MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica – Attending meetings, visiting classrooms and schools, organizing volunteers – Bob Law is a busy man.
The 73-year-old birder’s charisma and passion for rainforest conservation are evident in his knowledge about the Monteverde Conservation League. He is, after all, one of its founding members.
After working for the Asociación Conservacionista de Monteverde (ACM) for 27 years, and living in Costa Rica for 47 years, he knows a thing or two about conserving rainforest land, helping wildlife maintain a migration path, and how to convince people why these efforts are so crucial to the future of the Costa Rican rainforest.
The History – Then and Now
Known in English as the Monteverde Conservation League, ACM was established in 1986 with the goal of “conserving, preserving and rehabilitating tropical ecosystems and biodiversity” in Monteverde, according to the organization’s website.
The Monteverde cloud forest has a highly saturated air content, making the air foggy. This moisture allows numerous types of plants and life to prosper in the rainforest.
Law and a group of biologists, teachers, professors, business people and citizens noticed that land was being cleared in Monteverde for farming. They also noticed a similar pattern of sparse forest land in Nicaragua that left areas disjointed and bare. They wanted to create a legal organization to buy land in Costa Rica to reforest and protect.
“During the ’80s, conservation of rainforest was a big topic in the U.S.,” Law said. “All you had to do was say ‘rainforest’ and people would literally throw money at you.”
When the organization first began, donations poured in from around the world: half a million dollars from Canada; $1 million from Swedish school children matched by the Swedish government; the proceeds from a Grateful Dead concert.
ACM used the money to buy about 7,500 acres of land. The Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, or Bosque Eterno de los Niños, was created by the donations of the Swedish students and ACM still works to protect that land. Spain, Japan, Germany, the United States and other international partners are involved with that project.
Over the years Law has seen the way conservation efforts have changed. Over 50 employees worked with ACM when it was first established, and 7,500 acres of forest land were donated to the conservation efforts. Now, only 25 employees work for the organization, but over 56,000 acres of forest land are protected.
The league works every year to purchase areas of land to connect rainforest lands. Law said that the amount of land the league is able to protect each year depends on how much money is allocated in the budget as well as how much land can be donated.
The currently protected area only reaches certain areas around Monteverde, but ACM is working with other local conservation groups to purchase more land going south (see map). The goal is to reach down the Pacific coast toward the lowlands of Costa Rica to create a connected corridor so that animals have a safe way to migrate from one area to another. For example, Law said, butterflies that know to fly north during the rainy season will benefit. Eventually migrating species are able to pass along that information through future generations and are able to migrate seasonally each year. Mammals also need to be able to migrate, but can’t because of the separation of forested areas.
“These biological corridors are important to preserve the biodiversity area,” Law said. “You might have a bit of healthy population in a forest, but if it’s surrounded by a pasture, bit by bit that population will die out.”
Some animals won’t cross pasture-like areas of protected land, Law said, which means reforestation is also necessary for certain areas. The organization has a tree nursery on the Atlantic coast to help grow saplings to sell for profit and be put to use in reforestation.
Until recently, ACM was able to apply to buy 750 acres of land per year, but a government push allowing smaller farms to have access to the land first reduced the maximum to 125 acres a year.
Almost all of the protected land is donated to the non-profit organization. Income is generated by donations from the public, revenue from its two biological stations in San Gerardo and Pocosol, and walking tours.
The only form of government funding that ACM receives is money collected from environmental protection service tax payments, but Law said that money has been reduced this year and anticipates a loss of about 10 percent of the league’s $500,000 budget. ACM’s operations budget is shrinking.
“Now it’s becoming less and we have to be more self-sufficient,” Law said. “So that’s why we’re trying to get more people to come into our stations, not just for research, but for people that like to hike or birdwatch.”
The budget cutbacks also make it difficult to upgrade the stations with the kind of equipment that draws more people.
“We have a tremendous area of biodiversity and we now have a couple of places for researchers to stay,” Law said. “We just need to get the word out and put in better facilities, getting electricity in and an Internet connection and things like that, which is essential these days. But when you’re working on a shoestring, it’s difficult going.”
Needing to constantly monitor the protected areas of land comes with a cost for ACM. When homesteaders in Costa Rica see a piece of land unused, it can seem like a good place to clear out trees for farming – a practice that has been going on in Costa Rica since the 1950s. ACM has to patrol the forest locations to make sure others aren’t intruding on the area.
“Once you put a line around something, get it defined, you have to show up periodically and make sure someone hasn’t squatted on your squat,” Law said jokingly. “That means we have to have guards not only patrolling for homesteaders, but also for hunters and for people who want to capture songbirds.”
Less income means less money to pay guards, however.
“We really don’t have enough guards. We really need four times what we have,” Law said. “It just means that since we have less money they are forced to patrol less. They can’t cover as much territory because there aren’t as many people, and that’s a problem.”
Resolving issues ‘bit by bit’
Educating the public about the importance of conservation is crucial for the organization’s mission.
“Preserving is not enough. You have to convince people it is right to do so,” Law said.
The league has created an ongoing environmental education program in local schools to teach children about the importance of preserving the forest.
A five-year grant was just established to hire one teacher to lead the class, but Law wishes that more teachers could be part of the program to teach in seven elementary schools, Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups and community classes.
Lady Garita is the environmental educator with ACM and has worked with the organization for a year. She worked at INBioparque in Heredia for seven years, but now lives closer to the Monteverde area to teach the classes. She works with school children and adults organizing lectures and waste collection, and guides some tours of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest.
Garita believes that the education she is able to give is a valuable element of conservation efforts.
“I think that environmental education should be a compulsory subject in Costa Rica’s schools and around the world,” Garita said. “Conservation can’t exist without education.”
Garita noted that education for adults is also important in her work.
“Education is the pillar forger of better citizens, and environmentally educated parents will always be the best example for their children and their families,” Garita said.
The goal of the education programs is to teach future generations about why conservation is so important to the biodiversity of the country.
“Bit by bit. Give it 20 years, because right now you’re talking to children, but in 20 years they’ll be the adults and if you’ve had effective classes, they’ll support what you’re doing,” Law said.