The Hacienda Rio Coté Project

The Hacienda Rio Coté Project (HRC) has been established to restore and protect rainforest land adjacent to the Rio Coté National Protected Areas in Costa Rica.

HRC’s mission is to reforest and preserve land that is contiguous with existing protected areas of the Rio Coté National Forest and in effect to increase the size of a pristine rainforest environment. HRC’s goal is to maintain and extend natural biodiversity, preserve watersheds, reduce erosion and river degradation, protect animal and insect habitats, and preserve the primordial beauty of the tropical rain forests for future generations.

The primary sponsor of HRC is Inner Traditions International (ITI), a book publisher. ITI has, since 1975, published the wisdom and practices of the world’s indigenous peoples and is pleased to support HRC as a way of contributing to the protection of ancient ways of life while offsetting its carbon footprint.

 

The Story of Hacienda Rio Coté

By Vatsala Sperling, Ph.D., D.Hom

You have to be on this road to believe it. Driving up at 20 miles an hour, on this calm stretch of dark gray river rocks strewn on a narrow path, with gently rolling hills and undulating land on either side, with hardly any traffic, you almost feel you are going far into eternity. You simply can’t rush. And that gives you time to see and feel. So Ehud, Mahar, and I were on this road, chugging along from the town of Arenal to the town of Guatuso.

A highway of stones

On our left, beyond a stretch of grassy pastures, we saw a dense crown of lush, green vegetation, unbroken by human activity, extending far into the horizon. “It is the Rio Coté National Forest,” Ehud said. At one time the forest had extended all the way to the road and beyond. That was before the forest was clear-cut to create land for grazing. Now, this rain forest is out over there, waiting patiently to be invited in to the pastures. I looked sideways and saw Ehud’s profile. It was clear to me that he was thinking. As his wife of eleven years, I can almost read his mind, and I knew the forest would be invited back in, sooner or later. It was just a matter of time. He will make sure that the forest has more room to wiggle its toes and spread its footprints so that the birds and the bees, the snakes and the frogs that Costa Rica is so proud of will have more room to live.

Arenal Volcano with detail of area map—Guanacaste Costa Rica


One thing led to another, and soon Ehud had the chance to purchase 300 acres of farmland. What was most attractive about this land was that on one side the entire property line was contiguous with the National Preserve of Rio Coté rain forest. In addition, a part of this land was still a primary jungle untouched by human hands, a rain forest so dense and difficult that no one would dare wander there on his or her own.“Let us invite the forest in,” were Ehud’s words, and with this simple motivation the Hacienda Rio Coté Reforestation Project was created in August 2007. As we thought more about the project, a few more aims were set.

  • Preservation of primary forest.
  • Multi-use, socially responsible, and community oriented reforestation of clear-cut land.
  • Propagation of the native tree species of the rain forest by collection of seeds and saplings from the rain forest and facilitating their growth in the “Primal Nursery” so that these saplings could be planted back or donated to reforestation projects on other clear-cut lands.
  • Carbon farming—grazing after the patterns of wild herds for soil sequestering of carbon.
Mahar Sperling and Ashley Perez stand next to one of the trees they planted a year ago. As a sapling it was no higher than the top of Mahar's boot, one year later it is over 10 feet high. The rate of growth in the tropical rain forest is truly amazing.

The very first step in this direction was to speak with the locals and ask them how such a project would affect their lives. We spoke to Jorge, our young Tico friend who has two children, 9 and 5 years old. He sees land as a source of income. His livelihood depends on the cows grazing on the land. But he is aware enough to understand the impact of deforestation on soil, water, and air quality. He would like his children to have the richness of the rain forest, because that is their heritage, but he would also like to see them have a sustained livelihood. “We could rotate the cattle between fields,” Jorge said. This will give the soil time to recover and grow fresh grass. This will also restrict the cattle from eroding the fragile land and spoiling the water bodies. But definitely, extending the forest will help all of us in many ways.”

