Yessenia Soto, a communications associate at the Rainforest Alliance, introduces us to a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm in Costa Rica that is changing the way students and scientists learn and innovate.
Between the Costa Rican capital of San Jose and the country’s Pacific coast is the beautiful rural town of Atenas. Surrounded by green mountains and forests–and blessed with what National Geographic has called one of the best climates in the world–Atenas retains a certain country charm.
A few months ago, I traveled to Atenas with a team from the Rainforest Alliance to visit the Center for Sustainable Development Studies at the School for Field Studies–an international academic institution that offers environmental education programs and research on natural resource conservation and sustainable development. The school’s 5.7-acre (2.3-hectare) farm, which grows huge mangoes and juicy oranges, has been Rainforest Alliance Certified since 2012 and is bordered by 6.9-acres (2.8 hectares) of rich dry forests.
For the first time since I began working for the Rainforest Alliance, I found myself in front of mouthwatering certified fruits that are not intended for sale; instead they are grown to learn from and experiment with in an effort to investigate how to farm in a truly sustainable, productive way.
“This farm is our outdoor laboratory,” explains director Gerardo Ávalos. The farm and the whole Rainforest Alliance certification process are part of an educational experience in which more than 30 young people from various countries around the world take part.
Ávalos tells us that before obtaining Rainforest Alliance certification the farm was in the hands of external consultants who did not monitor the use of agrochemicals on crops, the consumption of water and energy, or properly treat waste and sewage. School suppliers were not evaluated to ensure their compliance with social or environmental standards and while the school made some efforts to operate sustainably, these efforts were not coordinated or documented.
“Our job is to teach about sustainable development but before certification neither the farm nor the school were truly sustainable,” says Ávalos. “Obviously, this didn’t make any sense.”
In 2009, the school’s directors decided to seek a certification that would offer them “something more than just a certificate.” They wanted a truly sustainable agriculture model that would give them protocols for transforming the farm, improving their curriculum, and training students and workers.
Ávalos says that Rainforest Alliance certification fit their needs perfectly.
Since attaining certification, all of the school’s departments and programs have committed to embracing the principles of sustainability. Administrative and academic personnel have begun keeping records and coordinating all efforts related to sustainability; the school has examined all of its suppliers to ensure that they meet environmental, social and labor criteria; and administrators have begun to reduce and monitor consumption of water, energy and even carbon emissions.
While at the center, our group took a tour of its facilities. The first stop was the dining room, where we learned that almost 70 percent of the school’s waste is recycled. Inorganic materials are sent to recycling centers, while organic kitchen and farm waste is used for animal feed and compost.
Many tasks fall to the students themselves, who are organized into groups to help with cooking, cleaning, farm maintenance and other daily chores. They also carry out field research on the farm.
“[The farm] is definitely one of the reasons students are attracted to the center,” says Rosy Cohane-Mann, a practitioner and program assistant. “It’s a great resource we have…with the opportunity to live, work and experience a farm in the tropics and learn about certification.”
Later, we visited the orange groves and heard from Sergio Molina, a professor of environmental economics and policy. He explained how certification had improved farm management. Today, soil is regularly analyzed, water is filtered, agrochemical use is down, and researchers are implementing and experimenting with integrated pest management.
Meanwhile, the school has increased safety measures for farm laborers and trains workers to recycle, compost and employ integrated pest management strategies.
Walking among the orange trees, we met Ernesto Castro, who has been maintaining the trails and crop areas for three years. Though he has farmed for over 15 years, he says that he was completely changed by his time at the school. “I didn’t wear protective gear, I burned to clear land, I applied many chemicals, I didn’t know how to make organic compost and I never thought about reforestation,” he recalls. Now, everything he learns on the job he implements on his own farm and he shares these new ideas with neighboring farmers.
The center believes in education and is working to share its sustainability knowledge with small local farmers who don’t have the resources to investigate and experiment on their own farms. They also give talks on environmental education in local schools and host students at their facilities.
At the end of our tour, we enjoyed a delicious lunch with abundant fresh fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. We said our goodbyes while the students and professors hurried off to classes and afternoon chores. “Certification means that we have a lot more to do,” says Cohann-Mann, indicating the bustle around her, “but everything leads us to a sustainable future.”