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More than Sustainable

By Jack Ewing

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word “sustainable” as: “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or seriously damaged.” The word has been in use for a long time, at least since 1727 according to Merriam-Webster. In recent years, with increased interest in our environment and concern over the rate of depletion of our natural resources, the word has come into popular usage. Information about how to live sustainably is readily available, as are products for sustainable ways of doing things. Energy efficiency is of utmost importance followed by water efficiency, social responsibility, general environmental friendliness and others.

In environmental terms being sustainable means that we don’t use resources faster than they can be reproduced. Our actions do not cause the environment to deteriorate. If we are sustainable we can continue to do things in the same manner indefinitely and the environment will remain pretty much the same. The word doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment is in great shape; it only means that it is not getting any worse. 

Hacienda Baru

Another word that relates to this same idea is “biodiversity.” According to Merriam-Webster the first known usage of the word “biodiversity” wasn’t until 1985. It means biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals. When our activities destroy species of living things biodiversity decreases, and when they promote an increase in the number of species biodiversity increases. In reality biodiversity increases when humans leave nature alone. The only human action that can promote an increase in biodiversity is the protection of land so that it can’t be degraded. Mother Nature does the rest. 

The Good Old Days

Many of the original property owners around Dominical homesteaded their land in the 1930s and 1940s. Costa Rican law allowed a person to acquire title on up to 100 hectares of wild and unclaimed land if they could demonstrate that they had worked the land for a minimum of ten years and made it productive. When I first came to this area in 1972 there were many small land owners with farms of slightly less than 100 hectares, all of whom had acquired their land through the homestead program. Don Rodolfo García was typical among the property owners.

He his wife, Doña Inez, and their seven children, varying in age from two to seventeen years, lived in a humble wooden house. The wood for the home had come from their own land. Their energy consumption was minimal. There was no electricity. The family cooked with wood, and used candles and kerosene lanterns for lighting. Don Rodolfo owned a small diesel pickup which he drove to San Isidro about twice a month. They didn’t consume any energy pumping water because it was gravity fed. The home had a shower and a single faucet which was constantly running. I once asked Doña Inez why she didn’t turn the water off when she wasn’t using it. “What difference does it make?” She asked. I didn’t have an answer for her. There was only one house using the water produced by a free flowing spring that originated on their property. Everybody had enough water, and it really didn’t make much difference if the faucet was on or off. The unused water ran down the drain into an open ditch and eventually ended up back where it would have ended up had it never been diverted into the family’s water system in the first place.

 Waste water discharged from the house contained soap suds and bits and pieces of food that was washed off the cooking and eating utensils. It ran from the sink into a shallow drainage ditch. Doña Inez’ chickens were the first to pick out morsels of edible waste, and once the water was far enough from the house wild birds could occasionally be seen scavenging in the ditch. By the time the water reached the stream it was pretty clear and didn’t visibly affect the stream quality. Nobody worried about not having enough water, and nobody worried about contamination. The family toilet was an out-house built over a hole in the ground, and when the hole was full, they simply dug another a few meters away and moved the small wooden house over there. A tree or some bushes were planted over the old location. The environment could deal with the impact of the family’s everyday activities and was not deteriorating. At that time this family’s home was sustainable.

 Don Rodolfo had homesteaded 80 hectares of forested land in the late 1930’s. He worked hard to clear the land and plant pasture. Sometimes he grew beans on the newly cleared land, and he grew corn for his pigs on one hectare of reasonably flat land on the lower slopes of the farm. By the 1970s only the steepest part, about eight hectares, was left in forest. The spring that produced the water for the livestock and the house was located in this small patch of jungle. Two years after homesteading the land Don Rodolfo borrowed 2000 colones from his father-in-law, and purchased nine cows and a bull. By 1972 when I met the Garcias his herd had increased to about 60 animals, a few more than the farm could comfortably support. The land that had once supported a forest with many thousands of species of plants, animals, insects, and other life forms had been converted into a pasture that supported little more than grasses, weeds and cows.

 The neighboring farms were similar to that of the Garcias. Only the steepest parts were still in forest that harbored a few wild animals. All of the spider and howler monkeys had been killed by an epidemic of yellow fever in 1947. The last white-lipped peccary was shot by a hunter in 1952, a jaguar was killed in 1956 and nobody ever saw another after that. The last sign of tapir was when one of Don Rodolfo’s neighbors saw the distinctive three-toed tracks near a salt lick in 1957. The scarlet macaws disappeared from the area in the mid 1960s.

 Although the situation was bad ecologically, by 1970 the land had reached a point of stability because biodiversity was no longer diminishing. The farm produced enough beef year after year to provide the Garcia family with a reasonable standard of living and the environment remained unchanged. Don Rodolfo and his family didn’t feel like they were living in a degraded environment. They were happy with their lives, and it seemed to them and all of their neighbors that everything was alright. In view of the way the word sustainable is used today, it seems odd to say that the Garcia farm was sustainable. But it did fit the strict definition of the word. Even though biodiversity had diminished to an all time low, the environment was no longer deteriorating.

 Things went well for the Garcia family for the next 15 years. The kids grew up, and most of them left home. Some went to the city to work. One of the boys got a part time job with a rice farmer in the area and lived at home. He also helped with the work on the family farm. The youngest daughter had not yet married and still lived with Don Rodolfo and Doña Inez.