Soon Jorge, his three older brothers, and a few nephews were marking out areas where the cattle would be grazing, and Ehud was marking out where the forest would be invited in. At about the same time Codeforsa (NGO that provides forestry engineers for reforestation) was contacted, and Oscar, who came to talk “forest” with Ehud, turned out to be a representative of one of the massive reforestation programs underway in Costa Rica. “My country is realizing that her real wealth is in her forests. We will do all we can to keep her forests healthy and growing.” He meant serious business. “Come. See our nursery in Guatuso,” Oscar said “You will like it.”

The Codeforsa Nursery people were generous and hospitable and were very happy to take us around. “We have 45,000 saplings, many of different species,” said the nursery manager proudly. He was also very knowledgeable about what tree species are native to the rain forest adjacent to our land, and he knew what would grow best there. As we toured his facility he told us many details about each tree species, about its growing conditions, fruits, flowers, wood quality, what birds and animals loved it, and whether the tree should be planted on slopes or near water bodies or away from wind, and so on. “We are expanding our list. Come again in December and we will have many more varieties for you,” he said. In the meantime more than 3,000 saplings were selected for our project. “Every year we will give you 3,000 more,” he said. “Don’t stop planting, ever.” “Ever” was said rather earnestly and emphatically.

Yet another nursery staff member showed us how to space the saplings and prepare the soil for planting. “You just need to give them a head start for the first two years. Soon they become taller than the grass. After that you just have the pleasure of watching them grow. You don’t have to do anything else.”

We were overjoyed by the sight and smell of all those thousands of healthy saplings, their tiny crowns swinging in the warm breeze, their young, soft-green leaves sparkling in the brilliant sunshine, each sapling waiting patiently for its turn to be planted and given an opportunity to become a mighty tree. We also were happy to see that Codeforsa was geared to sustain biodiversity and was not eager to make a fast buck by selling us the “hot tree of the month with the best timber value.” “This nursery is funded by the Costa Rican government and operates on a small budget, but it is a very forward thinking project in our view.

We purchased another 1,000 saplings from La Reserva Nursery, a nursery devoted exclusively to reforestation. Now, we had 4,000 green babies to care for.

The saplings are loaded onto a truck in handmade boxes

 

Back at the farm, Jorge rounded up a team of eight men from the tiny village of Cabanga. Vincent, the son of our neighboring farmer, Vin Palos, also came up “to help.” For Vincent and the other members of the team, “to help” is an understatement. “To help with a great attitude and happy smile” is a more accurate description. They would arrive for “helping” riding their horses or catching a ride with one of the very few to be found vehicles on the road surfaced with river rocks.

The saplings are moved by ox cart

 

They would begin working all very cheerful, ready to take on a day of digging dirt, plopping a sapling, digging dirt, plopping yet another sapling. The hot sun brightened their days, the ever present breeze made the perpetual sweating tolerable, and even as the numerous ants and bugs feasted on their skin, the team remained so upbeat throughout that we could easily understand why Costa Rican’s are in the habit of returning your greetings with “Pura vida” (the pure life).

“We like what you are doing to the land,” one of the workers shyly spoke up for the team, though from how they worked, it was obvious to us that they loved what we were doing. There was a simple economic reason as well. For Cabanga, which does not have a regular source of employment or income for people other than their farm and animals, this reforestation program gave several weeks of reliable work for these men. Their joy at receiving pay every Friday was hard to hide and hard to ignore. Watching these men at work was inspiring for our son, Mahar, who is a hard worker when it comes to playing in the dirt. Outdoor work gives him a venue for abandoning his sense of self and becoming a part of nature. “Can I have my class come and plant trees, Papa, please, please, please?” he asked his father, and this led to our visiting the school in Cabanga. This is a two-room school, very neat and tidy, painted in blue, tiled, with a small front garden and a big soccer field, a must for every school in Costa Rica, a country that has very wisely invested heavily in education. They have no army, and this peace-loving country gives compulsory and free education to all, and has free health care easily available to its people.

