Costa Rica Presents Local Approach to Conserve Biodiversity


I can’t open a science magazine without reading some sort of statement about human growth and its impacts on the world. Our carbon emissions are causing climate change, our consumption of seafood is killing the ocean’s biodiversity, and a lack of federal funding is closing national parks across the country.

It’s obvious when one thinks about human development: As a community grows, we appropriate land for our own purposes. With this modification in land use comes an inevitable amount of destruction. As more countries develop, we can only expect more of the environment to be swallowed in our wake. But when I visited a developing country, I was surprised to learn that this is not the case.

We expect the government to take the lead in protecting the environment. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that any sort of change needs to come from a grassroots level. For example, the local food movement has taken the country by storm, yet no laws have been passed to encourage buying local or organic food.

I spent seven weeks this summer in a tiny town in southern Costa Rica called San Vito, about an hour from the Panama border. As an ecologist, visiting Costa Rica is an incredible opportunity; they have maintained a higher level of biodiversity than many other developing countries. They maintain protected parks that could outdo any American park in terms of interesting wildlife. Yet, the credit does not rest with the Costa Rican government.

Most people around San Vito farm to make a living and own generous plots of land where they grow mostly coffee, but also sometimes bananas or palm trees. My research project, a study on insect communities and how they vary based on land use, is part of the broader scope of my lab’s research on biogeography and management.

According to the doomsday headlines, it’s unlikely that the world will curtail its consumption of wildlife. Therefore, we take the approach of management. I can’t expect the coffee farmers in Costa Rica to abandon their lands and allow them to return to forests. But their interest in their own land is something rarely seen in the U.S. Each landowner graciously allowed me to trek through their fields, set up traps, and assess the diversity within their backyard. Many have maintained patches of forest on their land, presumably to create a boundary between them and their neighbors. But these patches are the very backbone of Costa Rican land management. The prevailing hypothesis amongst ecologists who study this region states that by supporting smaller ecosystems, Costa Ricans preserve a significant amount of the biomass that was present before the land was converted to farmland. This can be shown by comparing larger regions of undisturbed forest with the smaller patches found on farmland; frequently they show comparable numbers of birds and mammals.

My project is still a work in progress. I have thousands of insects preserved in jars waiting for me to give them a label and add their tallies to my data. But before I make conclusions on the insects themselves, I can say that the people in Costa Rica have their priorities straight when it comes to conservation biology. They want to share their land with scientists, and they are keen to know what lives in their backyards and how they can protect it. If all developing countries took this much of an interest in their endemic wildlife, there would be boundless potential for conserving biodiversity worldwide.

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