 In the 1980s the price of beef dropped considerably, and the Garcias had to tighten their budget. Don Rodolfo was nearing 70 years of age and had been dreaming about how nice it would be to move to the city, buy a small house, and retire. But no matter how he figured it, there was no way they would be able to manage financially. The couple had pretty much resigned themselves the harsh reality that they would live their final years on the family farm and never experience the comforts of the city.

 A New Way of Doing Things 

Then one day a gringo came to Dominical looking for property to buy. After several trips and having considered several farms, the buyer purchased a farm similar in size to that of the Garcias. Don Rodolfo had never thought about selling the family farm, but the gringo had paid extremely well for the nearby property. The farm that sold belonged to the heirs of a neighbor who had died seven years earlier. The children weren’t interested in managing the farm, so they sold the cattle to get some quick cash and pretty much abandoned the land. When the foreign buyer came along it was almost totally overgrown with secondary forest. Only the area around the house had been kept clean. Don Rodolfo reasoned that if an abandoned property like that would sell for $40,000, his family’s farm, with well kept pastures, should be worth at least twice that amount, more than enough to retire on. He went and talked to Jorge, the caretaker of the newly purchased property. Jorge told him that the gringo wasn’t interested in buying any more property, but that some of his friends were, and they would soon be arriving in the country looking for land to buy. He promised to tell them that Don Rodolfo was interested in selling. 

When the new buyers came to look at the Garcia property, they didn’t seem very impressed. Don Rodolfo couldn’t understand what they said to each other, but he got the idea that they liked the flat hilltops. They did make an offer, but it was only $25,000. Later Jorge told him that they wanted land with jungle. They weren’t interested in raising cattle, but rather wanted to build houses in places where they could see the ocean and where there was lots of wildlife. That’s crazy, thought Don Rodolfo. Why would anyone live up in those hills when there is flat land down here by the road? And, why would they want to be around wild animals? We don’t even live near the forest, and the tyras and jaguarundis still come around and kill Doña Inez’ chickens. What would it be like if we lived right next to the jungle

Even though he thought it was crazy, Don Rodolfo made the decision to let all of the upper pastures regenerate into secondary forest. If that’s what it took to get a good price that’s what he would do. In the long run it was better that he hadn’t sold right away because land values kept escalating. Four years later the Garcia property sold for $280,000. Don Rodolfo was 73 and Doña Inez was 64. They gave each of their children $10,000, bought a house in San Isidro, and got to live their dream. 

As It Is Today

Today, on what used to be the Garcia farm, there four large beautiful homes with swimming pools, one on each of the four hilltops. There is an access road that that allows the owners to get to their homes. Each home has its own well from which the inhabitants pump water for domestic use, the pool, and watering the lawn. Each home has a septic tank and drain field for the treatment of waste water. All of the owners have at least one gas guzzling SUV, and two of the homes have two. The homes all have numerous electrical appliances that consume considerable amounts of energy, and three of them have air-conditioning. Most of the owners fly back and forth to North America or Europe several times each year. The families that live in them consume 100s of times more energy than the Garcias who once occupied the property. In no way can these homes be considered to be sustainable. 

Biodiversity is another story. Of the original 80 hectares, 72 of which had been pasture, all but four have returned to nature. White-faced monkeys and chestnut-mandibled toucans are a common sight. Spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys are seen occasionally. Several of the home owners have heard howler monkeys in the distance but have yet to sight any near their homes. One of the home owners saw a puma crossing the access road, and a jaguar was sighted about five kilometers away. Scarlet macaws have begun visiting the area a couple of times each year, and peccary, coatis and raccoons are so numerous that some people consider them to be pests. In addition there are a multitude of smaller species of reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi, and plants that are less obvious than the species mentioned above. Biodiversity has been increasing steadily over the last 20 years, and is continuing to do so. 

Let’s Try for Both

 Which situation is preferable, high sustainability and low biodiversity or visa versa? Which situation do you prefer, that of 1972 or that of 2011? Of course the ideal situation would be a totally sustainable life style and high biodiversity. But that is not what we have, and neither did the Garcia family.

 The other day I was talking to a group of students and a very bright young girl asked me if Hacienda Barú is sustainable. I answered with an explanation of all of the measures we take to make our operation environmentally friendly, energy efficient, water efficient, and socially responsible. “That is all important,” she replied. “But you said that 16,000 people visited Hacienda Barú last year. If you factor in all of the fuel that was burned transporting those people from their countries of origin to Costa Rica, and the in-country transportation to Hacienda Barú you probably aren’t very sustainable at all.”

 I had to admit that her point was well taken. Of course, I did point out that on Hacienda Barú we protect 160 hectares of primary forest, and, over the last 32 years, have allowed Mother Nature to regenerate over 170 hectares of secondary forest. All of this natural habitat absorbs a tremendous amount of carbon while, at the same time, producing oxygen, and it also contributes significantly to biodiversity. She smiled and admitted that it would take a better mathematician than either she or I to determine if Hacienda Barú is truly sustainable.

If I had to choose between the situation in 1972 and that of 2011, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I prefer the high biodiversity we have today. But neither biodiversity nor sustainability alone is enough. If we want to leave a healthy planet to future generations we need both.


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