First in a two part series on how EARTH University is innovating new ways to improve the environment in Costa Rica and beyond
Allan Chávez, EARTH University program development coordinator, explains how manure from a pigpen is converted into heat energy through a tool known as a biodigestor. Photo: Matt Levin
Luis Hernando’s shirt droops unbuttoned over his lean frame. The shirt ends are tied together at the bottom, giving the clothing a U-shape that exposes Hernando’s tanned torso. Hernando, 44, labors each day in one of the hottest, stickiest regions in Costa Rica, in the Caribbean canton of Pococí. His work, however, is unlike that of most Costa Rican farmers.
Hernando heads the only carbon-neutral community in the country.
La Florita, a pueblo consisting of a little more than 100 hectares of subsidized land, emphasizes sustainable practices and efficient crop-growing. Inside Hernando’s own greenhouse, cilantro, chilies and other herbs and spices sprout up from the soil. Ornamental flowers of orange, red and purple decorate his lawn’s border. Cacao beans dry on his porch.
Banana plantations and patches of yams, cassava and squash thrive on the surrounding farms. Among the vibrant harvest, the farmer recalls the monumental shift in thinking that the community has undergone in the last several years: a transformation from slash-and-burn farming and rampant pesticide use to carbon neutrality, eco-friendly techniques and even profits.
“We poisoned the land with insecticides when we didn’t have the knowledge of alternatives,” Hernando said. “Then we learned new strategies for working and alternate ways to manage. In my case personally, I’m working in a way that’s completely different.”
La Florita began as a project between local campesinos, the government and EARTH University in Guácimo, about a 20-minute ride from the community. The Costa Rican government donated property with the intention that over time, farmers would pay for the land by creating a sustainable community that grew and sold its own crops.
EARTH University members had been working with La Florita farms for several years before Costa Rican Anyelo Moya and Honduran Tony Arévalo proposed the carbon-neutral idea as a class project. They completed the process of turning the farmland into a carbon-neutral development near the end of 2011. Some 7,000 trees were planted last year thanks to a contribution from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute.
The farming community cannot afford the $8,000 review to certify the land as carbon-neutral. However, EARTH University professor Allan Chávez said that land is up to recognized standards (EARTH University has been certified carbon-neutral since 2001). He sees La Florita as a model for Costa Rica, a country that imaginesachieving carbon neutrality by 2021.
The professor visits the community every Wednesday with university students as part of a hands-on program on communal and professional farming. La Florita visitors glimpse a population that flourishes with minimal chemical use and focuses on innovative processes. For example, the blue bags that protect bananas from pests do not use pesticides. Instead the bags are covered in an onion glaze that repels bugs.
“The program allows students to figure out and to sense and understand the true dynamics of the market of production and its processes,” Chávez said. “And [students get] to coexist with these producers day in and day out.”
A dozen of the 29 families in La Florita have their own greenhouses. Twenty-seven families maintain a biodigester (although not all are up and running).
A biodigester is a tank that converts organic wastes into biogas, a renewable source of electrical and thermal energy.
Students can construct the bulky devices cheaply and with a few simple materials. The devices cost about $300-$400 to make and save each family more than $400 a year, Chávez said.
A long hose carries methane gas from the biodigester into Luz Mery Calderón’s kitchen. Calderón turns a knob and demonstrates the slender blue flame that shoots up from her stove. In her backyard, pigs kept inside a pen produce the manure that falls into the biodigester and becomes energy that cooks all the food in Calderón’s home.
Calderón, head of La Florita’s women’s association, has prepared a hearty lunch using materials produced in the community and her biogas stovetop.
On a dining table, she places plates of rice and beans and a side of ayote (a type of squash) minced into a picadillo with herbs, spices and bits of pork. She positions a helping of thick, steamy slices of potatoes in the center of the table, and pours glasses of the milky-colored guanábana, or soursop fruit. Dozens of ripened papayas pile up on the cement floor outside her house.
After the meal, Calderón gives a papaya to Chávez to take to his mother before he leaves for the day.
Chávez and the students continue to watch the community evolve. Carbon neutral, by no means, equals perfect. A local pineapple grower is sparring with the La Florita farmers about insecticide contamination, while another neighbor has started to roil residents with unsanitary practices.
In a field a couple blocks behind Hernando’s house, the future blooms. A newly constructed recreation area and soccer field will be christened there at the end of this month with a massive pig roast. Reforested trees, planted as part of the carbon-neutrality project, encircle the vastness of the meadow. The image represents La Florita’s still-expanding success.
“Some things continue working well. On other issues, others try to obstruct us, but the idea is to be a community,” Hernando said. “The idea is to look for solutions to these problems so that we can keep working without endangering or contaminating the land.”