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Creating 'escape routes' for wildlife

Biological corridors, such as one planned from Panama to Mexico, would let species migrate to safer climates as global warming heats up their old habitats.

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José Antonio Vargas Monge, president of ASOPROLA, an association of organic coffee growers in the area, has a lot to say about the joys and difficulties of his work. As he talks, his calloused hands move quickly over the coffee bushes, pruning green waxy leaves he calls hojas falsas – "false leaves."

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Coffee plantations that switch to organic methods take three years to adjust, he says. Accustomed to direct application of fertilizer, the plants' root systems are not as extensive as they should be and must expand. The harvest inevitably declines. Unable to make the transition, some plants die. Many farmers despair and return to their old methods, which involve herbicides and pesticides.

But if the farmer can persevere through those initial years, the benefits are manifold, says Don Antonio, as his colleagues call him. The farmers and their families no longer expose themselves to pesticides. And although the organic plants produce fewer beans, they fetch more on the market. He pulls back the black, rotting leaf litter beneath a guava tree exposing coffee bush roots just beneath the surface. "It turns into something beautiful," he says.

Adding tourism to the mix

ASOPROLA has bigger plans than just roasting and selling organic coffee. Farming organically and sustainably has made the district into a tourist destination as well. Tourist dollars further diversify the incomes of farmers, making them less beholden to fluctuations in the coffee market.

Together, organic farming, La Amistad park, and tourism have another beneficial side effect, explains Yendry Suárez, vice president of ASPROLA. "Before, the young people migrated to the city to study, to work. Now, many of us young people have the opportunity of not leaving, of finding an income source locally," she says. "Here where we grew up – right here we're going to develop as people."

By involving communities that border La Amistad, park rangers increase the number of eyes and ears guarding it, says Gravin Villega Rodríguez, a ranger at La Amistad. Before, rangers would drive many hours in response to fire calls only to discover that a wily poacher had cried "fire" as a decoy. Now, with communities involved, when a ranger gets a fire call, "we can trust it," Mr. Villega says. More often than not, members of the community "put it out themselves," he says.

Many conservationists hail organizations such as ASOPROLA as a key to both creating wilderness corridors and preserving existing parks. But some doubt the long-term effectiveness of this type of conservation. A farmer may agree to reforest his land or adopt sustainable land-use practices today, says Daniel Janzen, a technical adviser to Área de Conservación Guanacaste, a park in Costa Rica's northwest. But what happens if tomorrow his daughter gets married and needs a house, or the next generation takes the land over and doesn't feel the same way?

"Bye-bye forest," suggests Dr. Janzen in a phone conversation.

The best way to preserve biodiversity – and bolster many species' chances of surviving in a warmer world – is to consolidate and expand existing parks, and endow them to exist for the foreseeable future, he says. "All the private efforts we do are temporary," Janzen says. "The only things that will be here 1,000 years from now are the governments."