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The lower basin of the Tempisque River, in northwestern Costa Rica, is the area with the highest concentration of wetlands in the Pacific plain of Central America, with more than 100,000 hectares of swamps, marshes and mangroves. To the disappointment of many environmentalists, it is also one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country, generating almost all of the melon production, half of the sugar cane, and a third of the rice produced in Costa Rica.
To convert a floodplain into agricultural land, engineers built more than 30 kilometers of levees on the riverbanks and dredged more than 20 kilometers of riverbeds in the area. These works, in addition to contamination by agrochemicals, have resulted in the disappearance of more than 35% of the wetlands and more than 60% of the riverine forests in the region, according to data from the Organization for Tropical Studies (OET), a consortium from universities in the United States and Latin America. In order to reduce this damage and prevent further, the OET has joined forces with various national and international organizations to improve the management of the lower basin of the Tempisque River, generate scientific information for decision-making, promote sustainable agriculture and restore the ecosystems.
The Initiative for the Management of the Lower Tempisque River Basin has the financial support of the Costa Rica-United States Foundation for Cooperation, the Avina Foundation, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited Inc. the project national organizations such as the University of Costa Rica, the National University, the Technological Institute of Costa Rica, the Tropical Scientific Center, the National Institute of Learning, the National Service of Water, Irrigation and Drainage and the National System of Conservation Areas . The OET plays the role of facilitator and scientific advisor for these institutions and organizations present in the area.
"We intend to lay the foundations and obtain the basic information to define the wetlands that exist in the Tempisque River basin and, above all, show their ecological value and, to a certain extent, their ecological-financial value," says Eugenio González, co-coordinator of the project for the OET.
The project integrates the construction of a geographic information system based on biophysical-environmental, social and economic data in the area; the training of local governments and small and medium producers in sustainable agriculture; monitoring of water quality; and wetland restoration. González points out that the lower basin of the Tempisque River has been so altered that it is likely that it will not have the same conditions that it had before the great agro-industrial development of the region.
He hopes, however, that the studies will make it possible to define the guidelines for recognizing the environmental services generated by wetlands, such as the management of discharge waters to rice fields. "The quality of the waters depends, without a doubt, on the quality of the ecosystem, "says Marco Solano, coordinator of the National Wetlands Program of the Ministry of the Environment.
According to Solano, the wetlands of the lower basin of the Tempisque River are unique, among other things, for the number of birds they host. However, the drainage of wetlands and intensive irrigation for crops are causing the loss of water levels in the river and affecting wildlife. Many of the sites that were once wetlands have lost both their biological functions, as well as the benefits of aquifer recharge, water purification, protection of wildlife and generation of wood and natural fibers.
That is why one of the greatest efforts being carried out in the area is the restoration of wetlands, according to González, who is also the director of the Palo Verde Biological Station, administered by the OET. The Palo Verde National Park, which protects a part of the Tempisque basin, encompasses its main wetlands. González affirms that these wetlands are not only the most important site in Central America for migratory birds, but also the place with the greatest advance in research, management and conservation of wetlands at the tropical level. The Park, together with other protected areas in the area that harbor wetlands, constitutes a Ramsar Site or wetland of international importance.
Thanks to the joint work of the Ministry of the Environment, the Technological Institute of Costa Rica and the OET, in Palo Verde natural flows are being restored, a fact that, according to OET counts, has allowed the return of more resident and migratory birds each year. year since 1999. The last count, carried out in January 2003, showed the presence of 20 species of waterfowl, some with several thousand individuals.
"Palo Verde has been a whole school, both national and international, to handle problems with wetlands," says Solano.
The communities near the Tempisque have had a share of these problems. César Gutiérrez, associate and founder of the Association for the Lower Tempisque River Basin, says that the communities of Ortega and Bolsón have been affected by the erection of dams for the sugar cane irrigation system, which has altered the channels at various sites in the basin. The area suffers from floods during the winter, but also suffers from extreme drought situations in the summer.
Together with other affected communities and technical advice from organizations such as the National University, these residents of Ortega and Bolsón decided to carry out control actions to keep the water in the dry period. For example, they built locks in the summer to keep the water levels in and protected the parts where the water leaked a lot.
"Restoration for us has to do with the real participation of the people and not just doing works for works. We must involve the communities," says Gutiérrez. The result is that their problems of floods and droughts have been minimized and they have a highly valuable tourist resource that they are beginning to take advantage of. Now, more waterfowl are present at the site, including the jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) and the white ibis (Eudocimus albus).
Beyond the restoration of wetlands, the initiative seeks to integrate agriculture with the environment, which, according to González, is the most difficult part. Hundreds of tons of rich alluvial soil have been lost from agricultural plots due to poor soil and water resource management. Hence, an important component of the project is the training of small and medium farmers in techniques for the use and management of water and soils. Thanks to the technical support of the National Institute of Learning (INA), some producers have developed novel production experiences, such as the production of organic rice, the installation of a biofactory for the production of pathogenic fungi to be used instead of chemical pesticides, and the production of paper articles from cattail (Typhadominguensis), the same plant that affected the water bodies in Palo Verde and which is being eradicated as part of the restoration of the wetland.
According to González, within five years it is planned to have a base document for the authorities of the region, which will serve for decision-making. In this way, the most important wetlands of the Mesoamerican Pacific will still have a chance to survive.