San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Teaching Conservation in Sarapiquí

For the staff at the Sarapiquí Conservation Learning Center (SCLC), saving the rain forest isn’t just about planting trees.

It’s teaching English to promote jobs in ecotourism, rather than on plantations. It’s empowering women through a club that sells rain forest-based crafts. It’s organizing reforestation at the local level, but letting tourists assist in the effort.

Located in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, in north-central Costa Rica, the center is unique because it values both the environment and the local community, and believes that both need to come together to truly make a difference, said executive director Gregory Basco. The center offers ecotourism and both short- and long-term volunteer positions.

“The center is really different as far as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) go,” Basco said. “Few have the connection with the local community that we have. The way we define the environment is different.”

This poor corner of Costa Rica has seen its forests fragmented, its population balloon and its way of life disrupted by international pineapple and banana growers. But at the learning center, which was founded more than a decade ago, a dedicated staff of residents and international workers spend their days traveling through the rugged roads of poor towns to educate, work with and empower the people who live in the villages next door to the rain forest.

Right now, their environmental focus is reforestation. Community Development Coordinator Haylin Gómez attends community meetings to tell residents they can get trees for cheap prices from the center.

Back in December, Gómez, Assistant Director Paula Fernández and Ecotourism Coordinator Rachel Austin drove over a rocky road to get to a rural farm in the nearby town of Rancho Chilamate.

Once there, farmer Carmen Marín, 27, showed them a patch of barren hillside on the edge of the farm. It was covered in thick grasses and stumps, but she and her farming partner Manuel Araya wanted forest.

“We want to see parrots and monkeys and toucans,” she said. “They don’t come close.”

So while Fernández, who has a degree in forestry, evaluated how many trees could fit on the land, Austin, a volunteer from Bath, England, explained that a group of U.S. teachers would arrive in January to plant the trees as part of a service project.

Marín and Araya provided the holes, and on Jan. 14, about 15 teachers from all over the United States planted 450 trees. The farmers hope the saplings, which at planting were one to two feet high, will bring some life to this corner of their farm. The learning center hopes they’ll make the rain forest just a little bit bigger.

Basco said that because the government and larger organizations often overlook small farmers such as Marín, the center’s program can help fill in the smaller bald patches of the Sarapiquí rain forest.

“There isn’t anybody working with small landowners,” he said, adding that local enthusiasm for the program has been great. “People really, really want to reforest.”

They are lucky, he said, because the area falls within the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a stretch of forest that eventually will extend through all of Central America. Through an international effort by these countries and other organizations, the area is being targeted for reforestation to fill in gaps in the forest and to promote sustainable development involving local people. Part of the project is an elaborate mapping and monitoring program, in which the SCLC is also participating.

The reforestation program at the Sarapiquí center is still relatively new; in 2005, they planted about 1,000 trees. This year, the center hopes to plant 5,000 trees, and is also launching ecology clubs at area schools. One goal of the clubs is to start school-based recycling programs.

In addition to the ecology clubs, the center works with area schools, offering English classes and scholarships. Center volunteers mountain-bike to rural schools to give English classes.

A longer-running program at the center is a women’s group. About a dozen women meet weekly to make crafts – greeting cards painted with rain-forest images, jewelry and recycled paper – which they sell at the center gift shop and other venues. The women have also created a cookbook of their favorite recipes and are hoping to launch a line of natural shampoos and soaps soon.

“Here, I have a place separate from my home and children,” said women’s group member Hazel Valerio, as she painted a hummingbird onto recycled paper. “It makes you feel important as a woman.”

Group member Denissia Fonseca has been a part of the center since about four years ago, when she was hired to do housework. Since then, she’s been promoted to office manager.

Fonseca and some of the other women also teach classes offered by the center to tourists. Classes range from cooking, dance and crafts to nature projects.

Fonseca said that during her time at the center, she has seen a strictly international staff expand to include a mix of Ticos and foreigners.

“The center works more with the community,” she said. “Before it was just me and foreigners. Now there is a balance.”

Sarapiquí ConservationLearningCenter

What: A center dedicated to environmental and social causes.

Where: Sarapiquí, in north-central Costa Rica.

What it does: The center has a mix of international and Costa Rican staff who work together on various programs. It offers English classes for adults and children, runs reforestation programs and works closely with area schools to offer scholarships and ecology clubs.

How to get involved: The center offers a wide array of tourism options. You can take a class on local cooking or crafts, or you can work on a social or environmental service project. The center also offers volunteer positions, which usually last for at least six months, although shorter volunteer positions are available.

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