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Using ‘Nature as an Asset’ to Balance Costa Rica’s Farming With Preservation

June 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of the NewsHour's series "Food for 9 Billion," special correspondent Sam Eaton reports on a push in Costa Rica to embrace forest preservation and biodiversity while keeping up with the demand for farming. Researchers are measuring the helpful roles of small animals like bats, birds and bees.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we kick off a weeklong series on food and how climate change is affecting what we produce and how we eat.

Tonight, special correspondent Sam Eaton reports on new efforts to preserve forests while keeping up with the demand for farming in Costa Rica.

It’s part of our series “Food for 9 Billion,” in partnership with Public Radio International’s “The World,” Homelands Productions, American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

SAM EATON: This is a typical farm in Costa Rica, about 10 acres of coffee mixed with more than a dozen food crops, like corn, beans and bananas.

But when 65-year-old farmer Ademar Serrano Abarca purchased this land a decade ago, it was with the idea of doing things differently. Instead of clearing all the trees, a common practice in tropical agriculture, he set aside more than a quarter of it, letting the forest regenerate.

ADEMAR SERRANO ABARCA, Costa Rica: Not all of us share these same ideas. Other farmers don’t have this. They have lost it. But, for me, it’s a gain. Everything you see here is a gain for me.

SAM EATON: Worldwide, agriculture represents a huge threat to the planets remaining natural areas. Costa Rica is trying to preserve what nature it has left. It’s one of the first countries to compensate farmers like Abarca for leaving part of their land out of production.

The minister of agriculture, Gloria Abraham Peralta, says policies like this have allowed Costa Rica to go from having one of the fastest rates of deforestation on the planet to today boasting around 50 percent forest cover.

MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE GLORIA ABRAHAM PERALTA, Costa Rica: It’s a commitment to the future, not by the big companies or the big farms, but by the small farmers, who know that their future depends on how they care for their farms and their ability to adapt. The future generation’s food supply also depends on that. I think that we as a country can be a good public example at an international level of what can be done.

SAM EATON: Those federal incentives sweeten the pot for small farmers like Abarca. But the benefits of fostering biodiversity on the farm don’t stop there. Scientists at the nearby Las Cruces Biological Station have been researching how farmers like Abarca are gaining from the services nature provides.

GRETCHEN DAILY, Director, Stanford University Center for Conservation Biology: Land is an asset that provides all kinds of things that we need, not just food.

SAM EATON: Gretchen Daily directs Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology.

GRETCHEN DAILY: So, the land is producing about 15 food types for people here. Then, on top of that, there’s birds providing pest control services. The vast majority of pests on crops are controlled naturally by birds, by wasps, by bats, and other things.

SAM EATON: In the past, farms were generally considered to be ecological deserts, completely barren of the rich biodiversity that exists on nature preserves.

But, as scientists study more and more small farms like this one, with its mix of trees and coffee, trees and food crops, they’re finding that an incredible amount of biodiversity can coexist with food production.

It’s early morning, and Daily’s team is stringing out mist nets in Abarca’s coffee fields. So far, they have captured more than a hundred different species of birds on these farms and forest fragments. It’s part of a project to quantify their value in dollars. Each bird, like this Rufous-capped Warbler, plays a specific role. And that role corresponds to an economic benefit to the farmer.

MAN: Some of these birds that we’re capturing, we have records that go back about 14 years.

GRETCHEN DAILY: So, what we’re trying to find out is how many insects do they eat. If you have this little bit of tree cover here, how many Warblers will you have, and how much of a boost will the Warblers give to the coffee farmers? This one eats the biggest and most worrying pest on coffee. We found in its droppings a lot of those little bugs that are really destroying the coffee. So it adds a huge boost to the income of farmers.

SAM EATON: Daily and the team have been tracking the income potential of every insect-eater and pollinator on these farms. It’s a 24-hour job. These bats run the night shift, consuming pests, carrying pollen and scattering seeds until dawn.

GRETCHEN DAILY: Each night, they can consume about their body weight worth of insect flesh, mosquitoes and other kinds of pests that the farmers don’t want.

SAM EATON: But it’s nature’s smallest pollinators who have so far brought the biggest gains. In a study Daily ran on nearby coffee farms, she documented how forests next to the farms and the hundreds of species of native bees that inhabit them are a boon to coffee production, with the bees leaving the forest and spreading pollen from plant to plant for that one week of the year that the coffee plants bloom.

GRETCHEN DAILY: So you need to have forests integrated into the coffee farm right next to where the farmers are working, and the bees then fly out, and they’re workers, just like the people are. On the one farm where we worked, we have measured the value of that, and it boosts yield by about 20 percent, and that led to an income boost of about $60,000 dollars per year, which really put those farmers into a good economic position.

SAM EATON: And it’s not just small farms that stand to gain from biodiversity. Costa Rica is the largest pineapple producer in the world, but a vast monocrop like this is extremely vulnerable to costly pest infestations, which are becoming more severe with climate change. Most farms use huge amounts of pesticides to control the outbreaks.

But this farm is using trees instead, offering a window into how even large-scale industrial agriculture can benefit from working with nature, rather than against it.

Jennifer Monge manages the B Jimenez farm in northern Costa Rica. She says keeping half the land in forest provides a natural pest barrier, as well as creating a cooler microclimate, which protects the pineapples from damaging heat waves and drought.

JENNIFER MONGE, Manager, B Jimenez Farm: So we have been able to increase our yield without touching the forest. We have increased our efficiency in managing pests, and we have increased our overall productivity without increasing our work force.

SAM EATON: Yields on this pineapple farm are higher than average and the farm is profitable.

Gretchen Daily says examples like these are proof that the model is scalable.

GRETCHEN DAILY: The idea in the past has been that to have really high yield, you have to blitz it clean and just plant a monoculture of pineapple or sugarcane or coffee or whatever it is.

But what we’re finding today is that, actually, you can sustain really high yield and pretty high biodiversity in these new really smart production systems that are economically attractive as well.

SAM EATON: With two-thirds of our crops worldwide depending on some form of pollination, Daily says more and more farms, large and small, will need to integrate nature, and, if they don’t, the drive to produce more food could wipe out our greatest asset for adapting to the challenges of the future.

GRETCHEN DAILY: And so the magic, I think, in the future to get us out of the crisis we face now, with all of these intense pressures on land, with us catapulting to nine billion people on the planet, diets shifting more towards meat, climate change unfolding in ways that we can’t really predict, and other things, the magic is going to come in figuring out how to value nature in our decisions, how to see nature as an asset, a natural asset that can be the engine of human development in the coming century.

SAM EATON: Perhaps a good place to start, she says, is by seeing nature not as something separate from us, to be preserved and protected, but as an integral part of our daily lives, and, ultimately, of our survival as a species.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find links to our partners stories in the “Food for 9 Billion” series on our website. And, tomorrow, we will look at the struggle for water in booming Qatar.