Nandomojo Watershed Restoration:
Restoring a River Valley One Business at a Time
By Will Raap
Co-Founder, Pueblo Verde
Guanacaste is like a lot of rural areas in Latin America where age-old patterns of self sufficiency have given way to export crop monocultures, massive deforestation for cattle and most recently a change to a tourism based economy. We spent 3 years learning about the interaction between these local and global economic forces through three University of Vermont courses I developed. These courses engaged Costa Rican and US professors and students, plus local residents, to consider challenges and opportunities for building a more sustainable local economy. We concluded that the best strategy for building a stronger local economy should focus on restoring local ecological health through community engagement and by developing enterprises congruent with this mission.
The long term effects of the deforestation led to a ‘drying out’ of the Nandamojo river valley where we live. Our watershed restoration efforts, referred to as Restoring Our Watershed (www.ourwatershed.org), are inspired by the vision of a village matriarch who implored us to “make the river flow again.” With funding from US Fish & Wildlife Service we documented the rich migratory birds of the area while raising awareness in schools, communities and other environmental groups of the need to work on restoration and tree planting efforts at the watershed level. (More water retained in the soil translates into more photosynthetic capacity to uptake and fix atmospheric carbon.) In fact, all our projects work towards this broader goal: restoration, water, habitat and food production.
Restoring Our Watershed helped spawn two conservation developments, Tierra Pacifica and Pueblo Verde. Tierra Pacifica (www.tierrapacifica.com) pioneered efforts at rainwater management and erosion control leading to techniques and know-how which have been disseminated and applied on dozens of homes and projects in the area. Tierra Pacifica provided us with a springboard for reinvigorating local agriculture by providing land for Finca Lagunita.
Finca Lagunita, our first effort to spark a renewal and diversification of local farming, is really trying to accomplish several things at once. The Farm’s motto is “Recordando el pasado, sembrando el futuro” (Respecting the past, sowing the future). We grow traditional crops for the local market on this diversified organic farm: corn, beans, rice, squash, plantain. We’ve also introduced new crops that appeal to the growing expat market (like cherry tomatoes and heat-tolerant greens), and new techniques for dealing with fertility management, soil erosion and runoff issues that plague our area. We have more severe weather problems in Guanacaste than in Vermont (heat, intense sun, wind, no rain/too much rain vs cold, short seasons and low sunlight). Plus we have some new challenges, like monkeys eating the papayas or iguanas and rodeo bulls grazing on our baby tomatoes. Among our biggest issues is synchronizing production with the peaks in local demand during the ups and downs of the tourist seasons.
One thing we have confirmed with Finca Lagunita is that—much like in the States—there is a growing enthusiasm amongst home buyers, and established residents, to see where their food is produced, to have personal contact with the growers and to feel the security that some part of their diet is coming from “close to home.” Finca Lagunita also serves the broader watershed goals as its sunken beds are a major water harvesting trap and refuge for aquatic birds in the rainy season, plus we propagate thousands of native plants for erosion control.
Pueblo Verde takes the lessons and techniques we’ve learned from Tierra Pacifica and Finca Lagunita to a higher level. With Pueblo Verde we have designed a 15 lot development with some audacious goals for a residential development that address local issues and problems:
• Can we restore a monoculture reforestation project to a diversified dry tropical forest that emphasizes native tree crops, healthy habitat and sustainable production of wood?
• Can we create a “forest farm village” with a large percent of the land dedicated to fruit and vegetable growing?
• Can we help restore hydrology of our watershed by retaining the maximum possible amount of the rainwater on site.
• Can we integrate locals into the project (‘don’t gate, integrate’).
• Can housing fit the climate and be energy efficient using local materials as much as possible?
The Nandamojo watershed is a rural area with few centers of commercial activity. So, we have opened Mi Tierra Nursery and Garden Center and will soon open Tierra Pacifica Commercial Center to provide high visibility commercial venues where local produce, plants and other products can benefit from greater exposure. Mi Tierra offers food plants and trees, gardening supplies, locally produced compost as well as ornamental and ‘functional’ plants. The Mi Tierra store and grounds provide ongoing environmental outreach on the importance of a healthy watershed and show practical examples of what can be done on the home, farm or development scale in order to contribute to improving our area.
Next to Tierra Pacifica will be the first multiple store commercial complex in the region. The anchor tenant will be a mini-supermarket offering produce, meat, milk, cheese and eggs from Finca Lagunita and other local producers. Like Mi Tierra, this Commercial Center will also be a gathering place where we can educate about efforts to improve communities and restore the environment.
The Rio Nandamojo is not yet flowing again all year. But with each tree we help plant, each farm and house that captures and retains rainwater, and each business that strengthens the local economy while promoting environmental stewardship we are getting closer to achieving this goal.