ANGELES NORTE, San Ramón – A string of hamlets on the winding highway north of the western Central Valley town of San Ramón has joined in a novel partnership with an institute headed by longtime ecological activist Alvaro Ugalde to create a unique approach to water restoration.
“You don’t have to read the newspapers in Costa Rica for many days before you notice the reports that the country’s water supply is at risk,” Ugalde said. “And it’s not just big, obvious problems like the Río Tárcoles, but countless small streams, rivers and springs.”
Ugalde said most – if not all – the rivers in Costa Rica are polluted, and shockingly, even small streams high up in the mountain watersheds are biologically dead.
Decades ago, Ugalde helped create the national park system of Costa Rica – those ecological crown jewels of a country known for its tropical environments.He now lives in Angeles Norte and works just up the road at Nectandra Institute, a private cloud forest preserve and educational organization. As president of the Nectandra Institute, Ugalde, 61, has seen how serious the problems are in the small streams and rivers high in the San Carlos watershed.
How to fix it?
“Start small, but think big,” Ugalde says. He couldn’t have started much smaller than in the hamlet of Angeles Norte, with its population of 200 people. He arranged a meeting with Alexis Castro, chairman of the Angeles Norte Community Water Association (ASADA). ASADAs are how the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) administers the water of local districts. More than2,000 ASADAS nationwide are staffed with community members who oversee local operations on a volunteer basis.
Castro and other community leaders took Ugalde and his associates at Nectandra to see the source of the community’s water in Zarcero, north of San Ramón. They showed him the excellent engineering work at the spring, as well as the terrible deterioration of the lands around the source.
Here, at the head of the San Carlos watershed, problems arise from deforestation, cattle, erosion and run-off of agricultural chemicals used in the ornamental plant trade.
Although there are alternatives to the dangerous herbicides and pesticides, most growers are reluctant to change, Ugalde says.
Although the surface water does not run directly into the aquifers, contamination of the underground water table is possible.
“The problems are enormous, but there is always something we can do,” said Ugalde, a tireless crusader for Costa Rica’s environment who previously defended jaguars and other endangered species in the Southern Zone’s expansive CorcovadoNational Park.
The Zarcero area is known for the quality of its dairy products, but some residents are concerned the milk industry is negatively affecting the water supply. Community members told Ugalde they are concerned about the potential for fecal pollution from farm waste run-off.
The water association, along with representatives of the town’s development and sports committees, decided something must be done.
A decision was made to buy the property near the town’s water source and eliminate at least one of the pollution threats. The owner of the property understood the problem and was willing to sell, but the ASADA would need a loan for this.
A fiscal analysis showed that revenue from the sale of the water would be enough to retire the principle of the loan in 16 years.
The interest was another matter, however.
During the course of several town meetings, the idea of an “eco-loan” came up. An eco-loan is a loan in which interest is paid not in colones, but through the work of area residents in restoring and reforesting denuded and polluted land.
The committees agreed on a plan for watershed restoration with the help of technical experts from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the Nectandra Institute.
The technical restoration plan will accelerate the natural vegetation and tree succession and bring the land to ecological health more quickly.
“Getting trees back, and restoring habitat on steep and eroded slopes, are keys to restoring the natural water cycles, according to Castro, chairman of the Angeles Norte water association.
The Angeles Norte Development Association was fortunate in having the Nectandra Institute as a neighbor and ally.
With an eco-loan from the institute, it is about to close a deal to purchase the property. “The purchase option has been signed and the deal is imminent. As soon as it is finalized, the town’s ‘restoration agreement’ will be implemented,” Ugalde said proudly.
Schoolchildren, their parents and relatives and other neighbors will be the ones paying off the “interest” on the eco-loan with their reforestation labor.
To increase community involvement, Ugalde proposed the town’s sports committee sponsor a water-themed soccer tournament to raise awareness.
“It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get Costa Ricans to play soccer. Now, when they start talking about the soccer games, they will also be thinking about water,” he said.
Ugalde figured adding religion to the mix would cover all the bets. He tried to get an area priest to talk about Papal encyclicals on the environment but, when that didn’t happen, he opted instead for a presentation on the snakes of Costa Rica by the University of Costa Rica’s Clodomiro Picado Institute.
“Costa Ricans need sports, religion and water, but not necessarily in that order,” Ugalde said with a twinkle in his eye, as he walked around the soccer field picking up windblown trash.
The First Annual Soccer Water Championship games were a resounding success. Jim Damalas, president and general manager of the nearby VillaBlancaHotel, donated the trophies, including a “rolling cup” – a permanent trophy that the winners get to display for a year.
The Nectandra Institute donated uniforms, T-shirts and soccer balls to the winners in the men’s and women’s divisions of the tournament, and the community organized everything else.
In this first tournament, the women’s team from San Carlos got the first place trophy.
In the men’s division, the winner was the team from Alto Villegas.
At a May 13 awards ceremony in the community hall in Angeles Norte, amid the enticing smells of food being prepared by community workers, the winning teams got their trophies and uniforms.
Before the awards, everyone heard a presentation on the natural history of Costa Rican snakes, and got to look cautiously at a beautiful lora – a poisonous emerald green snake – handled carefully by biologists from the Clodomiro Picado Institute.
Then came a folkloric dance by area school kids, and finally, a documentary film on water.
“What a mixture! Next year we will try to get the Pope to come,” Ugalde said with a grin.