Sarah Otterstrom

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 2015
This description of Sarah Otterstrom's work was prepared when Sarah Otterstrom was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Sarah Otterstrom is collaborating with the government, private and citizen sector and involving the citizen sector in Nicaragua’s biologically diverse dry tropical forest, in order to create a form of development conservation that both empowers local populations and changes the culture of environmental stewardship. Sarah has adapted the concept of environmental corridors so that it continues to support biodiversity, but integrates a concept of human thriving as a part of ecosystem health.

The Problem

Rich in biodiversity, but economically poor, the pacific slope of Southern Mexico and Central America is one of the world regions most threatened by environmental degradation. In the 20-year period from 1990 to 2010, Nicaragua and Honduras lost more than 30% of their forests and 25 plant and animal species, and saw 60 mammal species in the region become endangered. As deforestation makes up roughly 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation has also contributed to climate change.

The threat of environmental degradation has serious consequences for the human populations of the region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that coastal populations associated with agricultural and fishing livelihoods are particularly vulnerable to climate change. With predicted effects of warming, southwestern drought, extreme storm events and sea level increases, Nicaragua could suffer decreased natural water retention by soils, and also increased erosion, flooding, and landslides. When farmers find soil less fertile or fish populations abandoning their region, they are forced to turn to poaching endangered species or cutting down tropical forest trees, and the cycle continues. As species in the rich, complex environment of the dry tropical forest begin to go extinct, the diverse ecosystems they depend on will disappear, and sources of livelihood become even scarcer. But while foreign donors spent 1.15 billion dollars on conservation in Central America between 1990 and 1997, traditional efforts, which involve displacement of people and the interruption or suspension of their traditional livelihood practices, have failed even to achieve their desired conservation goals.

Environmental degradation and biodiversity loss have such been difficult challenges to address because they are driven by a complex interaction between social, economic and political factors. Weak government institutions are often poor at governing the exploitation and trade of natural resources, and the global demands for food commodities such as rice and sugar can drive the expansion of intensified crops. Because it is associated with land-use practices that are damaging, including excessive firewood extraction, grazing livestock within forests, over-hunting in forest patches, and timber extraction, poverty is still considered a leading driver in the loss of biodiversity. In Mexico and Central America, where 16.4% of the population remains in extreme poverty - the highest rate in all of Latin America - poverty prevents a real challenge to biodiversity.

Yet if the environment could be properly cared for, it could provide a tremendous asset for Central America, and Nicaragua in particular. Neighboring Costa Rica has seen prosperity through the development of eco-tourism, and the region’s biodiversity is nearly unrivaled globally. Many Nicaraguans living along the Pacific Slope are simply unaware – both of the ecological uniqueness of their home, and of the fact that without proper care, it could disappear forever.

The Strategy

Conserving the dry tropical forest located along Central America’s Pacific slope is an enormous challenge. Sarah’s methodology starts with a socioecological mapping, is based on research and grounded in corridor conservation, and depends on the involvement of absolutely every type of actor. As a scientist, Sarah thinks about the Pacific slope corridor as an ecosystem, considering humans as an important component which must be included to achieve successful conservation. Her goal is to build an inclusive strategy for connecting an entire corridor of ecological and human prosperity from the Southern coast of Mexico to Nicaragua.

While conservation efforts have been successful on Nicaragua’s sparsely populated Caribbean slope, the Pacific slope is more challenging because of the strong human presence. In order to include these human populations in her corridor vision, Sarah starts with a sociological mapping, identifying the incentives that will bring each piece of the ecosystem on board.

With adults in local communities, Sarah uses performance-based incentives for corridor conservation, based on their activities, and teaches them how to develop routes to economic prosperity that won’t harm the environment. For example, Paso Pacifico partners with local hotels and investors to develop environmental research, carbon-credits, and eco-tourism. It involves farmers in the North by working with them to measure local bat populations and study insects, helping both their crops and the scientific conservation efforts, and involves local surf communities in beach cleanups and teaches them environmental stewardship.

In particular, Sarah knows that children will be critical for changing Nicaraguan’s future vision for the environment. Her Junior Ranger Program teaches local children to care for the environment and identify different species, and encourages them to help the older generation understand the importance of preserving their rich environmental inheritance. Where children formerly shot animals with slingshots for play, they now race to identify different species with their binoculars.

To gain a seat at the table in conservation discussions, and to strengthen local scientific capacities, Paso Pacifico monitors all of its work to the highest scientific standards. For all ongoing studies, the organization uses a team of local park rangers from the communities themselves to conduct research. When international foreign scientists come to conduct research, the organization requires them to partner with a local scientist or ranger, an agreement which facilitates mentorship, international collaboration, and local knowledge.

Through surveys with community members about environmental education, Paso Pacifico found that after five years of working with the organization, 82% of community members have come to believe that climate change has an important effect on their daily activities. They are more willing to assign responsibility for the threat to local turtle populations to their own communities instead of blaming the problem on outsiders, and they say they are beginning to protect their environment.

In environmental impact, in addition to reforesting 1000 acres as part of its forest-based carbon project, Paso Pacifico is building corridors by partnering with farmers to plant more than 30,000 native trees annually. Trees are planted at sites that will improve watershed quality and create connectivity between forest patches. The region has seen a 60% increase in black-handed spider monkeys due to the efforts of Paso Pacifico’s rangers, and the organization’s work has complemented other organizations in bringing jaguars back to Nicaragua.