   

Top left: Vatsala Sperling discusses the project with the principal of the school of Cabanga

Middle and right: The schoolchildren of Cabanga

 

Mr. Alexander Arguedas Garcia, the principal of this school for the past eleven years, is a lean and thin man with three children and lives in a town nearby, commuting daily on his two-wheeler. He is also proud to tell us that his school has been awarded an Ecological flag and for the past few years because the school has been involved in ecological preservation activities in the community. “Surely, our children would love to plant trees,” he said, and one morning we saw an open pickup truck roll in to the farm and thirteen children pile out of this truck.

 

The children of Cabanga proudly display their Ecological flag,

awarded to them by the Costa Rican government for their environmental work

 

Watching these children plant trees with such abandon was a joy. They knew how to have fun while they were working. You could hear waves of laughter emanating from wherever there were a few of them together… the girls giggled almost nonstop, throwing dirt balls at the boys who played their magical games waving spades and sticks as wands.

 

The school children of Cabanga arrive for a day of reforestation

 

Mahar soon found out that all these kids wanted to know about Harry Potter and he regaled them with his rendition of Harry Potter stories as they worked together. Ms. Rowling would have felt proud to hear Harry being discussed in this remote location, where none of these kids spoke a word of English. Both Ehud and I were bursting with pride to hear our child speak Spanish with such a natural flow and flair, a result of his spending many months in the local school and being tutored by a very, very wonderful teacher, Ileana, who speaks, reads, and writes Farsi, Arabic, German, French, and English besides her mother tongue, Spanish.

 

The principal and his son begin the day's labors

 

While these children were having fun and appeared mostly to be playing, they managed to plop over 500 trees into the ground in just about four hours that morning, a very good record in our view. “In a few years, you will not be able to recognize this land, the trees will be this tall,” said Maria, reaching out to touch the sky with her hands.

Planting on the slopes of the land protects it against erosion.

Each brown area represents a spot that has been cleared for the planting of a sapling.

 

Vatsala, the principal, and crew move on to another planting site.

 

These wonderful children are going to have sustained contact with our reforestation project as they will be invited back for more planting and to check on the growth of the saplings they planted. We are also planning on inviting indigenous elders to accompany these children on tours of the rain forest and teach them about the native tree species and medicinal plants. In these tours they would collect saplings right off the forest floor and bring them over to the “Primal Nurseries” where they would be nurtured until ready for planting. They will then be planted on other sites in our project as well as donated to people who want to reforest their farms. It is hoped that through this experience the children’s love for the forest would grow and they would begin to see the forest as their ally and friend and not as an enemy to be chopped down and conquered. Enough of that has been done already. The involvement of these children in the reforestation program would also ensure that their school would continue to fly the Ecological banner with pride.


   

Above left: After work, a drip in the river—no swimsuits necessary

Middle: The team heads home. All the tools purchased for the project were donated to the school

Above right: The children proudly hold up the Codeforsa sign announcing

the contract with the Costa Rican government to preserve the rainforest.

 

On a typical day, saplings were planted from morning until about 2:00 PM. Then the workers would begin winding down the day’s rhythm and heading home, just before the great mass of the dark, black clouds pregnant with water would begin rolling up from the horizon. The sky would be streaked with hundreds of lightning bolts, some very small, dancing up above amid the dark clouds, some very big and powerful, ruthlessly slashing the sky in pieces and zigzagging its way to the earth in a blinding blaze of light. This would be followed by booming thunder so loud and so near that you would be covering your ears in a reflex action and closing your eyes tight. Given the chance, you would also run for the nearest shelter so that your skin would not become black and blue from the rain that would follow, pelting down so heavily that if caught in one of these rain storms you would not be able to hear a word anyone spoke to you, and you would not be able to see beyond a few inches. Add the power of strong wind and in just a few minutes of exposure you would be drenched to your very bones.

