Offsetting the Upsetting: Students Plant Trees to Lessen Carbon Footprint

En route to UGA Costa Rica, students, professors, researchers, and guests alike all have to take a (minimum of one) flight to arrive in country. Taxis, buses and shuttles then make the trip to campus – all modes of transportation which emit carbon dioxide, CO2. This greenhouse gas (GHG), along with methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and ozone, absorb and emit energy in the thermal infrared range. AKA, the gases trap incoming sunlight and emit it as heat, similar to the effects of a greenhouse. That’s all fine and dandy because naturally, they keep us earthlings warm.

But things have literally been heating up. The concentration of GHGs has been increasing at alarming rates due to anthropological activity dating back to 1760, the start of the Industrial Revolution. The rising GHGs are affecting the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, and harming established ecosystems.

You can argue that it’s unrealistic to stop emitting GHGs altogether, but that doesn’t mean something isn’t being done to offset them!

What is offset, you ask?

It’s the process by which any individual, company, country, etc. pays to neutralize their own emissions of greenhouse gases either via conserving existing forests, reforesting, or investing into green energy.

In order to offset the carbon emitted while Costa Rica-bound, the campus has chosen the reforestation route.

With the help of Lucas Ramirez, campus harvester of seeds and guardian of the woods, guests and students are able to participate in UGA Costa Rica’s carbon offset program. Lucas gathers seeds from the surrounding forest, germinates them, and leads workshops in which participants pack soil bags and plant seedlings.

The project has not only been nudging UGA Costa Rica closer to carbon neutrality, but has also been helping to reforest the Bellbird Biological Corridor, an area in Costa Rica designated for conservation and reforestation.

Here’s how it works. On average, one flight and ground travel equates to approximately 0.66 tons of CO2. The number was rounded up to one ton to allow for a margin of error. It was then calculated that four trees (accounting that one might not make it) will sequester one ton of carbon in just about eight-and-one-third years. Sequestration means the trees take CO2 out of the atmosphere and change it into an organic form that would otherwise contribute to warming the world.

BONUS: the trees will likely live longer than eight-and-one-third years, which means more carbon sequestration! Yay!

The planted seedlings camp out in the UGA Costa Rica nursery for about a year before being adopted by a farmer. The saplings are given to local farmers who have expressed interest in caring for and maintaining the trees for a three-year period and participating in the project. The young trees are only planted during the rainy season!

Take a look at this UGA Maymester crew working hard to prepare next year’s saplings!

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

#EveryDayShouldBeEarthDay

After the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin decided that environmental awareness needed to become high-priority. The following year, Nelson launched the first Earth Day on April 20, 1970. Over 20 million people rallied across the U.S., germinating conversations about conservation and environmental awareness. Continuing to grow over the years, Earth Day went global in 1990, with 200 million people in 141 countries participating, according to Earth Day Network and LiveScience.com.

As an institution whose mission it is to increase the understanding of the fusion between humans and the environment, University of Georgia Costa Rica strives to use instruction, research, and outreach to achieve socio-cultural, ecological, and economic sustainability. What better day than Earth Day to highlight the number of ways in which this campus continues to blossom in its daily environmental efforts!

 “The mission of UGA Costa Rica is to advance our understanding – through instruction, research and outreach – of the interconnected nature between human and environmental systems, particularly the concepts of socio-cultural, ecological, and economic sustainability.”

UGA Costa Rica’s campus is nestled in the cloud forest of San Luis de Monteverde, Costa Rica. Prior to 1975, the surrounding area was a coffee plantation and dairy farm. As a result, the lush primary forest that once blanketed these mountains was heavily deforested, significantly affecting wildlife and biodiversity.

But now, through reforestation and other conservation practices, the UGA Costa Rica campus is bouncing back, 62 hectares (155 acres) strong! In 1995, the land was part of the Ecolodge San Luis and Biological Station, and was purchased in 2001 by the University of Georgia Foundation.Rainbow

First fun fact: Only 10 of 62 hectares were used for construction – the rest is a private reserve for the wildlife, with trails meandering through the cloud forest’s massive strangler figs and umbrella-like cecropia trees. According to the 2013 UGA Costa Rica Sustainability Report, about 60% of campus remains forested, 30% is used for sustainable agriculture, and 10% is developed.

What else, you ask? I’m just getting started.

