A video that follows our carbon offset program created by resident naturalist and independent researcher Ernest Minnema and photojournalism intern Charles Austin Boll.
Why do humans produce double the amount food that the entire world needs, but one billion people are still left hungry every day? How can we reduce the global impact of an agricultural industry that takes up 38 percent of Earth’s land mass?
On his childhood farm, a young Fabricio was wondering the same: why are they clearing the trees from the coffee plantations? Why do the coffee plants need chemicals? Why are the chemicals held in a room that I am not allowed in? These are questions Fabricio Camacho asked on his grandparent’s coffee farm in the 1980’s in the southern region of San Isidro, Costa Rica.
Now as the director of UGA Costa Rica, Fabricio is asking similar questions for his PhD research. This time, it’s through a more scientifically polished and globally pertinent lens.
He has a vision to fuse traditional methods of farming with the latest science. The goal is to produce coffee plants just as efficiently with a fraction of the emissions, cutting out synthetic fertilizers that deteriorate soil quality and emit greenhouse gases. Fabricio believes that we can sequester carbon and safeguard our water supply inside a rich soil that is facilitated by waste products that are already abundant.
Fabricio thinks that by using microorganisms and compost that is accessible to farmers, we can make a steep turn towards improving global health – and he’s got 1,600 plants outside the campus nursery to prove it.
Young Fabricio saw many of the fields on his home farm become degraded because of chemical use. This translated to special consideration for the long-term health of coffee plantations.
The first goal is substitution of synthetic fertilizers by purely organic matter. Because coffee production is the second largest crop in Costa Rica, the outcome could become a nationally adequate solution for carbon gas emissions.
“The idea could be adopted by just coffee farmers in Costa Rica, or the model could be introduced around the whole world” – Fabricio Camacho
He has eight different soil mixes randomly placed within each of the 64 blocks. The blocks are placed together to organize soil treatment throughout the experiment. Two of the eight are standard controls that farmers already use: basic soil and synthetically produced treatments. Two of these formulas are renditions of what Fabricio calls “optimized compost.”
The two optimized compost treatments have food waste products like banana leaves, wood chips, biodigestor sludge, and microorganisms that are available in the area, making his solution accessible to everyone.
Fabricio’s project delves into microbiology to understand how the MM (Mountain Microorganisms) and biodigestor sludge can facilitate nutrient absorption by the coffee plants and how much more carbon can be sequestered.
All of the plants are located in the same area to standardize lurking variables such as sun cover, rainfall, insect herbivory, and the microclimates of each block. His study will be able to be reproduced with 95 percent accuracy. This is lively science to be seen in an outdoor classroom where we can share the process with guests, students, and other researchers.
Fabricio takes every opportunity to share and crowd-source his ideas. The first planting day involved our UGACR maintenance team, most of whom have their own farms, to help weigh and mix the composts for the soil testing. A group of local farmers came to see and study the experiment due to their desire for new solutions.
Fabricio gladly shares the recipe, like teaching students from Fit4Earth how to bake a compost cake. These are young ticos who can apply the knowledge in their country, where 8% of the citizens work on coffee farms.
Fabricio’s hypothesis is that the optimized compost with purely organic material will facilitate coffee plant growth equally or better than the synthetic alternatives. The main objective is promoting sustainability by utilizing the natural resources that we have available. It can be more cost efficient because this method is easily obtainable within our environment.
San Luis is a great example of a sustainable and organic model. If we prove this hypothesis correct, our community can serve as an inspiration to others. Through research and technological innovation we can bring the Costa Rican ecosystems back up to health by transitioning back to agro-forestry across the country.
The sustainable farms present in the community could use more strength for their plants. We could prove these soils to create more strength to grow, absorb nutrients, and contain water to hold throughout the dry season.
The common goal of Fabricio and participating interns is to bridge the gap between the practical farming community and the latest scientific breakthroughs. This experiment using unique ingredients is still one-of-a-kind on Earth. Fabricio is branching out by traveling to Germany for a month this summer to learn more about carbon sequestration.
It is already known that agro-forestry is more sustainable than monocultures. The questions Fabricio will resolve may prove that we don’t need any synthetic chemicals to maximize production. We can return to traditional methods with a newfound knowledge to gradually improve global health.