A cedar sapling is planted by one of the children

 

Apparently, our dear saplings needed this very rain. After getting drenched and quenched, they would stand upright the next day, happily swaying in the gentle morning breeze. Were it not for this daily deluge of rain that we could depend upon, can you imagine watering all these saplings every day with a watering can or a hose, or installing any other irrigation system?

“You have picked a good time to plant, just after the dark moon, and right when the rainy season is on,” said the patriarch Vin Palos from atop his horse. He was on one of his inspection tours of the reforestation project, riding along the contours of the land on his gentle horse. He would often just casually come by to see about the progress of the work and offer tips as per need. All the men in the team respected the old man and his vast knowledge about the land and the trees.

In about four weeks all the saplings were planted, and the team moved on to other areas for preparing and marking the land for further planting, cleaning up after themselves, weeding, maintaining inspection trails, and locating and diverting the colonies of leaf cutter ants. We did not want these critters anywhere near our newly reforested sites, but it seems that they are regular inhabitants of the rain forest and help keep the forest from overgrowth and crowding. At first glance what they do to the trees (chopping up the leaves, carrying the pieces in a procession into their nest that rises a few feet above ground, and feeding these bits to the fungus that is their actual food) appears to be rather cruel. The leafless trees eventually die and fall down, becoming natural compost and a habitat for many epiphytes and saprophytes, all within a matter of a few weeks—so fast is the tropical rainforest ecosystem in recycling its waste.

One particular weekend, we went over to see the newly planted saplings. Ehud and Mahar rode on their horses, but I decide to walk a marathon. The saplings looked vibrant, healthy, upright, and with new leaf buds beginning to appear.

Mahar and Ehud ride out to view the reforestation

 

Ehud, who had just lost his beloved father (to nothing more serious than plain old age; he had lived a great life for 87 years), was totally at home here among all this new life. “Creation is the spiritual content of life. We have just facilitated this creation to unfold within our sight,” he said gazing adoringly at a tiny sapling that was standing tall and proud. “And think of all the diversity.”

Yes, we had brought in 56 different species of hardwood, fruit, flower, and timber trees native to the local rain forest that lay just beyond our farm. We were counting on the birds and animals to bring in the other species as the result of their roaming the rain forest foraging for fruits and seeds and then dropping off the end product of their digestion somewhere on the land. Unhurt by the process of digestion, these seeds will germinate, and in due course a very interesting mix of vegetation could be growing, bringing forth a level diversity that is impossible for humans to achieve in their efforts at reforestation.

Ehud continued to confide his thoughts to me: “In this biodiversity, the spiritual content of original creation resides. It is through the vibrant exchange of differences that the creation upholds. Whether in a tiny, intracellular mitochondria or in the morphogenic field.”

Ehud returns home just before a torrential downpour

 

I felt very privileged to hear Ehud speak thus. He had been so busy working with his team that he barely spoke, and I had almost forgotten that he was a book publisher first and last. For days on end he had left home early in the morning, mingled with his team, dabbled in Spanglish, and dug the earth and planted the saplings. In the evenings, just before those famous downpours, he would come home, his clothing, hands, and face caked with clay, his shirt—damp with sweat—clinging to his body, his skin sporting a deep rich tan, competing with my own very brown color that I got from the continuous baking of all my ancestors and myself in the ever-present sunshine in India, the country of my birth. In the evenings Mahar would nurse his Papa’s many bites, stings, cuts, and bruises from working in the fields. In this process, Mahar almost memorized the inventory of an entire first-aid kit and taught himself all about various bandages—their size and application details—and learned about the healing properties of many lotions and creams.

Watching Ehud in such focused and deep contact with soil and with plant life, we saw firsthand that working with hands in the dirt and dealing with plants is deeply meditative, calming, and healing—a spiritual exercise for the entire being that was not lost on Mahar and myself.

After all, what are we but for our connection to the soil? We stand on it. We live off the bounty from its dirt, drink the water from deep in its womb, and when we move on—leaving our body behind—our body is invariably absorbed back into the soil. It is clear why Vedic seers and wise men and women from all ancient cultures around the world have called the earth—her soil, water, air, animals, and vegetation included—“The Mother.”

