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Turning over a new leaf in La Amistad Park

Organic cocoa is one of the crops providing many families with an additional source of income (Felipe Carazo)
Organic cocoa is one of the crops providing many families with an additional source of income
Felipe Carazo

For many people around the world, La Amistad International Park (PILA) situated in the Talamanca highlands of Costa Rica and Panama is an icon in the fight to preserve worldwide biodiversity. The Park is nestled in the Amistad Biosphere World Heritage Site, and features both the largest area of undisturbed highland watersheds in southern Central America and the oldest and largest tract of primary forest in the region. Much of this sensitive area has been untouched since humans arrived more than 20,000 years ago because it is so remote. But that will surely change, and many worry that the planned hydroelectric dams, power plants and roads will have a serious negative impact on the region's ecological health.

For the subsistence farmers of La Amistad, however, the park is home, where the daily concerns of feeding and caring for family members take precedence over addressing the greater ecological pressures. Nevertheless, the needs of these farmers and the environmental challenges of the park are closely intertwined. Deforestation and the related loss of non-timber forest resources endanger isolated communities in terms of their accessing adequate health-related supplies and services. Corresponding problems such as erosion, floods and droughts lead to dire situations for farmers and to further unsustainable land-use practices. Other activities, such as overfishing, unregulated tourism, plantations and cattle ranching are contributing to pollution and sedimentation of sensitive waterways.

Old approaches with a new focus

Assistance for both the land and the people is being provided through The Nature Conservancy's 'Parks in Peril' programme. Working with USAID and in-country organisations, the programme supports the use of sustainable practices, such as traditional agriculture, that do not lead to environmental degradation. Instead, these practices help conserve biodiversity and provide many other additional benefits to farmers than a job at a plantation can offer: greater community stability, preservation of traditional knowledge. and more. For example, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) supports the use of an organic polyculture system traditionally practised by the Bribri and Cabecar indigenous people of Talamanca. The TNC Special Projects Manager, Felipe Carazo, contrasts how in this system, an average of 60 but as many as 300 crops and wild plants, including cocoa and plantain, are grown in a way to mimic the surrounding forest.

The benefits of this type of agriculture seem endless. First, Carazo notes that it assures that a diverse source of food, timber, medicinal plants and building materials is available throughout the year. The diversity of species also helps preserve genetic variation and sustains the continued existence of micro-organisms, pollinators and pest predators, supportive of crop productivity. Carazo says, "The planning arrangement employed follows a spiral pattern, which is determined by the combination of forestry species such as laurel, cedro, surá, jabillo, jobo, ceibo, hule and manú. This assures a bank of products such as bark, resins and leaves that can be used for multiple purposes, which combined with the intertwined agricultural crops, creates a rich agroforestry system." Employing polyculture also means that if one crop fails, for whatever reason, there are several others to fall back on. In addition, on-going seed collection allows farmers to retain independence.

'Tsiru' chocolates produced at a community-run chocolate factory (Felipe Carazo)
'Tsiru' chocolates produced at a community-run chocolate factory
Felipe Carazo

Organic cocoa production within polyculture provides many families with their main source of extra income and, together with plantain cultivation, allows them to access a wider variety of foods and other health-related materials that enhance quality of life. To ensure the market for organic cocoa is stable and growing, TNC is building stronger linkages between local co-ops that produce and export the crop. In addition, a community-based women's group of 22 members established a small organic chocolate factory almost ten years ago, producing organic chocolate for eating and beverages. It is registered under a brand name 'Tsirú' and is marketed in the coastal area of southern Costa Rica.

Need for momentum and government involvement

Although progress is being made, not all of Amistad's people are using sustainable agricultural practices. Success has been strong where conditions are already favorable - where good organisation, leadership and access to markets are present, and where awareness of the importance of conserving natural resources and developing good relationships with government institutions already exist. Success is yet to come where these aspects are lacking, in areas where threats of fire and hydroelectric projects are strong, and where people face severe poverty. "In these areas there is a need to tackle key basic elements (potable water, access to medicine, etc.) before even considering alternative production methods," Carazo says,

To expand present success, TNC has partnered with NGO EcoAgricultural Partners to develop a more structured approach that goes beyond supporting individual projects. To establish more effective market links, TNC is also building critical alliances with the Global Environmental Facility's Small Grants Program to collect information from all community-based projects, identify strengths and weakness from a product commercialisation standpoint and make recommendations for marketing. Carazo says that TNC is also an active participant of the Agro-environmental Strategy for Central America (ERA) policy decision forum, and is considering a partnership with Rainforest Alliance, which helps market sustainably-grown products.

However, several other pieces of the puzzle must be put in place before widespread adoption of sustainable practices occurs in La Amistad. For example, TNC believes better dissemination of research into sustainable approaches will speed adoption of such practices. Government involvement in terms of sustainable production promotion and improved training of Ministry of Agriculture technicians must also increase, says Carazo. These changes, he says, will lead to community-based sustainable production instead of to the large-scale monocultures (e.g. pineapple, sugarcane) that require large investment yet contribute little towards the growth of community organisation and social cohesion.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: May 2008


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