Just a few centuries ago, a vast forest stretched along the Pacific coast, beginning in southern Mexico and rolling into Costa Rica.
Coyote, deer and armadillos roamed freely among deciduous hardwoods that spread across western Central America.
Today, this forest has disappeared from nearly all of Mesoamerica. Less than 2 percent remains, researchers say, and what is left is fragmented and biologically isolated. New efforts, though, are underway to reverse the trend.
Thanks largely to its lauded national parks system, Costa Rica holds more stands of this forest – known as tropical dry forest – than any other nation in Central America.
But even here, the ecosystem is in trouble, and its fragmentation threatens the survival of the plants and animals that call it home.
Next year, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), working with the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) and two universities, will launch a program to conserve and consolidate what is left of Costa Rica’s tropical dry forest.
“It is one of the ecosystems that is most fragmented, and the very small remnants have been under a lot of pressure from humans, such as fires and hunting and the extraction of much of the ecosystem’s biodiversity,” said Bernal Herrera, science manager for TNC’s Costa Rica office. “It is a truly critical situation.”
To thrive along Central America’s Pacific coast, tropical dry forests have evolved to cope with a short but intense rainy season and a long and blistering dry season. Unlike the perpetually lush rain forests and cloud forests of the tropics, dry forests survive the rainless months by transforming into desiccated stands of spindly, naked trees to conserve water.
These conditions made it easy to clear the land for timber, agriculture and cattle, a fate that befell most tropical forests in Central America. The ecosystem is particularly susceptible to forest fires, which in Costa Rica are often set intentionally by farmers or poachers (TT, April 25).
Herrera explained that TNC, which has offices throughout Mexico and Central America, has identified these remaining forests in Costa Rica as a priority for its conservation work.
Next year, he said, TNC will begin working with MINAET’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and private land holders to improve the management of those tropical dry forests that are inside protected areas, such as national parks, wildlife refuges and private reserves.
The program will begin on the NicoyaPeninsula, where Costa Rica’s dry forests are the most fragmented.
There, TNC will help fund and coordinate management plans that lay out conservation goals, strategies and needed research for the individual protected areas in the region, which include Barra Honda National Park, DiriáNational Park, Ostional Wildlife Refuge, Cabo Blanco Biological Reserve and others.
“But we can’t just talk about protected areas because they are isolated, like islands in a sea,” he said. “If there aren’t devices that allow (plant and animal species) to move between them, they will be condemned to disappear in the long term.”
That is where biological corridors come into play. These are sections of forest, almost always on private lands, that connect larger protected areas, allowing animal and plant species to spread across greater distances, not only widening their range but allowing for their numbers to increase and their gene pool to deepen.
“Everybody knows about Costa Rica’s protected areas. Costa Rica’s biological corridors are less well known,” said Bryan Finegan, a researcher at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE).
“Biological corridors run through agricultural landscapes that might have forests along rivers or patches of forest or isolated trees on farms. This is the type of landscape that animals can move through,” he said.
“The key to success is local people perceiving that there are benefits for them in conservation management.”
Finegan explained that these benefits could mean an additional value for ecofriendly, shade-grown coffee or simply the protection of a community’s water source.
Working with CATIE, the Environment Ministry and the National University (UNA), TNC has begun coordinating with a loose network of community groups already working on protecting biological corridors.
In addition to providing training and consultation on planning and protection, the TNC will coordinate funding for the corridors, thanks in part to a 2007 “debt for nature swap” with the United States.
In the accord, the United States forgave nearly $15 million in Costa Rican debt under the agreement that Costa Rica would instead deposit the money, to the tune of $1.5 million a year, into a trust fund for environmental projects, with conservation initiatives on the NicoyaPeninsula a priority (TT, Nov. 2, 2007).
Additionally, the Costa Rican government provides land owners cash incentives for forest conservation through a program called Payment for Environmental Services, where biological corridors are a priority.
CATIE, meanwhile, is preparing a monitoring program that will provide information on “indicators” of ecosystem health – for example, the level of fragmentation of tropical forests, as well as the ecological health of the existing biological corridors.
“To have biodiversity conservation and to preserve services that biodiversity offers people, you have to restore forest and for that, you need biological corridors,” Finegan said.