“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
- Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” , 1970
We are fortunate in Costa Rica to have a government that has seen the value of protecting the country’s wild places and forests, and for good reasons: almost 70% of foreign tourists list their desire to visit parks or natural areas as a major reason to travel here.
Howler’s June 2020 e-magazine cover story chronicled the birth and evolution of Costa Rica’s system of parks and wildlife refuges, which protects over 25% of the entire nation’s terrain.
Unfortunately, the government’s financial ability to expand or even maintain the parks has always been limited, and will worsen due to the country’s current economic crises. Is there a way an individual or group can help? Can you actually protect a piece of Costa Rica?
For those of us who came of age with the inaugural Earth Day and birth of the environmental movement a half-century ago, saving paradise has been a dream, if not a vocation. For some, the idea of saving a beautiful part of the world for future generations is a key reason for moving to Costa Rica. It was for us.
The Finca Dos story
When we arrived here in 2010, we purchased a finca of three hectares (7.5 acres) in the canton of Puriscal. (A hectare is 1,0000 square meters. The Greek root word “hecto” represents 100 as a metric system unit, so a hectare is 100 meters by 100 meters, or about 2.5 acres). Eight acres is nice, but we wanted to have a little more impact, so a few years later when the finca next to ours was put up for sale, we were interested. These adjacent 10 hectares of land had been used for farming, but mostly for grazing cattle and horses. After about a year of negotiations (learning Tico property sale negotiation is subject for another article), we settled on a price. Since we had our finca and now the second one across from it, our worker jokingly started calling it “finca dos.” The name stuck, so our entire property is now known as Finca Dos.
Wow … almost 35 acres now! This was big enough to do something with, but what? Could we protect these acres? If so, how would we go about doing it?
The first — and as it turns out, the most important — step is to figure out what you want to do with the land. We were interested in two things. First, we wanted to provide land cover and a forest for birds and other animals, but especially birds, since we are avid birders. Second, we hoped to restore the land and the trees to what was there before being deforested.
Like most of Costa Rica, Puriscal was forested 150 years ago. Here in the transition area to tropical dry forest, tropical hardwoods thrived. Trees such as cocobolo (rosewood), caoba (mahogany), cristobal, ron-ron, nazareno and guyacan all flourished. A full-size tropical hardwood can take 200 years to mature. Those former forests must have been majestic.
But by the time we acquired Finca Dos, it was mostly cow pasture. So our first task was to try to bring back traditional plants and trees.
We did not just want to plant trees as a “plantation,” even though it is a common forest protection option in Costa Rica to grow trees such as teak for harvesting later.
Instead, we set out to try to locate all the ancient hardwoods that used to grow in our region. This took us far and wide throughout the country. Our research revealed that several, but not many, sources are available for reforestation trees.
Perhaps the biggest and easiest to use is the national power company, Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE). Since the protection of water resources is important for hydro power generation, ICE has several vivero forestal tree nurseries that you can visit seasonally. There you can purchase hundreds, if not thousands, of trees at an incredible price — almost nothing. They are mostly fast-growing pioneer species, but also great for covering previously cut areas. ICE has one vivero in La Garita and another in La Cangreja National Park. You can contact the park on Facebook to learn when trees become available, which is usually right before the beginning of the rainy season.
The University of Costa Rica (UCR) and Technological of Costa Rica (TEC) are another good source of trees for reforestation. Both institutions have vivero forestals where seedlings of the more threatened species may be obtained. Contact TEC in Cartago through its website or Facebook page.
There are also several private sources. In the Central Valley we found that the canton of Santa Ana town park and Fundazoo have a wonderful vivero that has many valuable trees. Visit the website.
Almost four years of searching enabled us to slowly acquire almost all of the desired tropical hardwoods, and others, for replanting on Finca Dos. The birds and other animals are returning! We have cataloged almost 160 species of birds, white-tailed deer, sloth, tamandua and even an ocelot, along with the return of butterflies, frogs and lizards.
Then came the next question: how to protect our paradise?
Protecting Finca Dos
We could simply state that we have protected land, and let people take our word for it. But for anyone wanting to “officially” protect their land and have it recognized, there are two steps to take. The first is to get part of your land officially protected, and the best way is through the Fonafifo Program (see sidebar article on page xx)
The process to get your property protected by Fonafifo, and receive payments is — typical of all dealings with Costa Rica’s bureaucracy — an interesting learning experience. Fonafifo has an open application once a year, for less than three weeks. That window is from January 4 to 27, and if you miss it, you wait until the following year. If you make it, you must apply for an appointment via the Fonafifo website. The appointment application is easy to complete, but make sure how your land is titled. If it is in the name of a corporation, make sure you make the appointment in the name of the corporation. We did ours in my name, and only with the kindness of the secretary involved did we get it accepted.
You are given a date sometime between March and July, depending on the type of program. There are at least a dozen different ways to apply based on the intention, such as planting sustainable plantations for harvest, or the protection of forest, watersheds, or endangered or threatened tree species, for example. If you are applying for any protection, we were counseled to just use “protection of forest” as the category.
You need to fill out a set of forms and include a plot plan that you can get online through the National Registry. You must go in person to have your documents reviewed and approved, with the important piece of information that you are protecting at least two hectares.
When your documents are accepted you wait until the deadline has passed, and if approved, Fonafifo informs you.
We received our approval via an email notifying us that we had 10 working days to get a forest survey performed on our land. Why this was not part of the application process … well, you just roll with it in Costa Rica. This survey must be performed by an official Forest Regent who is licensed to perform forest studies. Most work out of the organization known as Oficinal National Forestal (ONF), which manages plantations and timber production. Luckily they give you some local numbers to call the ONF, or you can contact the office on Facebook.
Our Forest Regent was a local and spent the day with us walking the land taking notes and recording GPS locations. The major reason we think it would be better for the forest survey to be done before the application process is that the Forest Regent really helped explain what gets covered under the different schemes for the Fonafifo program. As it turns out, our property is not fully eligible yet, and it would have been useful to know this earlier on.
We have planted many valuable trees, ones that are now illegal to cut, but they are all too small to be considered yet in the Fonafifo program. The definition of “forest” is very explicit and means trees that are 15 centimeters in diameter (about 5 to 6 inches) at the chest-high level. So our newly planted trees still need to grow large enough for us to receive credit. The Forest Regent also gave us ideas of different trees to intermix to make our existing forest better.
At the end of the forest survey, we received a map of our property with the protected areas on it and the applicable type of protection in the Fonafifo program — yet another reason to have the survey performed before your application. Out of our total 10 hectares submitted, a little over seven of them could be protected this year, with the survey to be redone in a couple of years when the newly planted trees are big enough to count. Our category of protection will provide us with about $30 a hectare per year to preserve the forest, a small amount to continue buying more endangered trees. But more important: it is officially protected.
The future: The Finca Dos private nature reserve
Our next step now that we have protected land is to join the network of private nature reserves here in Costa Rica: La Red de Reservas Naturales de Costa Rica. We enter this program early next year. This is a way to join with others in the protection of land and add your property to the official protected list (there are about 100,000 hectares contained in the private reserve program).
You can even promote your preserve if you are interested in ecotourism. The only application requirement for entering the private reserve program is to have at least two hectares protected through some program (in our case, the Fonafifo program). You can contact the private nature reserve organization via its website or Facebook.
So with a little work and knowledge of how to navigate Costa Rica’s system, in less than five years a cow pasture will become a protected private nature reserve. It’s a legacy we can achieve to enjoy, share with others and leave for posterity — our little piece of paradise preserved.