Alvaro Ugalde is an environmental leader who helped establish the Costa Rican national park system. Although the pristine nature of the parks continues to be maintained, the surrounding lands and water systems are deteriorating because of deforestation and exploitive farming, aggressive developers, and changing government policies. Alvaro and the Nectandra Institute are helping adjacent communities in the La Balsa Watershed, to understand the importance of a clean and healthy watershed and to recognize the scarcity of water and the forests that surround rivers, as a challenge of their own. Ecosystem education is empowering local people to take responsibility for the protection and preservation of their drinking and irrigation water. Through projects in restoration and sustainable agriculture and an ecological credit concept called Ecological Loans, Alvaro and his colleagues, are helping the communities, in fomenting a new consciousness about water that can save the world’s watersheds: A new culture of water.
The New Idea
The Nectandra Institute is a conservation organization conceived by Alvaro Ugalde and the other three co-founders of the Institute (Evelyne T. Lennette, David Lennette and Arturo Jarquín). After leaving from almost 30 years with the Costa Rican park system and some national consultant positions, he became acutely aware that, while the parks might be healthy, the lands outside their confines were becoming dangerously deforested and protected areas more susceptible to climate change, Alvaro and his friends realized that public and private conservation efforts were not enough and that the communities needed to be involved in protecting and restoring the rivers and watersheds. As a result, they founded The Nectandra Institute, which focuses on training and empowering community members to continue and speed up land restoration actions they started several years ago, and make significant changes in unsustainable practices. Nectandra Institute is a watershed protection organization that works side-by-side with rural communities to create and implement expert restoration projects on polluted rivers and exploited farmlands. Nectandra fosters understanding about the cycle of water and educates communities about the link between clean water and health. Utilizing Alvaro’s long-standing relationships with national and international environmental organizations, Nectandra forms community partnerships and provides technical assistance in conservation, restoration and sustainable agriculture. Currently based around the San Carlos River, in the La Balsa Watershed, Alvaro is poised to spread the Nectandra concept for community-owned watershed protection to other rivers and waterways in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, the most effective tool to spread a good idea is to help the main protagonists, the communities, showcase the result of their efforts on a daily basis. After community-based education programs and technical training, local people gain an understanding of the importance of ecosystems in order to have clean water and become empowered to preserve their water supply through community-run projects. Through the Nectandra Institute, Alvaro provides communities with the tools to protect their watersheds and the surrounding ecosystems. One of the defining characteristics of Nectandra is an innovative finance strategy called ecological lending. This is a credit program that helps communities buy polluting and overused farmlands in order to restore, them with interest-free loans which have extended repayment options. A contemporary method to reversing environmental damage, the Eco-Loan program helps communities become responsible for maintaining clean and sustainable sources of water by, purchasing and restoring properties, and this motivates discussions about responsible agricultural practices.
The deterioration of the Costa Rican watersheds is being accelerated by unsustainable agricultural practices. The damaging effects of deforestation, excessive cattle grazing, and the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are in danger of contaminating the water supply for hundreds of communities. Land erosion and sediment buildup are consequences of hydroelectric dams, unmonitored highway construction, careless building of infrastructure and the introduction of new crops. Legislation has not been favorable for protecting watersheds from development projects and educational institutions tend to teach young people that precious resources like water "are renewable."
For many years cattle farming has increased rapidly in the rural communities of the La Balsa Watershed, which has required massive deforestation in order to convert the cloud forests into suitable, although in many cases unsustainable, grazing and farming lands. New technology is not yet available for many farmers for proper irrigation methods, and manure is not removed from the rivers. Agro-chemicals are carelessly dispersed on hillsides that drain into fresh water creeks and fragmented forests. The biggest problem is the lack of understanding of the connection between clean water and healthy forests. There has been little to no technical education for farmers concerning sustainable agricultural practices and current systems are gradually altering the once pristine watershed.
Since nobody is responsible for the overall health of the watershed system, individual farmers continue to exploit their land as they wish. Temporarily sustainable on the individual level, hundreds of farms along the micro-watersheds, and banks of the rivers continue to graze excess cattle and use agro-chemicals resulting in a collective erosion and chemical contamination that will not support a viable water supply. The four municipalities located along the river do not work in unison for common environmentalism and small and large land holders alike are not trained. Property laws in Costa Rica do not include enforceable environmental clauses so there exists little that can be done if an individual is abusing his land.
International conservationists have supported and donated to the buying back of lands for inclusion into the national parks system, but there are not enough resources to buy all the lands in critical watersheds. Private funds and grants have also been used to contribute to the expansion of the parks system yet a project of this caliber requires 10 to 20 times the land resources originally designated to protecting these areas. At the top of the country’s highest volcanoes, the Rio La Balsa headwaters are formed from cloud forests and seasonal rainfall. As the river flows into the basin and out to sea even the cities are at risk of losing their water supply. The most dangerous negligence comes from large cities, where water purification plants make it easy to turn on the faucet and get fresh water. People are unaware of the precarious water situation, do not involve themselves in conservation efforts, and continue to waste this precious resource.
Although Costa Rica prides itself on a vast national park system and an enormous ecotourism base, officials have traditionally fallen short of promoting ecological sustainability. Without technical assistance and education in sustainable agriculture, communities will continue to use cheap but harmful practices for short-term profit. The government will not or cannot contribute to expanding the park system to avoid destructive farming, and since there is little incentive for the private sector to lend to communities, buying expensive pieces of land for regeneration is near impossible. But these communities in the Balsa Watershed have been doing it since more than a decade ago.
In order for significant reversal of environmental damage to take place, communities must take it upon themselves to collectively buy the properties critical for water filtration and condensation and eventually take responsibility, to avoid polluting the rivers and springs and restore critical areas. This is the only way to ensure that polluting practices are changed and community efforts can successfully begin to regenerate the watershed. Local fundraising events are already empowering communities to take financial responsibility for purchasing land plots for environmental protection. Whole communities are coming together to assemble the monthly payments.
Nectandra is a groundbreaking project that fills the need for strong community empowerment, while encouraging communities to have strong economies. Nectandra begins with technical assistance and environmental education synchronized with continuous search for better agricultural techniques. Using Alvaro’s vast network, Nectandra links socially and environmentally conscious donors, foundations and corporations, with communities, to provide interest free loans for purchasing land along the La Balsa River watershed, a tributary of the San Carlos.
Nectandra begins with a community empowerment strategy in which it helps the local population understand water systems, the necessity for healthy watersheds and the repercussions of contaminating waterways. By understanding the cycle of water and why conservation is important for their livelihood, the community takes responsibility through real environmental projects. Nectandra maintains an active presence in community-owned projects by sitting in on management meetings and working closely with men,, women and adolescent groups. Recognizing that current water administration is vital for improving future management techniques, it provides training courses in sustainable farming practices and seminars on climate change and the importance of protecting ecosystems to leaders and farmers, especially to Community Water Management Boards.
Part of Nectandra’s education program about the cycle of water is a year-long training program in which community members become involved in land regeneration projects. The curriculum focuses on understanding rivers and creeks, species identification for water quality monitoring, and the consequences of using harmful chemicals in and around these systems.. Adolescent groups in nearby schools participate in ecology workshops and are asked to develop mini-projects for environmental protection. Women’s groups meet with the incentive to inform members of conservation techniques and increase knowledge of regional flora and fauna. Conferences are held with allied environmental organizations and professional biologists and ecologists work closely with youth movement groups to advance future generations of conversationalists. Men, women, and young people have formed nature committees and Nectandra has fostered a profound understanding of why restoration is needed to ensure a healthy ecosystem for present and future generations.
The overall objective of the training program is for the community to develop a major restoration effort and change their relation with nature. Often, the community will buy overgrazed farms and exploited fields with a loan from Nectandra. After concluding expert level project planning with the help of Nectandra and allied organizations, an ecological loan is awarded to the community as an option for land purchase, project initiation, and implementation. The ecological loan is the most important component of the Nectandra strategy. Allowing the community to own their land and, to take responsibility for financing implementation, and to organize themselves for repayment of the loan principal, empowers the population to determine their own future. All Eco-Loans are interest-free and are typically set up for repayment over fifteen years although the timeframe depends upon the needs and resources of the community. At this juncture, all loans have come from donations from private citizens and foundations, but with considerable co-funding with community resources.
To date, there are five communities that have taken approximately US$260,000 in Eco-Loans with scheduled repayment of the principal around fifteen years. There are five communities currently awaiting loan approvals and there are fifteen other communities who have finished the ecosystem training modules. In La Balsa watershed, there are thirty Rural Water Management Boards and many other communities that are poised to participate in the next five years in land restoration through ecoloans and fundraising. In order for communities to make payments on the loans and to earn repayments, town fairs, raffles, and small increases in water fees are instituted. So far, the five pilot communities are successfully repaying their loans while restoring land sections of severely exploited land.
Creating close relationships between the La Balsa Water Management Boards, and other Water Boards throughout the country, is the key to expanding this concept. Ecological lending is a feasible, low-cost model that is replicable and has the potential for global impact in rural areas. Based on a global network he has built through his long career in environmentalism and conservation, Alvaro sees the potential to disseminate the Nectandra Eco-Loan concept through international organizations working with watershed projects, but as he says, it will take time.
Alvaro was raised in a village inside the Costa Rican volcanic mountain range. His father was a road engineer, who spoke with him about the importance of environmental preservation. The principles of compassion and respect for the environment and for the people were engrained in his upbringing and school years. Recognizing a love for nature at an early age, he was driven to study biology at the University of Costa Rica and later received a Master’s degree in Natural Resource Management at the University of Michigan. He mentions the importance of having spent a year working manual labor jobs in the state of Georgia to learn English, a skill that has moved him through many circles during his life, as well as awarded him the opportunity to carefully explain environmental projects to conservation groups and major donors alike.
Alvaro is the recognized founder of the Costa Rican National Parks System. Before founding Nectandra he spent thirty years working hard in the creation and expansion of natural protected areas, while introducing environmentalism into a paternalistic and politically driven central government. From 1970 to 1973, Alvaro was the Director of the Santa Rosa National Park and later at the Volcán Poás National Park. Following this period he was nominated the General Director for the National Park System, a position he held for 17 years. Over the years Alvaro has worked closely with many, many organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, and the Organization for Tropical Studies. Additionally, he worked as an Environmental Consultant for the United Nations Development Program and as Coordinator of the Small Grants Program for Non-profit Organizations within Costa Rica. Based on his dedication to environmental protection and the success of the Costa Rican park system, in 2000 he was named by Time Magazine as one of Latin America’s environmental leaders of the twentieth century.
Alvaro reached a turning point in his career early this century, when he realized that conservation of the parks system was not enough and that communities must also be involved with these efforts for them to have a long-term and large impact. As a result Alvaro and his colleagues established The Nectandra Institute in 1998. Alvaro’s background and global networks are allowing him to not only design a project that works very effective locally, but is applicable and can be replicated by any community in the world. For more information about Alvaro and the Nectandra Institute, please go to www.nectandra.org