We were hot, doused with sweat, and caked in mud. But when the last tree went into the ground, covered with newly dug earth, there was an exhilarating sense of satisfaction.
We had just planted 1,000 trees together with 142 students and faculty of Verto Education and our team of 16 volunteer leaders to restore forest connectivity in the Barbilla-Destierro Biological Subcorridor – Jaguar Route in the Pacuare River Basin. The reforestation on Nov. 11 of all native forest species will renew the habitat for endangered wildlife, generate oxygen, and reduce the carbon footprint of the students’ travel to Costa Rica.
“We are working to connect the biological corridor in the Pacuare River Basin, which is a vital path for wildlife like jaguars, ocelots, peccaries, deer, and Great Green Macaws. Presently, it is very patchy in parts with a lot of open spaces. We want to increase forest coverage for a healthier ecosystem,” said Roberto Gallo, Board President and Executive Director of Projects and Operations for the Rivers and Forests Alliance (RAFA).
The project was made possible by the U.S. organization Verto Education, which offers first-year university students study abroad programs. In Costa Rica, the students are based at CATIE (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center), located in Turrialba – the gateway to the Pacuare River region. CATIE also partnered by donating 700 trees and assisting with transportation to the event. The Costa Rican electrical company ICE (its Spanish acronym) contributed 250 trees; the remainder came from RAFA’s own nursery.
Inspired by the Pacuare
Verto Education environmental history professor Dylan Stiegemeier initiated and led the reforestation project with a core group of Verto faculty and staff. He was inspired by an overnight rafting trip on the Pacuare River during the 2021 fall semester with Verto Education students.
“We stayed at Rios Lodge, and throughout the trip, the story of Rafa Gallo and the reverence with which the river guides told his story was the seed that planted the idea. I started doing research and was introduced to the Rivers and Forests Alliance (RAFA) and an amazing story of a lifetime of conservation and action by Rafa Gallo. I knew I wanted to put together a big conservation experiential learning project for this fall 2022 semester,” explained Dylan.
An environmental education lecture series was held at CATIE on Oct. 25 to give students a deeper understanding of the significance of planting trees and restoring the biological corridor. CATIE General Director Dr. Muhammad Ibrahim lectured about CATIE’s role in creating sustainable food systems. Roberto Salom, Director of Panthera for Costa Rica and Mesoamerica, informed students about the importance of biological corridors for jaguars and other wild felines. And RAFA co-directors Roberto Gallo and Shannon Farley spoke about the history of conservation in the Pacuare River Basin.
A bountiful planting day
Starting early to take advantage of the bright sunny day, our RAFA team of volunteer leaders gathered on Nov. 11 at Terciopelo Farm in Bajo Tigre by the Pacuare River. We thank our passionate conservation friends for joining us from the Barbilla-Destierro Biological Subcorridor Committee, the Costa Rican National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), JACANA youth organization, Movimiento Pro Rios Costa Rica, Mariposas del Pacuare, the Cairo community water organization, Pacuare Outdoor Center, ICE, and Emergency Care Costa Rica.
When the Verto Education group arrived a little after 9:00 a.m., we were ready to plant trees! Students and faculty were divided into groups of 15 to 20 people, led by experienced RAFA volunteers, and assigned a sector of the 1.5-hectare (3.7 acres) pasture we were reforesting.
The 90-hectare (222-acre) Terciopelo Farm lies between the San Martin and Terciopelo tributaries to the Pacuare River. It is part of the Rios Tropicales Rainforest Reserve that Rafa Gallo began over three decades ago and has already been the site of several tree plantings. In 2008, a seven-hectare (17-acre) parcel was reforested, and more sections in 2013 and 2015. The new Verto Education Forest joins the 2008 forest and a five-hectare (12-acre) area planted with 5,000 trees in August 2016, making the Adventure Travel Trade Association World Summit carbon neutral.
“One of our goals at RAFA is carbon sequestration and offsetting carbon emissions for various activities. The trees planted with Verto Education will end up storing 335 tons of carbon, which helped offset almost all of Verto’s students’ flights one-way to Costa Rica. By reducing their carbon footprint, they are giving back to the community where they have lived for almost four months. Besides storing carbon, the trees provide clean oxygen to our world, which we need more than ever with the amount of global pollution and climate change,” said Roberto Gallo.
After several long, hot hours of digging holes and planting trees, the last sapling went into the ground, and the group stopped for a well-earned lunch. In the afternoon, we walked to the nearby butterfly garden Mariposas del Pacuare for environmental education talks about growing trees from seeds, butterflies, and endangered Great Green Macaws.
Saving Great Green Macaws
Among the 11 tree species planted – Ceiba, Cedro Amargo, Laurel, Espavel, Sota Caballo, Corteza Negro, Saino, Ormosia, Roble Sabana, and Manu Blanco – are Mountain Almond trees. This key species is planted in all RAFA reforestations to restore habitat for Great Green Macaws, IUCN Red Listed as Critically Endangered. Since October 2021, we’ve planted 431 Mountain Almond trees, which the Macaws rely on for feeding and nesting.
“My dad started planting mountain almond trees 30 years ago in his rainforest reserve. And during their migration every September, October, and part of November, Great Green Macaws can be seen and heard there. We’re doing our best to continue growing their habitat,” said Roberto Gallo.
Nurturing a new generation of environmental leaders
Overall, the event was a huge success, and we’re thrilled with the enthusiasm and passion of the students. These young people are going to make a big impact on the world.
“This has been such a wonderful experience … giving back to the ecosystem is the least we can do as humans. It’s a great reward to see all the trees planted on what used to be a blank piece of land. I can’t wait to come back in (a few) years and see what it becomes. Thank you to all who allowed this to be possible,” wrote student Marisabel Cavese on a comment card after the tree planting.
“We are very happy with the activity as it definitely connected the students with issues such as reforestation, climate change, and conservation. They got to experience firsthand the positive turn that we want to make in the world. It was a very emotional moment since they are also continuing the legacy of Rafael Gallo, founder of RAFA, that aims to protect the natural resources of the Turrialba area,” said Luis Quirós, CATIE – Verto Education liaison officer.
For Dylan Stiegemeier, the longevity of planting trees held the greatest meaning. “It was an amazingly powerful experience that I will carry with me my whole life. I am happy I could play a small part in RAFA’s mission in Costa Rica and conservation of the Pacuare watershed,” he said.
Roberto Gallo concluded, “The most significant thing about the day for me was the number of people who came out to participate. We had a much bigger group than was planned. And to see how engaged the students were and willing to give their time to plant trees was fantastic. They enjoyed being there, getting muddy, planting trees, and doing hard work. They always had big smiles throughout the day, even under the hot sun, while shoveling out tons of dirt. They were making a difference for the environment, but it was just as important that they had fun doing it.”