San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Termites Threaten National Theater

Behind the ornate walls and gilt furnishings of the National Theater, the crown jewel of Costa Rican architecture, armies of termites threaten to slowly swallow up a structure that contains more than 100 years of cultural history.

Faced with the challenge of combating this plague with a method that will not damage the building s interior design, gold-plated decorations and delicate artwork, an investigation by tropical biologist Gavrielle Murillo has led to the creation of a natural pesticide she promises will result in a 100% termite mortality rate.

The environmentally friendly pesticide, whose active ingredient is a fungus, can exterminate the termites at the theater in three days without harmful side effects, Murillo said.

To fund the fungus fumigation, a team of companies led by Microsoft Costa Rica is expected to launch a nationwide campaign today that aims to collect ¢20 million (approximately $39,000), according to National Theater General Manager Samuel Rovinski.

Funds will go toward the purchase of equipment for pest detection, production and application of the natural pesticide, and employee salaries, according to Murillo. She said she could not yet reveal details because the budget is tentative, but plans to announce spending plans at a press conference after the fundraising campaign ends.

The plague eating up Costa Rica s most renowned theater, located in the heart of San José, is for the most part invisible, Rovinski told The Tico Times, though they do shed their wings and scatter little balls of excrement around the building.

Nevertheless, the termites have severely damaged wooden beams, canvas frames,

paintings, floors, furnishings, a piano, handrails and doors, among other things. Theater officials speculate these insects have been feeding on the building for the past century, and that the species was lodged in the wood from which the theater was built, Rovinski told The Tico Times this week. The building was completed in 1897. Before Murillo came on the scene, the theater fumigated to eliminate this and other pests that commonly affect buildings in Costa Rica, such as cockroaches.

Although fumigations killed the termites, the problem was never completely eradicated.

According to Murillo, the scientific research she began two and a half years ago at the theater led her to conclude that Cryptotermes brevis, known as the West Indies drywood termite, the most common drywood termite in the tropics, is the only species found in the theater and can be eliminated with her pesticide.

Murillo, 27, a tropical biology graduate from Universidad Nacional (UNA), worked ad honorem for the first two years before the Fundación Amigos Pro Mejoras del Teatro Nacional (Foundation of Friends for Improvement of the National Theater) began paying her a salary.

She started her research with the aim of finding an alternative to methyl bromide, a dangerous chemical the theater had considered using to eliminate the infestation.

Methyl bromide use is restricted in Costa Rica because it is considered cancerous and dangerous to the environment, explained the biologist, who is working on obtaining another undergraduate degree from UNA in natural resources.

She said studies have proven the species of fungus she uses in her pesticide whose name she would not reveal because she is in the process of patenting the method is harmless to the environment and humans.

We always breathe this fungus; it s a species that exists naturally.We don t run any risk (in using it), she said. However, at press time, The Tico Times had not received laboratory test results Murillo said she would send that demonstrate the fungus is safe.

The National Theater said in a statement that Murillo s method complies with the high requirements of heritage buildings, because it does not degrade wood, gold or paintings.

Murillo plans to detect the location of the hidden termite colonies, which can contain approximately 300 insects each, by tracking the sound waves they produce when moving and feeding.

The pesticide will be applied in powder form, to avoid increasing the humidity of the wood. It will be applied through tiny perforations of approximately 1.5 millimeters in specific points. The perforations will allow future monitoring, she explained at a press conference last week.

The fungus is expected to annihilate the insects by destroying their exoskeleton and killing them in approximately three days. After being applied, it reproduces and its spores kill more termites.

Murillo said she will start applying her biological pesticide as soon as funds are raised to cover the costs.

Birth of an Architectural Gem

At the end of the XIX century, San José s population of 19,000 lived amid coffee plantations and dirt roads. Driven by their desire for a theater to host cultural and social events, coffee farmers and merchants at the time asked President José Joaquín Rodríguez to raise funds to build one through a coffee tax.

Rodríguez accepted and in 1890, passed a law for the creation of a National Theater.

Construction of the theater, designed by a crew of Costa Rican architects and engineers trained in Europe, began that year.

Many people believe the theater was modeled after the Paris Opera House, National Theater guide Alexandra Fernández told The Tico Times.

However, the theater was in fact inspired by several European theaters: Moscow s Bolshoi Theater and Alla Scala in Milan, Italy, in addition to the Paris Opera House.

Many of the building s parts, such as the copula, metal structures, a mechanism to raise the floor and turn the general seating area into a ballroom, and the marble stairs, were brought from Europe and assembled in the country. Painters from Milan, Italy, and national artists decorated the theater s interior.

The National Theater was completed in 1897, and inaugurated with a rendition of the opera Faustus by a French theater company.

In the years since, the theater has hosted the country s most select cultural events.


How to Help:

The fundraising effort to rid the National Theater of termites will continue until Aug. 27, and collect donations on three fronts:

1-Contributions can be made by purchasing products from campaign sponsors at all Automercado supermarkets, which will donate a portion of their profits to the effort.

2-Donations in colones can be made to the Fundación Amigos Pro Mejoras del Teatro Nacional at Banco Nacional account number 100-01-130568-9 or Banco de Costa Rica account number 0248680-6.

3-Donors can also send text messages or call a number (that has yet to be announced) to have a donation charged to their phone bill.

After this campaign is over, the Foundación Amigos, a nonprofit foundation created in 1987 to raise funds for theater maintenance, will begin to raise money to restore termite-damaged areas, according to foundation secretary Liliana Muñoz.

For more information on how to help, call the foundation at 222-5716.

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