by Kate Hanson with help from Biol 211 coursemates
Our course – BIOL 211: Introduction to Field Ecology – is visiting 4 sites in Costa Rica this January. Our group’s first venture into the Costa Rican forest was at the Cuericí Biological Station in Cerro de la Muerte. We left the urban center of San Jose unsure of what to expect. We could see the changing landscape and feel a chill in the air as the bus climbed higher into the mountains. After hours of driving, our driver Jorge pulled over and explained that he couldn’t take us any further. In fact, he had no idea how we were supposed to get to the station from there. The terrain was much too steep and dangerous for the bus to maneuver (after all, Cerro de la Muerte means mountain of death.) We waited for the station’s owner, Carlos Solana, to come find us. I was expecting Carlos to be an able-bodied man with some four-wheel drive trucks to whisk us away. Much to my surprise, the Carlos that arrived was just a gentle older man with kind eyes. And he had just one, small truck. It became clear that the plan was to hike the 5 km to the station. As we descended the slopes of the mountain of death, it began to pour. After trudging over the gravel hills in the rain, Carlos’ rustic log cabin was more than a welcome site.
As we recuperated from the hike, we took some time to chat with Carlos about his life. He explained that he inherited the area forty years ago from his grandparents, and since has worked to create a haven of simplicity in a rapidly developing country (Carlos’ life work is detailed in a 2000 article in Mountain Research and Development). Later, he and his trusty canine sidekick, Canelo, took us on a tour of the land. We hiked to a beautiful lookout in the midst of a cloud forest. While the thick haze obscured our view of the coast, it provided a spectacle all its own. Then, we went to see his 20,000-fish trout farm, which he single-handedly maintains sans chemical interference. All power for his home is produced from a small hydroelectric generator that he hauled into the forest in pieces. No effort was spared in his dedication to what he describes as, “la balance con la naturaleza,” or balance with the environment. His passion for and pride in his work was evident in every word, and we quickly joined in his enthusiasm. His vision of sustainability and harmony with nature carries with it an infectious nostalgia for simpler times.
Unfortunately, those simple times are being challenged by industrial development in Costa Rica. Four years ago, a central power grid was installed for the area and now Carlos’ farm is one of only two hydroelectric-powered sites left. In addition, industrial trout farms have overrun the market using masses of chemicals that sterilize and plump the fish. There is no market for organic fish in Costa Rica, and the superficial appeal of the industrial fish is enough to put Carlos out of business. As a group, we wondered whether or not Carlos’ lifestyle was a feasible option for the future. While he has found opportunities in research and student involvement, even that component of his business has slowed down. Although we only spent two nights with Carlos, I think that we will all cherish the experience and are inspired by his efforts for sustainable living.
Photos by Meg Thompson