Max Tattenbach first noticed the problem during a day of surfing along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
“I would visit all these places to surf, and there was no shade,” Tattenbach, 22, recalls. “There were no trees. And I wondered, ‘How come?’”
Tattenbach, a half-Tico, half-Canadian student at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), decided to do something about it.
He formed a conservation organization called Costas Verdes (Green Coasts) that aims to marshal volunteers and coordinate with local governments to plant trees along the country’s barren beaches.
Ranchers cleared coastal forests throughout the country in the 1950s and ’60s, converting the land for livestock and cattle grazing.
Tattenbach stresses that Costas Verdes wants to “restore” the native vegetation, such as mangroves, icaco, yellow trumpetbush and more, but not drastically alter the current ecosystem.
“We don’t want to change the ecosystem; some fauna has adapted,” he says. “We want to make a balance.”
Along with providing shade for surfers and restoring the natural vegetation, the project would benefit wildlife as well – especially sea turtles. The bright lights from beachside development, Tattenbach explains, disorient the turtles as they come ashore to lay eggs. Planting trees, he hopes, will help block the light.
He also hopes the new trees will attract birds and make the beaches more pleasant for visitors, and aims to use Costas Verdes as an educational tool to spread information about environmental conservation.
Tattenbach, an agricultural economics major who says he’s been a tree lover all his life, acknowledges that fundraising has been a struggle in these tough economic times. So far, he and the 11 other permanent members of Costas Verdes have concentrated their efforts at public refuges such as the Playa Hermosa-Punta Mala Wildlife Refuge on the central Pacific coast – specifically a 50-meter strip of land there that was overrun by invasive plant species such as Bermuda grass and sea oats, which wiped out native trees.
His goal was to raise $400 per month for the group to operate, but he concedes, “We don’t have any money.”
Local communities, he says, are “really enthusiastic” but cannot offer much in the way of assistance. The same goes for the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).
“They like the idea,” Tattenbach says, “but beyond some donations, they really don’t have much money.”
Tattenbach has been working to attract student volunteers from UCR and abroad. He’s scrapped together some money to help buy essential supplies such as gloves and shovels, as well as food, which he says is an important incentive for volunteers. Getting the word out, he says, is critical.
“People want to help, but don’t know how,” he says. “It’s not easy.”
Over Easter week, about 10 volunteers from UCR and the Outward Bound Costa Rica surf school gathered in Hermosa to prepare trees from the group’s nursery for planting. Planting was set to begin at the onset of the rainy season.
Tattenbach hopes to find a corporate sponsor to give the group a financial backbone. But “businesses are cutting costs,” he says, “trying to spend less money.”
He’s not discouraged, however. Working with the local municipalities and schools, Tattenbach hopes to ensure that the effort to reforest and restore the beaches goes beyond “planting a tree and forgetting about it.”
“We’ve got to keep going on,” he says. “You have to.”
For information, contact Costas Verdes at [email protected].