Blog post and photos by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll
Eyes peer over the cabinets as José decides which butterfly case to show. Each is organized by family, pinned nicely in order to see the wings with an individual label for each subject.
José Joaquín Montero Ramírez is creating a library of information that many generations will be able to pass down. As well as being the Research, Instruction, and Internship Coordinator for UGA Costa Rica, José also leads workshops and lectures on his expertise – butterflies and moths.
UGA conservation inventories can be found in our lab, where the specimens are kept in sealed cases and organized by families. These collections are expected to last for 300-500 years and will be studied by future generations to tell our history.
“Having those specimens in a drawer with a label that specifies time, location, altitude, and GPS coordinates is extremely important because it’s the only way for you, in the future, to reveal a story.” – José Joaquín Montero Ramírez
Through his hands-on education and his growing collection of self-written books, that is exactly what José is doing – telling a brilliant story. We use the collection as one of our main tools to show students how thorough research is conducted.
José published two books on the Butterflies and Moths of Costa Rica in 2007. Now he is using the UGACR collection of over 1000 specimens collected on campus, beginning in 1998, to write his third book describing the 250 species that are found in San Luis de Monteverde.
José’s main goal through teaching is to promote Bioliteracy. This means that people study a particular biology well enough to become fluent in understanding the causes and effects, pushes and pulls, between environmental stimuli and species. Our field observations tie together butterflies with the plants that they use to eat and pupate, for example.
UGA Costa Rica is a place where we can constantly make observations, proving step-by-step that butterfly and moth behavior is a key indicator of environmental health.
Looking to publish his third book will bring him closer to San Luis, focusing on species that surround us here on campus. Costa Rica has .03 percent of the world’s land mass, but yet 8 percent of its butterflies and 11 percent of the world’s moths. Our campus is a magnifying glass to hold to the butterfly world.
José Joaquín Montero Ramírez has worked for a non-profit science organization as well as contributing to the National Museum of Costa Rica’s butterfly and moth collection.
As the curator in charge of collection at Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), José would organize parataxonomists, organize samples from families to species level, and teach new collectors how to preserve the specimens. Every curator would focus on one or more families
A research center in Ontario, Canada at the University of Guelph has a DNA reader that creates a library of barcodes of life for each species.
Butterfly researchers send a leg of the specimen to be tested by the machine and receive a detailed description of the genes in return (barcode). This information is crucial to the ability to delineate species boundaries, specifying which insect is a sibling or cryptic species, family member, distant cousin species, or a newly found species all together.
During his work with INBio, José was at the forefront of differentiating species using this form of identification. The family of moths that Jose was in charge of, Lasiocampidae, grew from 130 to 203 species through his leadership.
“When you have a collection, it implies that you have knowledge, and in this era of technology, if you have knowledge, you have a lot of power. Collections, for me, represent power in terms of having the opportunity, data, and the information to teach young people and show them that you have to collect butterflies and moths because it’s the only way to conserve.” – José Joaquín Montero Ramírez
Students are able to take a sample of a species, unravel their net to hold their butterfly gently, understanding that the interaction between human and insect can be purely positive without harming the butterfly. Then they sit down with the page of the butterfly family in the book and make their guess to exactly what species they have found.
They will learn the scientific and common name. José will often share amazing details about a unique characteristic or personality trait of that particular species.
The kids realize the animal and form a tangible connection between themselves and a certain species of insect. This can feel something quite new to students of all age, who are normally timid to hold insects, and show them that there’s no way to gain knowledge of a species if we don’t interact with it.
UGACR bridges the gap between the forest and the laboratory where we study. At this field station, a wealth of information is just right outside the doors of the lab. One of the main goals of this activity is to teach people how citizen science is applicable.
There are species fluttering around us that we still don’t know about; we are exploring new species month to month. Living in this unique forest that shares such a vast border with reserved land creates an atmosphere of discovery through some unexplored frontiers of biodiversity, sometimes flying right past your eyes.
