La Sabana Park, on the western edge of San José, has long been a retreat from the increasing size and mounting noise of the city. Soccer pitches and foot trails weave through this urban forest known as the “lungs of San José.”
To keep up with the pace of the park’s estimated 2 million annual visitors, a group of environmental and civic organizations have united to rejuvenate the park’s forest.
The project began in 2008 when Scotiabank, as part of its worldwide philanthropy effort “Iluminando el Mañana” (“Illuminating the Future”) joined with Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) and the Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute to complete a preliminary study of the park.
“The project started because for many years La Sabana hasn’t been representative of nature in Costa Rica,” said Armando Soto, an INBio botanist. “We worked with Scotiabank to conduct a second, more detailed study of all the trees to find out if they were native species and what could be done to improve the park.”
The following year, a newly formed commission studied the results and designed a nine-year plan for completing the project, named “Una Nueva Sabana” (“A New Sabana”). The project’s estimated cost is $3.6 million.
To manage Una Nueva Sabana efficiently, the commission divided the park into six sectors. Work in sectors closest to the National Stadium is being done first. Soto explained that this is to create a line of trees that will build a natural separation between the park and the stadium.
“People will be able to enjoy the National Stadium as a separate feature of La Sabana,” Soto said. “What we plant now won’t necessarily be what we see in a few years, but in 20 or 25 years it’s going to be a beautiful place.”
What park visitors see now are 764 native trees interspersed among 5,720 non-native ones. Of the non-native trees, 2,980 are eucalyptus or it close relatives. Although eucalyptus trees thrive in tropical climates, they fail to attract native birds, insects and mammals. Their dense, resin-filled branches have also been known to fall unexpectedly.
“They’re dangerous for people here, especially children,” said Oscar Garbo, a San José resident who often walks his two dogs in the park. “Cutting down the old trees is the right thing to do if it’s done responsibly.”
Cut trees will be replaced with native species like the sura (Terminalia oblonga), guarumo (Cecropia obtusifolia), jobo (Spondias mombin) and Guanacaste trees (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). A total of 3,262 trees will be substituted with these varieties.
“In the area around the lake where there are a lot of people, we found many trees that look healthy but are missing branches or are hollow inside because of infections,” Soto said. “It can be difficult to tell how sick a tree is without cutting it.”
Soto said cutting and replanting by sectors will help limit disruption to the environment and allow botanists to study the overall impact of the new trees. To do this, INBio will monitor reactions from birds.
“Data indicates that birds are excellent responders,” Soto said. “They are better than plants because if there is a change, it will affect them directly, so they will have to respond.”
These changes also generate tons of wood, which is sent to La Reforma, Costa Rica’s largest maximum-security prison located in the northwest suburb of Alajuela. There, prisoners make furniture for the sports institute and the Justice Ministry. Lumber is also shipped to other construction projects across the country.
Inmates at La Reforma also nurture seeds until they grow into saplings ready to be transferred. The nursery at La Reforma currently hosts more than 1,700 saplings and reports growth rates higher than any commercial nursery in Costa Rica.
When saplings are strong enough, volunteers plant them during workdays organized by the commission. The work isn’t glamorous.
“We always have a lot of people who want to help. We paint things and they help clean up around the area,” Soto said. “But most of the time is spent digging holes.”
Although the commission aims to “generate an ecological environment for the development of recreational activities,” the project does have opposition.
David Fisher, a physician from the United States, recently learned that his great-grandfather, Alfredo Anderson, emigrated from Sweden to Costa Rica and established a life in agriculture.
Sandberg arrived in Costa Rica in the 1890s and worked as a professor of agriculture at the Liceo of Costa Rica and the Women’s College. He contributed to the establishment of “El Día del Árbol” (“Tree Day”), a holiday still celebrated in Costa Rica on June 15.
“What makes him special are his efforts to teach his generation about the need to plant trees,” Fisher said. “He did this in a land not his own, in a language and culture not his own.”
Fisher’s genealogy research led to the discovery of Anderson’s story stashed in a library at the University of Costa Rica. It revealed that in 1954 the Agriculture Ministry published a book titled “Alfredo Anderson: Una vida dedicada a Costa Rica y a los árboles” (“Alfredo Anderson: A Life Dedicated to Costa Rica and Trees”). The book says Anderson lived “an exemplary life” during which he “loved trees like his home” and “dedicated himself to serving Costa Rica.”
Anderson linked forestry and the penal system when he established a farming community at a former prison on the Nicoya Peninsula’s San Lucas Island. He also established “El Bosque de los Niños” in the area now known as La Sabana. That park has since disappeared, thus leaving Fisher to question whether other parts of the park will meet the same fate.
“Why rush to cut the trees?” Fisher asked. “Have the park keepers in La Sabana exhausted all possible treatments and care for those aged trees that they have decided to kill them?”
INBio members said their study was comprehensive and that “Una Nueva Sabana” is the right path for the future of La Sabana.
“We know what we are doing,” Soto said. “There are plans and protocols for everything, a plan for maintenance and a way to do things correctly.”
As Fisher continues researching and “Una Nueva Sabana” moves forward, the pulse of La Sabana lies with those who make it a part of their daily life.
Alberto Garro, who recently took his 5-year-old granddaughter Valentina García to feed ducks near La Sabana’s pond, said, “We need these trees and this park. This park is here to inspire Costa Rica and the people who come here.”