Costa Rica Saves a High Dry Forest. Government planning, outside funding, and active involvement of near neighbors are key elements in preserving the 780-square-kilometer Guanacaste National Park. LIVING TREASURE
SANTA ROSA, COSTA RICA
SEVERAL loud hoots silence the 5th grade students from Quebrada Grande, a small town in northwest Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province. The children are gathered in a knot in the dry tropical forest of Santa Rosa National Park, trying to locate the source of the sounds. ``Tienen miedo?'' (are you afraid?) biologist Gerardo Barboza asks. He is answered by murmurs of dissent, as his scanning eyes quickly locate a pair of owls high in a nearby tree.Skip to next paragraph
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Their hooting, Mr. Barboza explains, is an expression of displeasure at this intrusion on their daytime slumber. Then he quietly launches into an explanation of the owls' habits and vital role in the forest ecosystem.
The lesson has a serious message, says Barboza: These children will one day be decisionmakers. It is essential for them to learn that their well-being and that of their country is tied to the park's continuing as a source of environmental, economic, and intellectual wealth.
The Guanacaste National Park has become an unofficial prototype for Costa Rica's six other ``megapark'' projects, in part because it is integrating nearby residents into the park's future. It is also a model of protected zone planning and how to raise money for such efforts.
For 20 years, University of Pennsylvania biologist Daniel Janzen has studied Guanacaste Province's tropical dry forest with its distinct life forms and seasonal patterns. Dry forests, often attractive targets for residential areas and agriculture, are more severely threatened worldwide than their better-known tropical cousins, the rain forests.
Mr. Janzen works six months of each year in a small, tin-roofed cabin inside Santa Rosa. The cabin's interior is crisscrossed by clotheslines from which hang numerous plastic bags containing live forest insects. In 1984, he won the Crafoord Prize, environmental biology's most prestigious award, for his studies.
In addition to scientific and economic reasons, he says, it is necessary to protect biological diversity in places like Guanacaste ``for the intellectual development of the society....''
``Humans are complicated animals. In order for the human brain to function it needs lots of inputs - slicing the complexity of nature out of our inputs is like losing one of your senses.''
Lack of such inputs is a barrier to human fulfillment in many areas of the tropics where forests have been replaced by farms, says Janzen. It affects prospects for success in all areas of life, he argues, because ``a piece of what it means to be human, of our repertoire of mental stimulation, dies when diversity dies.''
The practical result of this philosophy is a park that is run primarily by the park's nearest neighbors and for their benefit. The administrative staff of 35, soon to double, includes teachers, caretakers, fire prevention crews, researchers, and rangers. All are Costa Ricans, and most come from the immediate area.
Educational programs are aimed at all visitors - foreign ``ecotourists'' are one targeted group - but especially local schoolchildren. Janzen says the programs are ``serious biology'' teaching ecological interdependence.
The project is expected to yield economic benefits as well. Janzen estimates that use of the park for research, education, and tourism will generate 4.7 times as much cash as its previous use for agriculture and ranching.
The notion of pervasive local involvement in the environmental program grew out of a 1985 challenge to Costa Rica's parks program. Several thousand gold miners invaded Corcovado National Park in the southwest. World banana prices had fallen and area plantations were closing. The region had a history of gold mining, but until then the boundaries of the 125-square-mile reserve had been respected by all but a few miners.
With no jobs and gold deposits outside the park already claimed, local residents had nowhere else to turn. But large-scale mining in the park was illegal and posed a threat of chemical pollution and sedimentation in park rivers.