With ANAI’s help, communities from Talamanca and elsewhere have taken responsibility for maintaining a healthy environment, strong local organizations, local economic stability, and respect for the different cultures that thrive together in their region. Tangible environmental and economic benefits are being realized by the poor majority in the form of sustainable agriculture and forestry production systems, locally owned ecotourism enterprises, biodiversity monitoring and conservation, all involving capable grassroots organizations and effective local participation and control.
In listing the following examples, we would like to stress that many other actors have also made important contributions in each of these initiatives. While ANAI’s role in all cases was crucial and long term, and most began as ANAI initiatives, the majority are now independently managed, with their own strong and sustainable organizations. This constellation of grassroots initiatives and their continuing contributions to conservation and sustainable development are perhaps the most salient of our accomplishments. At the same time, while we have been initiators, doers, catalysts, teachers, connectors, synthesizers, enablers, facilitators, nurturers, and friends, their achievements are theirs, not ours.
•The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, stretching for 30 kilometers along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast to the Panama border, and connected to the San San/Pondsak National Wildlife Refuge in Panama, was established in 1985 in partnership with the Costa Rican Ministry of the Environment. This 25,000 acre refuge (including a 12,000 acre marine portion and now officially recognized as a RAMSAR site) protects an unusually diverse assemblage of lowland tropical ecosystems, including the only mangroves on the Costa Rican Caribbean, Raphia palm swamps, fresh and brackish water lagoons, mixed hill forest, the largest remaining cativo forest and the only orey swamp in Costa Rica, coralline headlands, a variety of coral reefs, sea grass beds, the lower reaches of a major river (Rio Sixaola) and a critical turtle nesting beach (see below). All farmers in the buffer zone of the Wildlife Refuge have received clear land titles. This initiative has served as a model of communities, NGOs, and governments working together for the benefit of local people and unique biological resources.
• The Talamanca Marine Turtle Conservation Program, started in 1992 in the community of Gandoca, protects some of Central America’s main nesting beaches for endangered sea turtles and has saved thousands of leatherback, green, and hawksbill turtle eggs from human predation and beach erosion, bringing stability back to the local populations of these endangered animals. Sea turtle conservation has become the economic motor for several communities, generating up to 7 times more income than was previously generated from the harvest and sale of turtle eggs, through funded research and the provision of services to project volunteers and ecotourists. As one of the most successful projects of its kind in the world, Gandoca has become a center for the training of turtle conservationists throughout Central America and the world. It has been extended to many other beaches along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America. This program recently established its own NGO, named Widecast, and is now the main sea turtle conservation entity for all of Costa Rica. This program has been a living example of how conservation can improve a local economy and way of life, which in turn fuels further conservation efforts.
• Stream and Watershed Biomonitoring: While biomonitoring is firmly entrenched as part of the environmental decision-making process in the “developed” countries, this pioneering program is the only long term, participatory biomonitoring initiative in the tropics. Through this program, adults and children from communities throughout Talamanca enhance their level of knowledge about their own environment, while participating in creating information to guide management decisions at all levels. At the local level, information gathered in this program provides scientific validation of the important role small farm agro-ecosystems play in biodiversity conservation and environmental protection. At the other extreme it provides technical support and facilitates informed intervention by local people in development initiatives originating outside the community. The ultimate vision is a permanent cadre of parataxonomists and local technicians in all the communities and schools of the region, with established linkages to recognized scientific institutions. A training component built into the biomonitoring program seeks to share this initiative widely, and has already begun to establish a core group of local technicians in both Talamanca and Bocas del Toro Province, Panama.
• APPTA (Asociación de Pequeños Productores de Talamanca / Talamanca Small Farmers Association), founded in 1987 within ANAI’s agroforestry initiative, is a regional organic small farmer’s cooperative, serving over 1500 farmers, that is making it possible for Talamancan small farmers to be successful in a competitive market, maximizing production and environmental benefits. APPTA has developed a local processing infrastructure for organic cacao and bananas, quality control checks, marketing strategies, and an organic certification program, becoming the largest volume producer and exporter of organic products in Central America. In addition to creating completely new markets for some products, farmers are receiving an additional 15-60% revenue for their certified organic products. In demonstrating the vital role that small farm agro-ecosystems play in biodiversity conservation, APPTA is committed to consolidating agro forestry systems as important elements of a regional strategy of biodiversity conservation. As an example of the broad participation that has been achieved in the Talamanca Initiative’s projects, 80% of APPTA’s beneficiaries are indigenous, and 33% are women. APPTA has also played a key role with ANAI in organizing over 1600 small farmers to reforest with native tree species.
• CBTC (Corredor Biológico Talamanca-Caribe / The Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor), founded in 1992 within ANAI’s conservation initiative, is a regional conservation alliance that is working to consolidate and protect an extraordinary forested corridor that stretches from the continental divide at 12,533 ft. in the Talamanca mountain range to the Caribbean sea, an area of major importance for many endangered species. CBTC works to protect this land (much of which is privately owned) through conservation measures, environmental education, and the promotion of biodiversity-friendly productive activities. CBTC is also a forum for local organizations to gain information, debate and analyze important local and regional issues, and make collaborative decisions on how to best address these issues.