Words and photos contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll
Fit4Earth continued their impactful service in our community by creating the third biogarden (biojardinera) in San Luis de Monteverde. An extra-muddy pat on the back was greatly deserved for their diligent work through unpredictable weather conditions.
This year’s group included 69 students from Colegio Humboldt, a German international school located in Pavas, San Jose. Excited to facilitate more fellowship with education in Costa Rica, this project filled a special spot. The service work was organized at the community center playground, where the group cleared an area and flattened out all of the land, preparing it to be a grass area for kids to play around the swings.
The second installment of the recent project was to build a biogarden in the front yard of the Puesto de Salud (Health Post). The biogarden (biojardinera) is an environmental tool that has become implemented particularly in Central America with growing popularity in Costa Rica.
So, what exactly is a biogarden?
A biogarden is a way for localized groups, as big as a school or as small as a single household, to treat their grey water. Grey water is any waste water from a household that is not from the toilet. The residual water from the showers, sinks and laundry is funneled to a garden instead of being disposed straight into the side yard or a close stream.
There may be up to a few preliminary tanks that are planted in the ground in front of the garden. The tanks have two PVC pipes running through them that allow grease and soap residue to become trapped, being retained and collecting inside the tank. This is a way to filter the water before it runs through the garden.
Large rocks are placed on the bottom of the biogarden on top of a plastic floor, then the rectangular pit is filled the rest of the way with gravel. The plants need to be placed at least fifteen centimeters underneath the surface to be able to collect the water. The plants that are used for a biogarden are species that are usually found in riverbanks and have long roots, like Coix lacryma-jobi, or Tears of San Pedro as they’re called in Costa Rica. There is no soil in the garden – just different sizes of rocks.
Much of the residual toxins and bacteria are trapped between the rocks before the water travels through the plant system. The water is slowed as it runs through the rocks and is then absorbed by the plants, as they demand more water and nutrients to continue growing. The remaining waste will be absorbed and processed by the plant tissues. Check out this video for an articulate account of how Costa Ricans put it together.
Our biogardens are located at the Escuela Alto San Luis, Finca El Nino (campus farm) and now the Puesto de Salud San Luis, pictured in order here. All three projects were contributed by the Fit4Earth program. The end product, seen top-right at our campus farm, is incredibly inconspicuous. The Tears of San Pedro will grow tall to cover most of the rocks and plastic, blending in with surrounding grass.
The new garden was proudly planted in the front yard of the community health center. Bringing this technology into fruition stimulates questions as to why sustainable practices are important on a family level. Imagine if every family used a biogarden to treat water before entering the watershed, the community’s water source could be left unpolluted.
Teaching this traditional and simple method to children from the city gives them a practical solution. Biogardens use simple and available resources, and only require minimal yard space. Becoming accountable for personal waste water will grow into a part of the ecological culture of Costa Rica, and the growing popularity will open discourse on minimizing anthropogenic harm in the watershed.
Large-scale projects have been introduced to the region, such as this project conducted in Sardinal. As the biojardinera gains steam and recognition, it will offer a practical solution to offset personal footprint caused by drainage water. This uplifting group of kids has already opened community discussion about the rare structure in the front yard of the health post. Keep your eyes out for the expansion of this idea and Fit4Earth workshops to come!
Photos and words contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll with graphics by Nelly López
Augusta University had a full week of activities like zip-lining, coffee tours, home stays, and night hikes. In all the adventure they still made plenty of time to connect with the local community during their immersive experience here at UGACR.
They started on a Monday morning to paint the interior of the Alto San Luis primary school. With 29 students, the task was feasible within a few hours.
The team started out by mixing the paint and put a full layer down, dividing the students, school faculty and volunteers up between the rollers and the brushes. The group was surprised by fresh plates of various fruits being served by the teachers, keeping everyone glowing with healthy energy. It was feeling like “mucho brete,” or tough work, but with a light-hearted ethic that maintained patience, playfulness, and the spirit of giving.
Students at the Escuela Altos de San Luis took advantage of the time their teachers were occupied. Primary and university students enjoyed an extended recess by playing soccer and riding bikes. The opportunity sparked interest in several of the kids to pitch in, freshening up their desks in the front lawn.
The inside of the classrooms and the desks were finished with orange after the first day. The design followed along the previous pattern of blue, with the bottom one-third several shades darker, leaving the top sections lighter. Teachers noticed that the orange allowed much more natural light to flow through the previously darker classroom.
Community pillar Geovanny Leitón continued his frequent volunteer service by organizing the supply of the paint and to allocate jobs to the students. Geovanny wins the superlative of class clown. He is the one to meticulously organize the event, but also the first to take a detouring moment, pretending to dump paint on a professor and poke at a smile.
Augusta University students had an amazing time crossing language barriers and laughing as some of the students practiced their basic Spanish skills, coming to familiarize themselves with how much more they still have to learn.
When the team returned to the school the following Wednesday to finish their service, they were pleasantly surprised with a performance the students were preparing for Dia de Juan Santamaría. A robust and talented band rang the room with percussion instruments, performing with a skill level that is usually is not achieved by this age group. It was one more way that the alto students demonstrated that they are an outstandingly connected group, always ready to give back.
The Watts family returned last week to rediscover the sensation of campus, fulfilling a promise to an enchanted 10-year-old son that they would certainly return.
Marilyn and Doug Watts made their first visit to UGACR in 2004, when our campus was very young. Being from Anchorage, Alaska, they are no strangers to adventure. They fell in love discovering the natural environment off the beaten path and traveling further down a rugged road than many tourists see.
2004 was the first year that our current general manager Fabricio Camacho accepted his position. The Watts were able to see thirteen years of transformation as a result of the perseverance of people like Fabricio and the team of local staff members, several of which have been around since 2004. The main changes the Watts saw in the university were the addition and repositioning of many buildings. Doug, now 24, says the feeling has remained intact.
What makes our campus a must-return destination for all ages? It’s the way that the one-of-a-kind community and ecosystem keeps you on your toes – It’s the possibility of visiting campus for a week and catching sight of a species that naturalists have been waiting months to see. Around every corner is a chance to renew this childhood sentiment of discovery.
The entire community has developed exponentially since the opening in 2001, when the main mode of transportation was horseback. Farmers in the San Luis valley would hitch a ride with the milk truck into town; Now motorcycles line up in the employee parking lot. To learn more about how we came to be, check out our full length documentary here
Last week marked an important step in the most comprehensive study of water quality in the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Dr. Thomas Shahady returned to gather another round of samples, continuing to solidify some hypotheses in his water research.
Shahady is the current director of the Center for Water Quality at Lynchburg College in Virginia. He practices a three-pronged research model with students and interns he teaches in both the U.S. and Costa Rica.
He has been gathering data from 18 field sites in the Bellbird Biological Corridor since 2013. By taking multiple trips to UGACR every year, his information is adding up to give us a general idea of what concerns the community will face.
Researchers Martha Garro Cruz and José Montero tagged along with Darixa Hernandez and Shahady for three days to continue the collection of data and samples. The methods comprise three key steps:
1.) Physical parameters: A cross section is chosen to measure the depth across every meter of the river’s width. This gives us information on water volume.
The velocity is also measured at each of these points using a flow meter. The combined information is used to measure the river discharge.
2.) Chemical parameters: Water samples are collected in order to measure phosphorus and nitrogen levels. This can tell us if there’s any external input of these chemicals by fertilizers, for example. A YSI multimeter is used to measure pH, ammonium levels, dissolved oxygen, and water temperature.
3.) Biological parameters: Samples of the aquatic macroinvertebrates are taken by placing a square net facing upstream, then turning over rocks and leaf litter in front of the net. Macroinvertebrates are released from their habitat and drifted into the net by the water current. Based off their continuing research, they have developed a percentage model of what the standard content should be for each family of macroinvertebrates. Only certain families of macroinvertebrates are resistant to large amounts of pollution. This makes it possible to decipher water quality based on what aquatic life is present.
Escherichia coli and number of fecal coliform colonies present are also assessed. Water samples are collected and then taken to the lab where the water is filtered through a membrane, a growth medium for bacteria is added and then these are placed in petri dishes. After three days of incubation, blue (E. coli) and red (other coliform colonies) are counted.
