree planting is, of course, a perfect activity to undertake on this day – and the whole idea of sequestering carbon, offsetting some of the carbon in the atmosphere that contributes to global climate change meshes nicely with the research we’re doing on forest fragments here in the valley.
The Ernst & Young team finished up strong, completing several days of fieldwork as well as preparing and delivering a presentation to the management of CoopeTarrazú, the coffee grower’s cooperative with whom we’re working. We wrapped up the week with a barbecue at a local farmer’s house – smoked pork, rice and beans, and homemade tortillas!

Saturday afternoon I accompanied several of the Earthwatch volunteers down towards to the Pacific, stopping for a few hours in a small farming village to say hi to some friends at Rancho Mastatal, an environmental learning center that is often on the itinerary when I am leading UWT study abroad courses in Costa Rica. After touring the many sustainable building projects around the ranch (including a new biodigester, composting toilets, earth ovens, and a bevy of open-air buildings made mostly of local materials), we took a short hike in the rainforest, culminating in a refreshing swim in a nearby waterfall. I said goodbye to the volunteers after a dinner on the coast, and returned to Tarrazú late Saturday night, ready to greet a new team of volunteers on Sunday morning!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday morning at five o'clock

As the sun hinted it might soon peek out above the mountains that surround the valley here, several of us woke up this morning to go for a run through the streets and hills of Santa Maria. Running at dawn is a daily ritual for me when I'm doing fieldwork here, and while I usually enjoy some quiet introspection, I also enjoy it when volunteers join me for some exercise and conversation before breakfast. It's a great way to start the day - we arrive back energized and in time to clean up for breakfast at six, and then it's off to the lab and field!

Today was the third day working in the field with volunteers from Ernst & Young (EY). Coming from all over the U.S. and El Salvador, this group has energetically been continuing the work we started last week with the Fenway High School group. In addition to helping set up insect traps, pollinating coffee flowers by hand, observing & recording the frequency and type of pollinator visits to coffee plants, and assessing ground cover vegetation (as a proxy indicator for farmer practices such as herbicide use), the EY team has also been engaging in some great discussions with CoopeTarrazú about management issues. This morning they got a chance to check out commercial hives belonging to a local beekeeper (and coffee farmer – see below); donning bee suits, the intrepid volunteers were treated to an up-close and personal introduction to the busy bees in their honeycombed home.
I continue to be impressed by how engaged the farmers here are in the research we’re doing. Today I had some really interesting conversations with Francisco Alessandro Urena, a farmer who is participating in our study. Francisco is deeply interested in increasing sustainability on his farm – as a coffee farmer and beekeeper he is committed to finding ways of balancing coffee production and conservation. We discussed the current pollinator services investigation at length; during our conversation he enthusiastically noted that recent studies have suggested that bee-assisted pollination can increase coffee yields from 5 to 20%. This level of engagement and interest on the part of participating farmers is really a dream come true for an agroecologist – for me personally, it serves as an inspiration to work even harder to come up with useful information that will help further our understanding of ecological applications as well as help farmers who are continually grappling with issues of sustainability. As bees & their relatives are some of the most sensitive insects to pesticide poisoning, Francisco (and others like him in CoopeTarrazú) is trying to find ways of managing his farm in ways that will allow him to minimize his reliance upon chemicals. This is also an issue in avocado production (which he grows in addition to coffee), where several pests attack the fruits and render them too damaged to send to market. Biological control agents such as lacewings are in abundance in the area, and they do a terrific job controlling the pests – unless their populations get knocked down by excessive pesticide spraying. As you might imagine, attaining an environmentally sustainable balance between pest control and profits is a complex challenge – exacerbated by the fact that farmer practices on one farm may have a real impact on neighboring farms. For this reason, it is great working with a cooperative of community-minded farmers at coordinating a regional response to such challenges.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rain in the field!

The rains have begun in earnest here in the Los Santos area (so named for the "saint" names of the towns - e.g., San Marcos, Santa Maria, San Lorenzo, etc.)! We have been treated to some spectacular thunder & lightning storms on a few afternoons (current one included) this week. Luckily we're doing most of our fieldwork in the mornings - but occasionally we have been caught in the downpour!

I am working with a team of teenagers and two teachers from Fenway High School (Boston) who are volunteering with Earthwatch this week - they are doing a great job scrambling up and down the steep slopes on which much of the coffee here is planted - and getting the traps in the ground, soil samples collected, and bee observations & hand-pollination of flowers done. We've caught a nice assortment of bees & their relatives in our traps- currently I'm spending the afternoons sorting specimens we've caught in yellow pan traps from both coffee farms and nearby forest habitats. We've had to work around some of the rain in collecting our bee observation data (comparing visits by commercial honeybees to those by native bees & their relatives), but we're trucking along - overall we're working with twelve farms that feature a combination of traits: some are near forest fragments, some are more isolated from forests, some have managed honeybees nearby, whereas others have no commercial honeybees nearby. When all is said and done, we'll have data that will allow us to estimate the biodiversity and economic value of the forest fragments that are scattered across the Tarrazu region.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ecosystem services fieldwork in Tarrazu, Costa Rica

I've just arrived at the El Marques lab in San Marcos, Costa Rica, where I'll be leading volunteer teams from Earthwatch Institute in conducting fieldwork for the next month as part of an ongoing research project on sustainable coffee production across the central highland region known as Tarrazu. We've been working with farmers from CoopeTarrazu, a local cooperative of over 2600 coffee farmers in the Tarrazu region, for the past few years in a project linking farmer pratices to both coffee yields and the environment. This year we're focusing on pollinators - specifically, on the economic value of bees to coffee farmers in the region. Coffee normally self-fertilizes, so it is not as dependent on pollinating insects as much as some other well-known crops (e.g., almonds) - but there is some evidence that having native pollinators around may enhance yields as much as 20% under the right conditions. The Tarrazu region is, as are many agroecosystems, a patchwork of farms and forest fragments -- and one thing we'll be exploring is how useful those forest fragments are as habitat that can support important pollinators of the coffee - that is, to what extent forested areas are providing "ecosystem services" to coffee farms. To this end, we'll be looking at the diversity and abundance of native and non-native bees in coffee farms and adjacent forest fragments, as well as conducting manipulative experiments such as manually pollinating coffee flowers and comparing their yields with those of flowers that have netting placed on them to exclude pollinators. Data from these and other experiments we're conducting should give us a better understanding of the benefits of forest conservation in and around coffee farms - and more generally point the way to establishing best practices in agricultural ecosystems. The first volunteer team arrives in a few days; in the meantime, I'll be unpacking my equipment trunks and going through the field protocols with local colleagues today and tomorrow.

It's pouring rain as I'm writing - the kind of downpour typical of afternoons in the tropics - we'll be focusing on getting our fieldwork (capturing and observing bees) done in the mornings, and saving our lab work (sorting and preserving specimens) for the rainy afternoons!