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How a Small Town in Costa Rica Is Defining Conservation for Central America

Beginning with Quakers arriving in the 1950s, Monteverde has become a distinct conservation community in Central America.

Sitting in a cloud forest on top of the Cordillera de Tilarán, the mountaintop town of Monteverde, Costa Rica, seems isolated. But its view stretches far beyond its boundaries. In today's world, many believe that individual actions cannot make a difference. However, one community in Monteverde, made up of many individuals, has become the driving force behind conservation.

Monteverde is an exceptional place. It is an epicenter for biodiversity, international communities, and scientific discovery. It was in these fog-shrouded forests that upslope migration of species was first documented. Unfortunately, in the tropics, mountain ecosystems—like cloud forests—are like canaries in a coal mine: they show early warning signs of climate change.

"Conservation is important in Monteverde because it happens because of grassroots efforts," says Karen Masters a biologist, professor, and resident of Monteverde for over 30 years. "It happens because individuals feel empowered to do something."

Farmers, scientists, and conservationists work hard—and work together—to be models and to have a global reach.

In a time of rising sea levels, changing climates, dwindling biodiversity, and shifting landscapes, "Costa Ricans on a mountaintop get it, they value it, they believe in it, they think critically about it, and they act on it," Masters says.

The Conservationist

Looking to live in a truly peaceful place, 41 Quakers relocated from Alabama in 1951 to settle in the Monteverde zone in Costa Rica—the country without an army. The Quakers divided the land between families, but set aside one-third of this land to protect the watershed of the Río Guacimal.

In 1974, the Quakers formed the Bosqueterno, a reserve and organization created to protect this watershed. The Bosqueterno decided to lease approximately 550 hectares of this land to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve established two years before. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was created by the Centro Científico Tropical, an organization based in San Jose created for conservation and research of tropical forests.

From 1972 to 1982, Eladio Cruz worked in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve helping biologists conduct their research. The brightly colored golden toad—now extinct—made scientists around the world flock to the mountain town to study the unique biodiversity found only in the cloud forest.

Agriculture and deforestation threatened both sides of the mountain range. With a new appreciation for nature, Cruz sold his farm to the Centro Científico Tropical in Peñas Blancas for conservation in 1986. He was the first person to sell land for conservation in Monteverde.

"I went back to Peñas Blancas, and my mentality was different. I wanted to preserve what was left and didn't want to cut anymore," Cruz says.

The Monteverde Conservation League formed the same year that Eladio sold his land. The League focused on purchasing land for conservation and gaining long-term protection through education, reforestation, sustainable development, and scientific research. Cruz remains a board member of the League to this day.

Cruz's land was not only an important spark for conservation; it continues to provide a benefit. Situated in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, scientists can stay at his old farmhouse as they conduct fieldwork. Students studying abroad even stay there to learn and do research projects.

Conservation is embedded in the culture here. And unlike many areas in the tropics, Monteverde is greener because of it.

The Farmer

Walking through Hermida Porras' 70-hectare farm, there is a wide diversity of plants. Her farm is full of coffee, bananas, avocados, chayote, pumpkins, yuca, chilies, and many other types of produce. Not only does Porras grow her own coffee, but she roasts it as well.

"I have visited farms where people use chemicals and I have noticed they don't have many things, and you can see all the things that I have on my farm," she says.

Porras' organic farm is over 30 years old, and she is a prominent supplier at the local farmers market. She explains that she does not use chemicals because "nature has everything that the farm needs: herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers."

Nothing goes to waste. She uses scraps from her coffee production as fertilizer. She also described another trick where she mixes ripe mango or guava with water to fertilize.

Giggling, Porras points to a citrus tree she just planted. Her neighbors just cut down a tree—and this was an act of defiance. Every time they cut down a tree, she grows something in its place on her land.

Porras takes her environmentally philosophy outside of her farm. She is in the process of making reusable bags for the farmers market out of old clothes, and charges people for single-use plastic bags.

Outside of Monteverde, she advocates for sustainable farming. She attends meetings and workshops, and is always trying to learn new techniques.

Having an organic farm is a fight, Porras explains, "although we produce less than other farmers we have to keep producing in the right way."

The Scientist

Looking for an adventure, Karen Masters came to the mountaintop town for the first time 33 years ago. That sense of adventure is still present as she spots a puma on her camera trap. She set up about a dozen traps in the forest near her house simply out of curiosity.

A biologist, professor, and director of the Council for International Educational Exchange Sustainability and the Environment study abroad program it's amazing that she has time for a scientific hobby. But, for Masters, conservation is a calling.

"The environment is really important to me because, as a biologist, as a mother, as a teacher, as a human being, I have come to realize that the environment gives us everything that we need to live," she explains.

Karen not only conducts research in these forests, but she creates future conservation leaders through her study abroad program. Students learn about conservation and sustainability, and they see how it is done from the inside.

Living in Monteverde for decades, she sees the effects of climate change.

"Climate change is in Monteverde is not caused by activities in Monteverde ... you can probably plant as many trees as you want and climate change will probably still proceed," she says.

But people here are doing something very noteworthy to respond.

Monteverde is now building biological corridors—in the context of climate change—to make these forests and the species that inhabit them more resilient. The corridors connect preserved land so that plants and animals can move up the mountain when lower elevations become too hot and dry due to global warming.

They also use a lattice framework that stretches across elevation bands. This way, there is room for plants and animals that already live at a specific elevation; they will not be immediately forced up the mountain in response to the newcomers.

The Power of One—and the Potential of Many

Over 200,000 ecotourists—and potential cloud forest ambassadors—visit Monteverde every year. Even though hundreds of thousands of people come to this area each year, the community and their grassroots efforts still shine through.

In a world that is quickly changing, it is hard to know what will make a difference.

"It is really disorienting," Masters says. "And then you look at Monteverde, and everything that has been done here. It started with an idea that one person had, and it got communicated to someone else."

Small actions changed everything because, decades ago, "people thought there would be no land to work in the future, but now the mentality has changed because people in Monteverde live for nature," Cruz says.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.