Keeping track of the macroinvertebrate populations in the stream can be conducted as citizen science – all you need is a net, containers, and an insect key. This is why Shahady wants to show a correlation between chemical pollution and invertebrates present. The goal is to empower the communities to be more cognizant about the pollution levels in their water shed.
Through this research, Shahady has discovered several alarming issues. He is faced by the ambiguity of what happens with Costa Rica’s waste water (black and gray water).
They are now aware of field sites where water is simply disappearing. Farmers (and a pineapple plantation) have been extracting an unregulated amount of water for irrigation when the weather is dry. In a single river the difference is drastic based on the amount of anthropogenic influence in adjacent locations.
After compiling all of the results, Shahady will have plentiful evidence to show community representatives. The results will be published in written form along with an index for citizens to monitor their river and streams, driving more policies to be implemented to water quality in the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Check out the links below for Thomas Shahady’s visual presentations.
Assessment of Stream Water Quality in BellBird Biological Corridor: www.periscope.tv/w/1BRKjAvPgNwxw
Creation of Water Quality Index: www.periscope.tv/w/1ypKdAvqbQdGW
Blog by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll, with special contributions by Darixa Hernandez.
The presentation of new improvements on the Sendero Pacífico called for a packed house at the community center on Saturday, March 4. The celebratory event was held in conjunction with the opening of a new cafe next to the community center.
The network of trails that starts at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve connects all the way down to Punta Morales and the Gulf of Nicoya, now with a completed inlet by the San Luis community center.
Workers from the Bruce Trail Conservancy in Canada stayed in UGACR housing as a base for their work on the Pacific Slope Trail. This sisterhood relationship between trail networks means that they will visit again in the future.
This trail connects several distinct ecological zones, showcasing the huge amount of biodiversity that can be seen in such a small area within Costa Rica.
“One of the things that makes it special is not just that it is within this wonderful natural environment of the Bellbird Biological Corridor, but also that it provides access to different communities along the way,” says Nathaniel Scrimshaw, Sendero Pacífico Coordinator.
Monteverde, San Luis, Veracruz and San Antonio, Guacimal, and the mangroves of Costa de Pájaros can all be accessed through this winding hike to the coast.
Public access roads and permissions given by private farms were integral to creating a trail network that will not charge entry fees. The participation of Banco Nacional were critical in the opening of the cafe and the signs to connect the trails.
Both of the events that debuted were funded by the Association de Desarollo Integral (ADI). Banco National helped to fund the community leadership in order to facilitate these two grand openings, promoting more rural tourism in San Luis.
Since this trail network has been left in the hands of the community and is not government controlled, the people of the communities are going to be responsible for the quality of the trail looking forward.
This is a critical model of communities supporting each other to preserve biodiversity in one of the most endangered areas of Costa Rica. Deforestation has created islands of forest that are parted by pasturelands. The areas preserved by the trail network are going to serve not only as a trial for humans, but as a trail for migrating wildlife and other species who need larger areas to roam.
The focal points of recreation, education, investigation, and community are converging goals of the Sendero Pacífico. These improvements will help travelers and locals to connect more with our outstanding natural environment. To see how you can volunteer with the trail or get more connected, visit the San Luis Community page!
Blog post contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll
At UGA Costa Rica, the forest floor is crawling with completely different life after the sun goes down. This is why night hikes are one the naturalists’ favorite activities to host and one of the most unpredictable as to what guests may find. Plus, having so many nocturnal species gives us thousands of reasons to pack a flashlight.
Our jungle is a city that never sleeps, where animals showcase many sensory abilities that are beyond what humans typically rely on. Leaf cutter ants work all night long, following the pheromones of their group to keep trails back to their colony.
Students and ecotourists are shown a perspective of wildlife that prompts different questions from any other activity. Flashlights and headlamps reflect the eye shine of spiders, mammals, and many other species that are usually looked over or hidden during the day. Even some species of worms only glow in the darkness. Night hikes show a contrasting side to our lush ecosystem.
The insecurities of being in a mysterious jungle turn into a sense of reassurance. With the right knowledge and equipment, we learn to stay out of harm’s way in a diverse jungle that supports the life of various spiders, poisonous insects, snakes and even cats. Night-hiking serves as a great model of living along side life that we often see as dangerous.
Night hikes give guests the opportunity to learn outside of the comfort zone that they are used to in the daylight. That type of uneasiness in the darkness transforms into a gratification in the ability to see more of the elusive species that aren’t active during the day.
We invite you to tune into a different frequency by turning off the lights. Take a couple minutes to listen and look at the stars under an open canopy – hear the sounds. Adding a human harmony to the twilight orchestra creates a song that is unique to this activity.
Photos and words contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll
If you have visited our campus, you may have noticed a tiny sticker in the bottom-left corner of each of our windows – a product of our organized study to combat bird strikes. UGA Costa Rica reached an imperative milestone for our studies this week by having one of the top researchers in Costa Rica visit our campus for a lab tutorial and presentation over her findings over the past four years.
Martha Cruz has been working on her bird strike project for over a year now. Her mentor, Rose Marie Menacho-Odio, has been conducting meticulous research since 2013.
Martha Garro Cruz, with several other researchers and assistants gathered with Menacho-Odio in the campus laboratory for a training on bird dissection. This was absolutely imperative for Cruz’s study to be able to distinguish the gender of affected bird species that lack sexual dimorphism. The studies of Martha Cruz now have increasing ability to be included in Costa Rica’s national museum, which has been preserving specimens since the 1970’s.
The questions of Menacho-Odio’s research are which species strike the most frequently, which buildings are most prone to being struck, and what are the most effective measures to prevent strikes? Her research has produced tangible answers to all of these questions. We are following suit on campus – here are our methods and then results:
The research that has been occurring since 2013 is organized into three different areas based off altitude. The San Luis valley that is home to our campus is known as area one. These areas show differing results of species striking most frequently. For example, we rarely have Emerald Toucanets striking our windows, while that is the most common species in area two, with higher altitude. This occurs even though we have this species on our campus, pictured from our bird-watching activity here.
The organized research has been conducted in three steps based off parameters set by researchers Hager and Cosentino:
The first is the systematic search, where researchers search a distance about 2 meters around the perimeter of each building, three consecutive days in a row during the most optimal hours.
The second is systematic observation, which happens 6 consecutive days in the morning for 15 minutes on each building side, moving clockwise. This is an observation where the scientists stand at a slight distance from the building and observe the birds behavior towards a window. Different species interact with completely different behavior. For example, the house wren, who is known for living within close proximity to buildings, has never been recorded as actually striking a window on campus. However, it is very frequent that the house wren will approach the window to catch insects that are stuck in spider webs, eating the insects
before safely maneuvering away from the window. This is opposed to the clay-colored thrush, who is known to fight its own reflection. These observations generate new hypotheses for how adaptation is working.
The third is staff and citizen science. Many of our naturalists will help to record bird strikes and capture injured or stunned birds. The naturalists inform all of our residents to help record bird strikes on the posted chart located just to left of our reception office. UGACR makes recording this information a small-scale model of a community effort to combat this issue that claims hundreds of thousands of bird lives each year.
On campus, we have recorded 44 species of birds from 22 different families striking windows here on campus from January 2016 to January 2017.
The most striking bird is the Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus). This is a migratory species that usually enters our region in October. On this graph you can see the influx of strikes in October and again when they are returning in March.
The following species are in order for the most strikes, following the Swainson’s Thrush: The Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi), Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis), and White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi)
The Trochilidae family (hummingbirds) is the second most recorded for striking windows.
Bird strikes are common around the globe. If you ever witness one, it is best to catch the bird, gently stabilizing the head, wings, and legs. Place it in a paper bag for 15-20 minutes to help relieve stress, then let the bird loose. Species like humming birds can often face heart-attacks from the stress of the strike and then being handled.
Moving forward, the goal of Menacho-Odio is to present more talks to increase awareness and dispel myth surrounding the subject. Martha Cruz hopes to use the research to implement the most effective preventative measures on campus, like stringing vertical rope about 5 inches apart over the frame of windows to let birds know it is not maneuverable.
Photos and words offered by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll with graphic additions created by Martha Garro Cruz.