The campus has an organic farm, located close to campus – only a five-minute hike along a leaf-littered, winding trail. A yearly average of 15% of the food comes directly from the terraced beds and hard work of agriculture interns and farm manager. Lettuce, carrots, limones, radishes, eggs, tomatoes – I’m salivating just thinking about how fresh all of it is!

After having a hearty Costa Rican dinner and a day’s worth of adventures zip lining or exploring the cloud forest on foot, it’s time for hot showers thanks to the solar heating systems perched on top of bungalow roofs! And while we’re talking about bungalows, let’s appreciate the means by which they were constructed. Most of the material used to build campus lodging is a beautiful dark, orange-tinted wood, which is; drumroll please… sustainably harvested teak wood.

It’s the little things that count, too; UGA Costa Rica uses and sells bars of soap and other hygiene products, locally made. The best part – they’re organic and don’t have harmful antibiotic properties that would harm the hard-working microbes in the biodigesters.

Ah, the biodigesters.

Biodigester

UGA Costa Rica has two biodigesters. It’s essentially a fancy word for waste cleaning machine. Waste, anything from human or livestock fecal matter, is disposed of into one end of a balloon-like cylindrical tube. Microbes living inside the digester break down the matter, releasing water and methane as byproducts. The methane rises and collects in what appears to be a floating tube. The gas is syphoned via a long hose to the kitchen and used to fuel certain kitchen stoves! Recycling resources – yeah!

Another major benefit of the biodigester is that during the microbial cleaning process, things that would cause serious harm to the environment, like fertilizers, methane, and waste in general, are filtered out, so the water that is being emptied back into the ecosystem is much more pure –great news for water quality in the area!

All extra food scraps are either gratefully garbled up by our humanely raised campus pigs, or taken to our compost pile to be broken down and used as soil for the farm.

UGA Costa Rica also has plans to become carbon neutral, meaning it will offset the carbon it has emitted, mainly via its reforestation program, a project that sprouted in 2008. Campus biodigesters, composting, and recycling habits also play a roll in offsetting carbon.

And don’t forget about social sustainability; the majority of UGA Costa Rica employees are local Ticos (Costa Ricans), which not only provides them economic benefits, but also cuts the need to drive to more distant jobs and generate more emissions.

If you’re interested in learning more about the campus’s daily quest toward sustainability, be sure to check out the detailed 2013 UGACR Sustainability Report.


Happy Earth day from the UGA Costa Rica staff and interns! Use the hash tag #everydayshouldbeEarthDay today to show and share your support for our home!

Post contributed by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Pura Agua, Pura Vida!

For the past three years, the Arenal-Tempisque Irrigation District governed by Costa Rica’s National Service of Underground Water, Irrigation, and Drainage (SENARA), has experienced drought conditions complicating water management and agricultural production.

UGA graduate students have been key players in developing a model and providing data to aid the drought-stricken district through their Costa Rica Water Resources project. Through collaborative research with NASA, SENARA “was provided with continuous data to more efficiently manage water resources, benefiting local stakeholders including irrigators, and more than 1,000 individual users of the stream,” the project abstract explains.

Steve Padgett-Vasquez is a current PhD candidate at UGA and an advisor to the Costa Rica Water Resources project team. During his first year of graduate school, Padgett-Vasquez helped instate a DEVELOP branch at UGA, a program that partners young researchers, such as himself, with NASA, and uses leading data from NASA Earth observations to address environmental issues.

“I have been working with DEVELOP since 2010, which has given me valuable experience in creating project ideas,” he said.

The Costa Rican Water Resources project came about after Padgett-Vasquez took a Water Management course taught by Dr. Quint Newcomer, Director of UGA Costa Rica. The highlight of the course included staying at UGA Costa Rica’s campus and traveling to Cañas in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.

It was there that the class met Javier Artiñano Guzmán, an agronomist for SENARA, who spoke about the drought throughout the Arenal-Tempisque Irrigation District. Padgett-Vaquez said listening to Artiñano Guzmán discuss his interest in updating the current GIS infrastructure, and as a result improving water management data, “was all it took to decide it would be a great project.” Padgett-Vasquez already had approval from the US Costa Rican Embassy and the DEVELOP National Program Office to move forward with project planning.