As the time for our departure back to the United States was coming near, our work crew began preparing several other sites for reforestation for when we would next return to Costa Rica. They also began offering ideas about orchards, about other tree species that they knew of, and most important, about yet another farm nearby that we could reforest. They were now completely into reforestation. It had now become their project, their pride, and their work.“We will work with you again anytime,” said the crew as we parted company. “We will have our orchards back.” Some of them remembered their indigenous past clearly and recalled that before there was clear-cutting and monoculture the rain forest could offer them all that they needed—fruits and nuts from the many trees, small animals that they could trap, and fish they could catch for their food. They had grown up without packaged food from supermarkets and without the perils of industrial agriculture and grazing. They had lived in peace and harmony with the rain forest.

Vatsala embracing a guanacaste tree that she planted the year before. It started out as a sapling no more than 6 inches high.

The guancaste tree is the symbol of the Province of Guancaste, home of the Hacienda Rio Coté Project.

 

Yes, indeed. Reforestation can go on and on—in many ways it might not seem evident at first glance: it can help the local population prosper, provide ways and means for harvesting wood without clear-cutting the forest, teach young children about the trees and the bees and the cycle of life, give employment to members of the community, give a home for the flora and fauna of the rain forest, and help us feel a deeply committed and spiritual relationship with the earth and with her beautiful children—the trees and the animals.

And so goes the story of inviting the rain forest to extend its footprint we can almost see the saplings growing right before our eyes. The slow ones grow a meter per year, the fast ones an astonishing four meters in the same time.

Nestled in the serene lap of the dormant volcano Tenorio, Rio Coté River and National Rain Forest Preserve, and Lake Coté on one side and the great Lake Nicaragua on the other, our farm has been opened up to receive the rain forest. With our Tico friends we have humbly asked the trees to come and live and grow so that with each tree the rain forest will grow, too—and nurture the tiny speck of humanity that lives nearby.

The Hacienda Rio Coté Project is funded, supported, and administered by Inner Traditions • Bear & Company. 


 

First Planting (August 2007):

Trees purchased from Codeforsa Nursery

Almandero; Elan Elan; Cedar Amargo; Cortesa Amarillo; Pino; Danto Amarillo; Llama el Bosque; Cocoa; Pilon; Poro; Cebo; Cocbola; Camibar; Cacha; Sopa Caballo; Cirraca; Guanacaste; Eucalyptus; Roble Sabana

Trees purchased from La Reserva Nursery

Burio – Hampea appendiculata (Doll’s Eyes); Cacao – Theobroma Cacao (Chocolate); Ceiba – Ceiba Pantandra (Kapok Tree); Chanco Blanco – Vochysia Guatemalensis; Cirri – Guatteria Tonduzii; Cirri Amarillo; Danto Espino o Amarillo-Sideroxylon Capiri (Tempisque); Escobillo; Gavilan – Pentaclethra Macroloba (Pentaclethra); Gavilancillo – Fabaceae/Mimosoidae – Pentaclethra; Guaba – Inga Golmanii (Guaba Amarillo); Guajiniquil – Inga; Guanacaste – Enterolobium Cyclocarpum; Guarumo – Cecropia; Hojancha – Cleidion Castaneifolium; Huevos de Caballo-Stemmadenia donnel-smithii (Bijarro); Jelinjoche – Pachira Aquatica (Provision Tree); Lagartillo; Laurel – Cordia Alliodora; Muneco – Cordia Erostigma; Murta; Ojoche – Brosimum (Breadnut); Pavillo; Uruca – Trichilia Havanensis; Vainillo – Tecoma Stans (Yellow Elder); Yos – Sapium Allenii; Zorillo

Second Planting (September 2008):

Trees from Ice Nursery

Cedio Amargo; Roble Sabana; Corteza Morado; Laurel; Cocobolo; Sota Caballo; Caua Fistula; Guanacaste; Guanacaste Blanco; Ceuizauo; Caoba; Lorito


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