TURRIALBA, Cartago – Despite boasting the second-most-polluted river in Costa Rica, mountainsideswhose trees have given way to pesticide-heavy farms, andone of the country’s most poorly funded national parks forits size, the area surrounding this Caribbean-slope town hasbecome Central America’s first “model forest.”While the title may seem misleading, coordinatorsof the Reventazón Model Forest clarify that the projectto protect the watershed of the Reventazón River– which encompasses nearly the entire province ofCartago – has only just begun and may soon be anational showcase for conservation. While a challengelies ahead, the region’s breathtaking views and widebiodiversity give reason to believe.THE name “model forest” is a misnomer of sorts, admitted José Joaquín Campos, presidentof the Model Network for Latin Americaand the Caribbean, of which theReventazón Model Forest is now part.Beyond forest conservation, the initiativeis a systematic approach that attemptsto make sustainable the province’s agriculture,economic development, and flow ofthe Reventazón River, a crucial source ofdrinking water and electricity.“This is a world trend,” Camposexplained. “When we study forestry oragriculture alone, we tend to compartmentalize.Now, instead, people are taking anintegrated, holistic look at the whole system.If you want to achieve sustainabledevelopment in a territory like this, you’vegot to think about forestry… aboutwater… about all the different componentsand how they effect each other.”THE Reventazón River provides 25%of the San José metropolitan area’s drinkingwater and helps produce 33% of thecountry’s electricity. The source of waterin the river depends on the survival of forestin the Tapantí-Macizo Cerro de laMuerte National Park. The flow and cleanlinessof the river depend on the techniquesof agriculture upstream, Campos said.An isolated approach to any of theseelements is ineffective, he added.Campos represents one of the threeleading players in the model forest project:the Tropical Agricultural Researchand Higher Education Center (CATIE).The other founding partners are theMinistry of Environment and Energy(MINAE) and the Federation ofMunicipalities in the Province of Cartago.The project, initiated at the end of2003, also has the backing of theInternational Model Forest Network,which consists of 31 model forests in 15different countries.THESE partnerships are only thebeginning, explained Alberto Camacho,executive director of the Federation ofMunicipalities.“This cannot be just the Federation,CATIE and MINAE. The model forest hasto involve everyone – schools, universities,public and private groups, chambersof commerce, churches,” he said. “Wehave to change the way people think, tochange the culture.”Next week a meeting will be heldamong many of the region’s stakeholders(as they are called by project leaders) inpreparation for a larger upcoming modelforestassembly, where a directive councilwill be selected, Camacho said.One of the major roles of the modelforest is creating such forums for communicationbetween stakeholders, who rangefrom small farmers to tourist agencies tothe Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).THE northern portion of the 200,000-hectare Reventazón Model Forest is heavywith vegetable farms. This relatively dryterrain – neatly divided into small parcelswhere carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and cabbageare grown in straight rows – stands insharp contrast to the wet, wild jungle thatlies across the valley in the southern part ofthe model forest.Both are essential to the region’s sustainability,explained Ligia Quirós, whorepresents MINAE in the model forest.Farmers outside the city of Cartago producemost of Costa Rica’s vegetables. Theyare aided by rich soils from the nearby Irazúand Turrialba volcanoes and use techniquesthat produce heavy erosion of these soils.The soil washes downhill to theReventazón River and causes an estimatedtwo million tons of soil per year to build upin the river’s Angostura Dam. The dam’slife and efficiency have been reduced andapproximately three days a year ICE isforced to open the gates to allow the soil toflow to the Caribbean, explained forestengineer Don Giannace, who is workingon the model forest project through fundsfrom the Canadian organization CUSO.EROSION isn’t just an ICE problem,Giannace said. Pesticides – heavily used inthe region – remain in the eroded soil andcontribute to making the Reventazón such acontaminated river.“All of the agrochemicals flow downand effect marine life in the Caribbean,”Giannace said.“Farmers here work in the theory ofhigh-intensity farming – high input of fertilizersproduces a high yield,” he said. “TheGreen Revolution (of the 1960s) really tookhold in Costa Rica. It produced food whereit was needed, but it never thought about theenvironment.”Changing this agricultural culture, andpromoting sustainable farming, is one ofthe primary goals of the model forest.ENCOURAGING farmers to planttrees and create buffer zones around riversis also helping the creation of a biologicalcorridor from the northern end of theprovince to the southern end. This wouldextend the natural biological corridoralready created by the TalamancaMountain Range.The model forest project also aims tostop the destruction of already-protectedareas. In recent years, farms have crept upthe steep slopes that border the 58,500-hectare Tapantí National Park.Not only does this create the dangerouslandslides the Orosi region has becomeknown for, it negatively affects the nationalpark’s forests, Quirós said.WHILE the protection of the park’sbiodiversity has value for its own sake, theseven meters of the rain that fall annuallyin the park is a major contributor to theReventazón River.Model Forest and MINAE officialshave concluded beneficiaries of the water –in electricity and drinking water – shouldhelp pay for protection of the park. The parkoperates on a shoestring budget, accordingto park administrator Francisco Mora.Model-forest officials say that tourismis a way to complement agriculture to sustainarea residents.With white-water rafting, indigenousruins, three national parks, more than 300bird species and opportunities to visit ruralfarms, all within an hour or two south ofSan José, the region’s potential is large,Campos says.