According to Padgett-Vasquez, the long-term impact of this partnership is for SENARA to benefit from supplemental NASA Earth observation data, collected by NASA satellites, and systematically overcome environmental stresses such as drought. Similarly, “participants who are part of the team, Javier [Artiñano Guzmán], and SENARA, will not only get a technical report, but a methodology and training on how to use the data,” Padgett-Vasquez added.

This short clip is an informative overview of the outstanding research being done!

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Why let waste go to waste?

With a neon bucket swinging playfully in hand and a royal blue cooler slung over her shoulder, Maureen Kinyua looks like she’s headed for the beach. But her long pants, scuffed hiking boots, and red daypack suggest otherwise.

Born and raised in Kenya, Maureen received a scholarship to study in the U.S. and is now in her fourth year of pursuing a PhD in Environmental Engineering from University of South Florida. Maureen’s dissertation pertains to improving the health of people in developing countries, women in particular, through sustainable technology that is uncomplicated to install, use, and maintain.

“Environmental engineers and public health sometimes concentrate on water water water water [in developing countries]…but they forget livestock waste is such a big polluter of water,” Maureen said.

Enter the biodigester.

BiodigesterUGA2
Maureen stands on a plank in front of UGACR’s farm biodigester. Microbe treated water gurgles beneath her as it flows from the biodigester.

It’s essentially a fancy word for waste cleaning machine. Waste, anything from human or livestock fecal matter to leftover scraps from meals, is disposed of into one end of a balloon-like cylindrical tube. With time, microbes trapped inside the digester break down the matter, mainly into water, carbon dioxide, and methane. These components are cycled into reuse, increasing environmental, social, and economic standards in a given location.

“You can provide people with a well, but then it gets polluted by livestock waste, so you’ve not really solved the issue, and you’re still not helping their economics or the environment,” Maureen said.

Her research, therefore, highlights the environmental, social, and economic benefits of the biodigester. Having received another grant to continue her research, Maureen has returned to UGA Costa Rica and the surrounding community to sample livestock waste and test it’s biogas potential. Out of curiosity, I tagged along.

I knew we made it to our first farm when Maureen slapped on purple latex gloves and glided on over to the pigpen. How elegantly she reached down, a yogi diving toward her toes. But instead of grabbing her little piggies, she snatched up a lump of poo belonging to one of the five oinking pigs curiously looking on. She zip-locked and stowed the sample in her bucket. Leaving the scene of sampling, we ducked below a thin blue pipe running from the biodigester in the garden, to the house, disappearing through the kitchen window. Maureen proceeded to educate me about the advantages of re-purposing waste.

Intrigued by Maureen’s sampling, the pigs investigate their visitors.
Intrigued by Maureen’s sampling, the pigs investigate their visitors.

Environmental

  • Firewood is a common resource for cooking in developing countries. The demand for wood contributes to ecosystem destruction. Connecting the extracted methane gas from the biodigester into a kitchen, via a tube, decreases, and in time could offset, deforestation. It’s a new form of energy that requires existing waste to operate –waste that would be dumped otherwise.
  • Lowering the levels of jettisoned solid waste in water has its perks, too. Solids from waste get caught in fish gills, suffocating them, and block essential sunlight from reaching aquatic life. Solids release excess nitrogen and phosphorus, triggering algal blooms, which rely on microbes to aid with decomposition. The overbearing algae-microbe combo eradicates oxygen on which fish and other aquatic life depend.
  • Wastewater flows from the biodigester with fewer toxins and, because the liquid is fortified with natural remaining nitrogen and phosphorus, can be reused as fertilizer.

Social

  • Indoor air pollution mainly affects women who cook with firewood. Microbe-made methane can replace wooden fires as a cooking source, reducing smoke and ash pollution in the home.
  • Microbe-treated wastewater that flows back into waterways is cleaner than solid waste dumping, lowering the risk of water-induced sickness.

Economic

  • Biodogesters release water that has nitrogen and phosphorus components. There’s no need then, to purchase mineral fertilizers that are toxic for the waterways in which they eventually end up. Farmers can simply water their crops with the excess biodogester water and save money doing so. In Costa Rica, neighboring farmers have saved between $20-40 per month after having installed a biodigester.
  • Less air and water pollution means less frequent, costly doctors’ visits for indoor pollution related illnesses.

Having heard about the positive effects of a biodigester, a local Costa Rican farmer eagerly asked Maureen, “when are you returning to build one?”

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern