In Eco-Crazed Costa Rica, Monteverde Provides a Model of Nature Tourism

by John Burnett

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica, Sept. 3, 1997 - As ruins are to Rome, museums are to Paris, and theme parks are to Orlando, nature is to Monteverde.

A three-hour hike through the sumptuous foliage of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve provides a vivid example of why this has become one of the most popular nature tourism destinations in Latin America.

A resplendant quetzal - with its crimson breast and irridescent green plumage - sits on a branch holding a squirming insect in its beak only 30 feet from the trail. A violet sabre-wing hummingbird - whose unusual wing shape produces a sound like an airborne Harley Davidson - hovers curiously near a red rain hat. Tree ferns - that have existed since the Mesozoic era - unfurl their Dr. Seuss-inspired leaves. Leaf-cutter ants, the UPS drivers of the rainforest, carry their loads single file across the path. And howler monkeys practice defensive defecation on any nature lover who admires them for too long from the forest floor.

Monteverde - translation: "green mountain" - sits on a low mountain astride the continental divide in central Costa Rica. Its Atlantic and Pacific slopes provide habitat for an astonishing biological diversity. The Audubon Society counted a record of 369 different bird species in one 24-hour period here.

Who would have thought that birds - not hunted, not exported, not cooked, but watched - would become one of Costa Rica's economic mainstays. But in recent years, ecotourism has surpassed banana and coffee exports to grow into Costa Rica's largest source of foreign exchange, earning $700 million last year.

The prefix "eco" has spread like a virus through the Costa Rican yellow pages. In San Jose, for instance, one can rent a vehicle from "Ecology Rent-A-Car" and fill it with Texaco "Super Ecology" gasoline. And some "eco"-lodges in the town of Quepos have been criticized for dumping raw sewage into the sea. The eco-mania prompted the Costa Rican Tourism Institute to come up with a set of criteria for firms that choose to call themselves "eco."

Amid the hype, Monteverde is often held up as a model because it generally fulfills the lofty goals of nature tourism. The Ecotourism Society, a trade group based in Vermont, defines this kind of tourism as "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well being of people."

Monteverde has proved that ecotourism can work for conservation. Through a series of private nature preerves, the community has saved part of the cloud forest that might have been cleared for dairy cattle and coffee farms, which dominate the lower elevations.

The 26,000-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve attracted 50,000 tourists last year. It supports itself through donations and an eight-dollar entrance fee. Down the hill, the 42,500-acre Childrens' Eternal Rainforest was purchased with money contributed by schoolchildren and adults from 44 countries. Even the local high school runs its own 775-acre refuge: the Santa Elena High School Cloud Forest Reserve, whose income helps support the school, and whose biodiversity teaches students about the environment.

Biologists say the heavy volume of visitors has a surprisingly low impact on the fragile environment.

"Most people are willing to stay on trails," says Bob Carlson, a biologist and director of the Cloud Forest Preserve. "They don't throw their garbage away, they keep it in their bags. If you tell them not to make a lot of noise, they're normally quite quiet."

For-profit reserves are also paying for themselves. A case in point is the Ecological Farm.

Up until a few years ago, Jorge Rodriguez oversaw a farm whose climate was too wet for vegetables, and whose terrain was so steep the cattle kept falling into ravines and breaking their necks. But he noticed his proximity to Monteverde's hotels and wondered if tourists might pay to visit his farm and see its abundant wildlife, such as the endangered bell bird, with its clang-like call that can be heard for half a mile.

With the absentee owner's approval, Rodriguez put in trails and a parking lot, and renamed it the Ecological Farm.

"Now, for the first time, the farm is making a little profit, just enough to maintain the paths and sustain my family. Before, it wasn't even doing that," says Rodriguez, sitting at a picnic table, "For me, it's better to conserve. Because if all the world wants to have cattle, we'll never have forest anywhere. It will all disappear."

Nature tourism in Monteverde has also generated a slew of related businesses which line the main road: hotels, restaurants, snack shops, gift shops, horse stables and art galleries. An artisans cooperative employs 150 women who sew specialty clothing to sell to tourists.

"We have learned a little bit how to do tourism," says Carlos Vargas, past president of the artisans coop. "The people who run the restaurants, the stables, the hotels and the nature guides are all local people. I would say maybe 80% of income tourism generates stays in the community."

Says Jim Wolfe, a biologist and dairy farmer who runs a popular butterfly garden in town, "Years ago, people would say, 'Oh that reserve up there is so foreigners can go see their birds.' Now, so many of the local people depend on that forest for their livelihood. The attitude has changed considerably."

Monteverde is an unlikely success story. It's two hours from the nearest paved road, has an annual rainfall of 120 inches, and is populated by several thousand insect species. People say the town thrives not only because of its biological treasures, but because of its unusually strong tradition of self governance.

It was founded in the early 1950s by a small group of Alabama Quakers who came down to live out their pacifism, after serving jail sentences for dodging the peacetime draft. The Quakers brought with them a consultative style that has enriched Monteverde's community life. And though the Quakers cleared some primary forest for dairy farms, they deserve the credit for setting aside the mountaintop which later became the core of the Cloud Forest Preserve.

"The Quakers transmitted to we Costa Ricans the spirit to protect the environment. And today, this is being reinforced in the schools, as you see here with our reserve," says Eduardo Castro, administrator of the Santa Elena High School Cloud Forest Reserve, the only school-run nature sanctuary in the country.

The Quaker's vision of an "intentional community" endures. Yet people worry that Monteverde is being tarnished by its unforseen popularity. Land prices have spiraled. Burglaries and petty theft have shot up. Too many hotels have opened - 30 in all - and several are expected to fail.

"It's easy to talk about ecotourism, and sustainable development," says Huber Barquero, the leading investor in a failing hotel located outside of town called the EcoVerde Lodge. "But the reality is very difficult. For the first year, we've had less than four percent occupancy."

Some Quakers worry that the character of visitors is changing.

"I've always been in favor of having other people come and appreciate this wonderful, beautiful place," says Lucky Guindon, one of the founding Quakers. "But some of the tourists come in and they're just here because it's the popular place to go. I've heard somebody say, oh, I did the Triangle (trail at the Rain Forest Preserve) in such and such a time. They want to do it as fast as they can. What do you see? You don't see anything."

In order to discourage dilletante tourists, most Monteverde residents continue to oppose paving the rutted, gravel road that connects them to the Interamerican Highway. Anyone wishing to visit must now make a two-hour, bone-jarring, muffler-mashing trip. Monteverde may be the last travel spot in Costa Rica willing to turn away tourists.


Copyright 1998 John Burnett

This article or any portion of the article that appears on UT-LANIC may be downloaded, quoted or referenced with the stipulation that it be credited to John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

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