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Making Mangrove Pay

Aerial photography -- along with GIS data, government records and meetings with locals -- helped UVM researcher Azur Moulaert and his collaborators value the ecosystem services provided by Costa Rica's Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands at $302 million to $1.9 billion. (Photo courtesy of ECOTICOS)

On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the Osa Peninsula sticks out like a gigantic thumb pointing down toward Panama. Inside this thumb live pumas and scarlet macaws, harpy eagles and jaguars. Sail north from this rainforest a few miles and you’ll arrive at the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands, the largest mangrove forest in Central America. Here eight species of mangrove trees — like wooden rope-work tying together a maze of swamps and rivers — stretch over some 66,000 acres.

“It’s one of Costa Rica’s best preserved wilderness areas,” says the University of Vermont’s Azur Moulaert. A place of nearly inaccessible beauty, it also provides at least $300 million each year in value, he says, “and maybe a billion or more,” in the form of ecosystem services like hurricane protection, commercial mussel habitat, clean water, healthy fisheries, tourist-attracting birds and carbon sequestration.

But not all is peachy in paradise. The national government has been pushing to build an international airport on the Osa Peninsula. A large hydroelectric station has been proposed that would dam the river that feeds the wetlands. The Pan-American Highway draws closer.

Moulaert spreads a large map across his desk and points to the Térraba-Sierpe wetlands. “Here, there is no real estate development. This is pristine mangrove,” he says. But if you travel up the coast, as Moulaert, a citizen of Costa Rica, has often done, you’ll see what could be coming: high-rise hotels, billboards for American real estate firms, and sprawling golf resorts with fleets of gleaming yachts. Moulaert moves his finger a little way north. “Here, it’s like being in Miami.”

Since August 2008, Moulaert — a researcher in the department of Community Development and Applied Economics and a fellow in UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics — has been leading an international project, ECOTICOS, that aims to keep the wetland working, while supporting the economic and conservation goals of local people. It seems to be succeeding.

Imperative to try

Named after the Térraba and Sierpe rivers that flow through it, the wetland is one of seventeen conservation areas on the Osa peninsula, established by the national government of Costa Rica in 1994.

Indeed Costa Rica is known as a “green democracy” with a very high level of conservation, recognized as one of the happiest and most sustainable countries in the world. Only twice as big as Vermont, its 12,000-foot peaks and rugged terrain, plus its bottleneck location between two continents, make it home to 6 percent of the world’s plant and animal species.

But the economic logic of conventional development — like the proposed airport to bring in two thousand tourists daily, and a dam to produce a thousand megawatts of exportable electricity — seems compelling to many. Unemployment is high in the Osa region. And as Moulaert notes “large-scale, foreign, direct investment is favored by government authorities to promote development in rural areas close to protected areas.”

So how do you weigh an airport against the goods and services provided for free by nature? What is the value of large-scale industrial development compared to more diffuse economic activity like traditional mussel harvests, or plans for small-scale businesses by local entrepreneurs? What happens to the eco-tourists if swamps dry up and birds fade away? What is the global value of the tons of carbon stored in the mangrove? And why should local job-seekers or officials care?

“In a complex ecological economic system, it is extremely difficult to answer such questions and impossible to answer them definitively,” Moulaert notes, “yet it is imperative to try.”

Which is what the ECOTICOS project did from 2008–2010 with funding from the Bluemoon Fund to take a close look at the Térraba-Sierpe and put at least rough pricetags on its many ecosystem goods and services.

“The place is under pressure from resort developers, the spring break crowd, and the traditional mountain people that consider this to be useless swamps,” he says. “Anticipating this pressure, our team said: let’s see what has happened here in the last hundred years of land use change” — and paint a portrait of its current worth.

To do this, Moulaert and many others spent weeks slogging through the mangrove swamps, flying over the region taking aerial photographs (thanks to flights provided by non-profit Lighthawk), poring over GIS data from satellites, taking water samples, gathering records in decaying government files, and talking to more than a thousand people in the region.

The data was analyzed using leading techniques for placing a value on ecosystem services — many developed at UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and by one of the ECOTICOS partners, Earth Economics. The result was the most comprehensive database of habitat, water quality, and fisheries ever created for the area — and an estimated value of the ecosystem services of the wetland between $302 million and $1.9 billion annually. The numbers stunned local officials.

“When the developers come in and say ‘we’re going to do a hundred million dollar project,’” Moulaert says, “our work says that the mangrove produces five hundred million worth of ecosystem services a year.” And that kind of hard-nosed information led to the ECOTICOS project’s biggest success: the adoption of a legally binding management plan for the Térraba-Sierpe wetlands by the regional conservation council last year.

“This is the first ever for the region,” says Moulaert, “there has never been a management plan for any of these protected areas.” Which in many ways means they weren’t protected at all from dramatic changes within their boundaries or surrounding lands.

Let the people choose

ECOTICOS stands for “Education, Communication, Technical, Institutional and Conceptual Solutions,” and it’s a play on words in Spanish. “‘Tico’ is what we Costa Ricans call ourselves,” says Moulaert, “and then add ‘eco.’”

And the ECOTICOS team included both “ticos” and “ecos” across international borders including Gund Institute economist Joshua Farley and other UVM researchers; the Costa Rican conservation organization Fundacion Neotropica led by local expert Bernardo Aguilar, Moulaert’s key counterpart; Eduard Muller from the Escuela Latinoamericana de Areas Protegidas; the University for International Cooperation; the University of Costa Rica; Earth Economics, a U.S.-based analysis group with close ties to UVM’s Gund Institute; CeNAT, the Costa Rican analog to NASA; Florida Institute of Technology and others. This breadth contributed to their success.

 “This is the first time that a coalition of this magnitude has been behind a legislative platform to protect one of the most biodiverse regions in the world,” says Moulaert.

But to get this legislative success, the team did more than just tally up ecosystem services. They got enormous local buy-in on what to do with this information. “The management plan was written from the bottom-up,” says Moulaert, using a so-called “multi-criteria analysis.”

This work — something akin to a series of Vermont town meetings plus internet survey — involved placing six of the most plausible development scenarios for the region — do nothing, build the airport, build the powerplant with a land use plan, etc. — in front of many local people and regional leaders, with attached costs and benefits. And then let them choose their own future.

“With that data we went to regional council and said, ‘your constituents want a management plan,’” says Moulaert, that prevents massive developments, — “no airport, no megaport, no resort,” he says — protects the mangrove and its headwaters, and supports local small-scale business development.

Model of management

“We ended up achieving several things,” Fundacion Neotropica’s Bernardo Aguilar said on a visit to UVM last week to discuss how the ECOTICOS project might serve as a model for future conservation planning in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Central America, “an impressive amount of baseline data, a good awareness campaign for this wetland and a policy result.”

Aguilar and Moelaert and some of their partners are about to begin a follow-up project funded by the European Union. “It’s a continuation of ECOTICOS,” Aguilar said, using the project, its methods, and lessons as a case study for a larger effort “to systematize this kind of work.”