Over winter break this year, I had the incredible opportunity to travel throughout Costa Rica for a Tropical Ecology extended study course. With the support of a Benton Mini-Grant, I was able to arrive several days earlier than the rest of my class to visit a forest restoration site and learn more about the endeavors of Association Community Carbon Trees (ACCT), a reforestation carbon offset organization.
Based in Platanillo, Costa Rica, and run by the spunky, hard-working Jenny Smith, ACCT is a small nonprofit that pays local workers a fair wage to plant and maintain a diverse range of native trees that are ‘sponsored’ by individuals and companies looking to offset their carbon emissions. As outlined in the figure below, their model is based on collaborating with local farmers who are compensated for allowing areas of their degraded lands to be reforested, rather than buying up large tracts of land and pushing locals off it, as many large forest carbon offset programs are infamous for. During my ‘Global Environmental Justice’ course in the Fall, I dedicated my final research project to studying the injustices faced by indigenous communities in Brazil when a large forest carbon offset initiative funded by American corporations was established in the early-2000’s. After this project, I was eager to discover if similar initiatives could be implemented with a greater emphasis on social justice.
After discovering the work of ACCT through social media last year and having my professional interest peaked in tropical forest restoration and conservation, I hoped to one day visit their sites in-person. When I decided to enroll in an extended study course in Costa Rica, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to do so if I could find the time and budget. Fortunately, the Benton program was able to support this endeavor!
In preparation for this experience, a friend and fellow Benton, Renee Congdon, was gracious enough to give me some basic Spanish lessons to refresh my memory and help me feel more comfortable traveling alone in Costa Rica for a few days before meeting up with my class. I spent the first two nights in Dominical, a surf-town on the Pacific Coast, where I stayed in an eclectic “eco-lodge” constructed from upcycled shipping containers. I managed to get some soul-nourishing surfing and yoga in on the one full day I had to settle in before traveling to the ACCT site.
On the day of the visit, two of the arborists that work with ACCT picked me up and brought me to one of the sites that has been reforested with the help of Jenny and her crew. I received an interactive tour of the site, which included taste/smell tests of native plants, insights into the ecological benefits of various fruiting trees, and comparisons to nearby degraded pasturelands. I even got to pick a cocoa pod, taste its bitter contents, and throw the seeds throughout the forest in the hopes that some will sprout and flourish. I felt like the seed-dispersing animals we learned about in my Tropical Ecology course the semester before! It was an eye-opening experience to learn about the native trees from a brilliant local arborist, Oscar, who has obtained much of his knowledge through growing up surrounded by them.
While I entered this experience with the primary goal of learning more about a small tropical reforestation organization, my main takeaway turned out to be an even greater appreciation for traditional ecological knowledge and the educational power of being connected to your natural surroundings. I was impressed with the reforestation efforts themselves, but even more impressed with the breadth and depth of local knowledge required to make such efforts successful, both ecologically and socially. This experience made me excited to get out into the workforce after graduating in May and expand upon the knowledge I have obtained in formal academic settings through real-world experiences!
Sincerest thanks to Jenny Smith, Oscar Gamboa, and Erica Dixon of ACCT for facilitating this opportunity, and to the Benton Scholars program for supporting my endeavors.