• Ecotourism: Starting with the construction of the first community ecolodge in 1989, we have worked to help local communities develop community-based ecotourism initiatives. Today 16 community owned eco-tourism ventures are a growing source of income for local people and their organizations. Six ecotourism lodges are owned and managed by community organizations whose objectives include conservation, sustainable economic development and (in the case of the indigenous community groups) protection of cultural traditions. The Gandoca community ecotourism initiative provides homestays, lodges and services for ecotourism and volunteers at the Sea Turtle Conservation Project. The Nature Guides Association of Manzanillo provides high quality local guide services for visitors to the local wildlife refuge. Other community-based ventures provide services of different kinds. All of these groups are committed to the ideal of ecotourism as both a livelihood and a means for biodiversity and ecosystem conservation.
In 1998, 12 local organizations formed the Talamancan Community Ecotourism Network, a collaborative effort to facilitate supportive relations, product development, information/idea sharing, training, collaborative planning, production of promotional media, and co-marketing efforts. In 2002, this experience inspired and provided leadership for the formation of a national organization, The Costa Rican Association for Community Tourism, which has transformed the conservation and development opportunities for communities all over the country.
• Central America’s only permanent raptor migration monitoring program has recorded more than 2.9 million birds of prey per season and put Talamanca on the world raptor map. Located on the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, and one of only three places in the world where more than one million birds of prey have been counted in a single migratory season, this program has become a living laboratory for conservation education and a new opportunity for integrating scientific research, biodiversity conservation, and environmental education with ecotourism initiatives for the benefit of local indigenous people. This work is now being independently managed by the Wak Ka Koneke indigenous association.
• The Talamanca Initiative has facilitated the creation and growth – at the community and provincial levels – of more than 20 grassroots conservation and development organizations, dedicated to maintaining thriving human communities and a healthy, natural environment. Significant participation and leadership by women has been achieved in most organizations. These groups carry out a diversity of productive, educational and conservation activities. Additionally, projects have been carried out throughout the region to improve basic services including community potable water systems, schools and other community infrastructure.
• Training and Education: All Talamanca Initiative projects and programs have an important focus on empowering the local people, via practical learning and application of new techniques, skills, abilities and concepts. Specific educational programs have included community promoters, organic agroforestry systems, community credit, computers and management for small businesses or organizations. Environmental education with primary schools and community groups has been an important way of preparing the region’s people to be champions of sustainable development and conservation.
In 1991 a Regional Training Center (Finca Educativa) was established on the Bri Bri Indigenous Reserve, After a 10 year process of construction, program development and practical training, full ownership and management was assumed by the local indigenous communities. This center continues to serve over 2,000 people per year, providing courses and practical workshops in agriculture, health, appropriate technology, conservation, leadership, secondary and university education. ANAI has also carried out several grassroots Conservation Leadership Training programs and many national and international sustainable development exchanges.
Sharing, Advocacy, and Leadership: ANAI and its partners actively participate in various alliances, forums, conferences, and workshops in promoting strategies, actions, policies and laws that further the integration of socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation. By sharing and disseminating the Talamanca model, the lessons learned, and the knowledge and experience gained through this process, the Talamanca Initiative strives to inspire, encourage, and support other organizations and communities to develop similar processes.
The Talamanca Initiative has provided leadership at many levels beyond Talamanca, including the GEF – Small Grants Program for Costa Rica, the Atlantic Regional Environmental Council, the National Association of Community Ecotourism Initiatives, the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, the Costa Rican and the Central American Sea Turtle Conservation Networks, JUNAFORCA (National Campesino Forestry Consortium), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Cooperative Without Borders, and the Latin American Network for Alternative Development.
Some of the tangible results of partnerships beyond Talamanca include organic certification and higher prices paid to more than 1,000 mostly indigenous farmers in Bocas del Toro, Panama, in collaboration with the Cooperativa de Cacao Bocatoreña (COCABO), and the establishment of community-based sea turtle conservation programs in sites throughout Central America. Through the GEF/SGP program, we have promoted the creation and strengthening of community groups working with conservation and development throughout Costa Rica. Work with carbon offset payments for conservation initiatives by small farmers has been extended to the entire Atlantic drainage area of Costa Rica’s La Amistad International Peace Park, a United Nations World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The training of a core group of local biomonitoring technicians from Bocas del Toro has allowed close cooperation with local indigenous communities in support of their efforts to protect La Amistad and their communities from the destructive consequences of dam construction in the La Amistad buffer zone.
Over the past 20 years, ANAI has sponsored an average of 10 professional interns per year from around the world, including from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, the United States, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Great Britain, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Israel, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast and Kenya. Additionally, more than 600 short term volunteers per year have participated in short term practical immersion in sustainable development and conservation work.
In all that we do, be it at the family, community, provincial or national level, our most important measure of success is the continuation and growth of any initiative after our participation has ended. The Talamanca Initiative has many allies to help us continue addressing the challenges of integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.