Paso Pacifico has also made impressive strides in working with the private sector. The organization has convinced property owners to designate three private properties for conservation, and is working with two hotels directly for conservations.

Paso Pacifico raises funds from a diverse range of sources including foundations, other non-profit grant organizations, and bilateral and multilateral donors. It also receives support from the private sector, primarily companies based in Nicaragua. These include Café Las Flores, Fuente Pura, Coca Cola Nicaragua, Casco Safety, Parque Maritimo El Coco, and Rancho Santana. The organization is also testing other fundraising strategies, such as a sea-turtle app and a public concert in partnership with private sector partners in California. Sarah’s team relies heavily on its highly competent local staff; the organization has 6 staff members in the United States and 30 in Nicaragua.

Paso Pacifico is at an important inflection point, both for internal reasons and because of the current moment in Nicaragua. Internally, Paso Pacifico has achieved 10 years of success and finally has a replicable, proven methodology, which gives it unprecedented leverages in its partnerships. Sarah knows that she and Paso Pacifico cannot build this corridor by themselves; instead, they are inspiring other partners to take up their methodologies to replicate them throughout the region. The organization is active in the bird conservation network “partners in flight” where it is working with partners across the region to implement a plan that will establish stepping stones of protected habitat for birds migrating along the dry tropical forests of Mexico and Central America. Sarah is also launching new partnerships with the Fundación Azteca to implement oyster aquaculture along Mexico’s Pacific coast. Paso Pacifico is working closely with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Natural Resources and is able to provide technical assistance to government and community partners through support from agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment fund.

After ten years of success, Sarah’s goal for this year is to document her methodology and lay out a framework for other organizations to adopt Paso Pacifico’s approach; both in specific programs – ie junior rangers – and the broader vision. She hopes to create both scientific articles for peer reviewed journals and more accessible materials for the nonprofit world, in order to define a replicable strategy for large-scale conservation goals.

This year also represents a critical point for Paso Pacifico because the Nicaraguan government plans to work with Chinese investors to build a canal cutting across the entire country. In Nicaragua’s complex political and business environment, it is likely that this canal’s construction will go through regardless of international protests. However, with 10 years of proven scientific experience in the region and intimate knowledge of the communities the canal will affect, Paso Pacifico will serve as an authority in the decisions about how the canal is built; which will have tremendous environmental impact. Sarah believes that the press and public policy which will be directed at this process will present an enormous opportunity for Paso Pacifico to lead Nicaragua in building a new ecological vision for the future.

The Person

Sarah Otterstrom grew up in a family of nine in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and spent her childhood exploring the forested ridgeline behind her home. When her parents divorced and her father moved to Costa Rica during her teenage years, she traveled to visit him and fell in love with the Central American forests. Sarah studied biology and conservation at university in Costa Rica, and began leading natural history tours in the rainforest. Her time in Costa Rica gave her a bicultural education and a deep appreciation for the region’s biodiversity, which ultimately motivated her to pursue her doctorate in Ecology at the University of California, Davis.

During her time as a doctoral student, Sarah chose Human Ecology as her area of emphasis. Her two mentors, an ecological anthropologist and a conservation scientist, encouraged her to approach communities and ethnographic inquiry with an awareness towards the use of language, a curiosity toward the relationship between people, nature and subsistence, and a respect towards local ecological knowledge. Sarah began to study fire ecology, a passion which would prove pivotal because it brought Sarah to a part of the world where cultural, human interactions with the environment had more important effects on biology than natural occurrences.

When her original proposal to conduct research on fire ecology in Costa Rica was turned down, Sarah redirected her research location to the Chococente Wildlife Refuge, which is home to dozens of farming families living with the boundary of the protected area, remnants of tropical dry forests, and includes a beach that is a major sea turtle nesting site. During her four years working at that site, Sarah witnessed the social conflicts surrounding sea turtle extraction, and their interplay with poverty and corruption, as government rangers ‘protecting’ the beach participated themselves in the sea turtle egg trade. She saw New Yorkers buy up large portions of the area, and personally worked to convince them to abandon plans for a golf course. Finally, she watched international conservation NGO’s wax and wane in their interest in Chococente, and felt frustrated by their lack of commitment to the communities and the ecological landscape. All of these experiences had a profound impact on Sarah, convincing her that no conservation solution would be effective without taking the poverty and economic dynamics of the local human population into consideration in a profound way. Her interests expanded beyond fire ecology as she became convinced she had a greater role to play in the local conservation dynamic.

Sarah worked on the ground for an international social organization to learn more about conservation efforts in the region and the complex relationships between human and environmental initiatives. In 2005 she decided to found her own organization, which would develop a direct relationship and collaboration with local people and communities. She became an expert at speaking with all kinds of actors, learning how to involve even those who, at the start, seemed directly opposed to the needs of environmental conservation. She developed a reputation for quality science and conservation, and close relationships with the communities in which she works.

Today, Sarah continues to serve as the executive director of Paso Pacífico. As a renowned conservation scientist, she has served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Biotropica and is an invited reviewer for numerous academic journals. She is an active member of the Association for Fire Ecology, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and the Society for Applied Anthropology