From the print edition
BUENOS AIRES, Puntarenas – On the border of La Amistad International Park in southern Costa Rica, nonprofit group Quercus Conservationists’ Network is developing entrepreneurial leaders to promote environmental responsibility and community organizing. In areas where paved roads have never reached, the network is helping people care for the natural world as well as themselves.
In the buffer zone around La Amistad, which borders Panama, members of the network promote solid waste management, organic gardening, rural hotel development, coffee mills, best management practices on chicken and bee farms and conservation awareness.
“The network is a form of self-government in environmental conservation,” said Andrea Torres, environmental education coordinator.
One problem many local communities face is migration. Families are split apart when residents leave to work in bigger cities or other countries, Torres said. Those migrants leave behind disintegrating communities and aging residents.
Quercus Network steps in to help support rural living and challenge the stereotype that rural work is inextricably linked to poverty and hardship, she said.
Because coffee is an important commodity in the region, one group that belongs to the network, the Association of Organized Women in Biolley (Asomobi), runs a local coffee mill. Asomobi’s 28 women process, roast and export coffee from local growers, and offer coffee tours and homestays.
“This has been a great opportunity for me and other women to have independent means to send our children to school or create employment for them here,” said Ana Laura Quirós, a mother of seven and administrator of Asomobi. “But a big part of it, beyond finances, is having dignified employment.”
“Before I was too shy to talk to a large group of people or walk into a bank and ask for a loan. We’ve gained confidence in ourselves,” she added.
Entrepreneurs aware of environmental threats in the area founded the Quercus Network in 2008. Entrepreneurial teamwork helped create tourism projects, and sustainable agriculture and educational programs developed under the National System of Conservation Areas and endorsed by the Education Ministry. The network depends on funding from national institutions, yet maintains its own management structure. It also works with local governments.
A central aspect of the network’s projects takes place in schools in the indigenous Brunca region. The Quercus Network gives seed money to projects in 37 schools with 1,400 students in the communities around the international park.
In one project, students at a school in Biolley learn about growing healthier food at an organic greenhouse and small farm. The food is used in the school’s cafeteria or taken home by students. Angela Serracín, agricultural educator at the Biolley school, said the time spent in the greenhouse or feeding chickens is the students’ favorite part of the day.
“They’d be in there all the time if we let them,” she said. “It gives them valuable skills and also a sense of pride to take food home to their families.”
U.S.-based Exchange Debt for Nature also funds the network, with additional support from the Quercus Conservation Association and La Amistad International Park.
“This program is one of the best-organized, best-implemented and most effective that I have seen in Central America,” said Roger González, manager of La Amistad’s administrative office. “The effect that the educational aspect of the program has had is visible by decreased crime in the park.”
González said rangers rely on support from nearby communities to help protect La Amistad, which spans almost 200,000 hectares in Costa Rica and 207,000 hectares in Panama.
Quercus Network administrator Quirós said she hopes the organization can be a model for the rest of the country.
“Environmental education in schools allows us to contribute to the formation of the future citizens of this nation,” she said. “In this region there are forests of oak trees, Quercus oleoides, to which we owe our name. We are as unique as this tropical forest in Latin America, and our pioneering effort has led to a change in people’s commitment to the environment and to responsible production.”
For more information about the network, see: http://www.inbio.ac.cr/pila/comunidades_quercus.htm.