First-Person Account: Costa Rica Sustainability Trip

January 15, 2015

By Dr. Cheryl Clauson, assistant professor of biology

During spring break of 2014, Saint Leo students and faculty were offered the opportunity to go on an educational trip to Costa Rica with a focus on sustainability. The trip was organized by Dr. Patricia Campion, director of the global studies program and a sociologist who welcomes Interdisciplinary discussions from fellow faculty members. I saw this as a great opportunity to learn about how things like organic farming relate to topics in biology.

We worked with CATIE (Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Education), whose staff took us to several amazing locations around Costa Rica, including a number of farms. At an organic sugar cane farm, we learned about how their farm is basically its own little ecosystem. Their sustainable practices included feeding cows the leaves and solid waste from the sugar cane production. The cows produced manure, which can be used for fertilizer for the sugar cane when combined with fermenting microbes found around the farm. Wastes from processing the sugarcane (like ashes) are also added to the fertilizer so that almost nothing on the farm is wasted, and they don’t need to purchase anything from outside of the farm. Like many of the organic farms that we visited, this farm did not limit itself to only sugar cane. We learned that monocultures (only one kind of crop) can be dangerous. Many crops have been bred over the years to the point that individual plants are almost genetically identical to the neighboring plant. This means that there is the potential for all of the plants to be sensitive to the same diseases/pests. It wouldn’t take much to wipe out an entire field of crops. We often saw rows of crops alternating between two products (coffee and bananas for example). We also learned of genetic experiments being conducted at CATIE to produce more robust cacao (chocolate) trees. They are carefully crossbreeding the different strains of cacao to find the genetic combination that is most resistant to insects and diseases. Since this is chocolate, though, they’re also being sure to test their end product, even sending it for taste tests with master chocolatiers in France.

We also learned about efforts to build biological corridors in Central America. Biological corridors allow wildlife to safely pass through human development areas (farms, cities) so that populations do not become isolated. Isolated populations can lose genetic diversity and suffer. Isolation also puts tremendous pressure on the limited natural resources in the given area. The efforts to build biological corridors in Costa Rica include such steps as restoration of degraded pastures, proper management of protected areas and agroforestry systems or live fences. We saw many of the live fences on the organic farms. Rather than traditional fence posts, the farmer uses tree trunks to connect their wire fences. These trees provide food and protection for mammals and birds that wish to traverse the farm, thus connecting populations that were once isolated on either side. It struck me as an innovative way to combine the desires of the farmer with the needs of the surrounding animal populations. Not only did we all learn a great deal, there is nothing like eating a completely organic meal that had just been harvested from the farm that morning.