Environmental Almanac

Field Expedition to Costa Rica Provides Students Rich Opportunities

 Anibal Torres explains how coffee is grown on a conventional plantation

Anibal Torres explains how coffee is grown on a conventional plantation Rob Kanter

Over the recent spring break, I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with a colleague and a class of 21 U of I undergraduates. Our mission: experience how the concepts students explore as majors in Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability play out in a nation that occupies only about 35 percent of the land area of Illinois.

In one class meeting prior to the trip, we had learned about coral reefs from graduate students working under UI professor Bruce Fouke: the complexity of coral organisms, the diversity of life reefs support, their sensitivity to changing conditions (especially the acidification taking place as oceans absorb the increasing amounts of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere) and more.

On the Caribbean coast at Cahuita, we spent a morning snorkeling to observe a living reef. Seeing a stingray close up was a highlight for many in the group, but even those of us who missed that enjoyed the opportunity to look upon living coral and swim among tropical fish sporting a wide range of vibrant colors. 

Before the trip we got a crash course (with Powerpoint) in the geology of Central America from SESE director and professor of geology Steve Marshak. Through that we learned how the isthmus connecting the north and south of the New World arose, and why it’s the site of so much volcanic activity.

Oldemar Salazar fields a student question about growing coffee sustainably at his organic and shade-grown farm

Rob Kanter

In Costa Rica, we hiked a flank of Arenal volcano, the best known of the country’s six active volcanoes, and the one that’s been the most trouble since a massive, surprise eruption in 1968. On Arenal, our local guide provided detailed accounts of the volcano’s eruptions, gesturing toward relevant parts of the mountainside with a stick, which he also used to draw very effective diagrams in the sandy soil at our feet.

And then there were the coffee plantations. We saw first a conventional operation, which bore one sort of beauty. It was “clean” in the way a typical cornfield in Illinois is—straight, evenly spaced rows with little growing other than the crop that yields direct economic benefit.

Later the same day, we visited a place where “shade grown” coffee comes from, and we experienced beauty of a different sort altogether. The pleasingly complex scene there included coffee bushes, of course, but also various bananas, oranges and other fruits, as well as native overstory trees. Surrounded by the diversity of life in that environment, it was easy for me to understand why the farmer (our guide) responded “a day picking coffee” when a student asked what part of his work was most satisfying.

Beyond our field experiences in Costa Rica, we were also treated to classroom time with some amazing people.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of our trip was the opportunity to sit with Marvin Rockwell and hear him tell the story of how four Alabama members of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers) established a settlement at Monteverde in the early 1950s. That settlement has benefited conservation in Costa Rica and the wider world in innumerable ways, and Rockwell, now 91, was one of the people who went to incredible lengths to make it happen.
Credit for the success of this trip goes to my colleague in the School of Earth, Society and Environment, Anna Nesbitt, who collaborated with Anibal Torres from the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica to put it together. Our students and I owe them both a great debt of gratitude.