Central America is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, where significant amounts of biodiversity is under threat. At the front line of this threat is deforestation. Deforestation destroys habitats which in turn can lead to extinctions, while on a global level deforestation contributes to climate change. Trees also have an important function in moderating water flow and holding soil together in mountainous areas, and deforestation can result in soil erosion, landslides and floods.
One project I recently volunteered with that is trying to reverse the destruction caused by deforestation is Cloudbridge Nature Reserve, a donor supported private nature reserve in Costa Rica. Located on the slopes of Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó, Cloudbridge fills a gap between two large cloud forests, and the reserve is dedicated to reforesting this gap. Cloudbridge also monitors and researches its reforestation efforts, and research has shown that reforestation at Cloudbridge has improved soil quality, stabilized soil to prevent erosion, and brought back habitats for native wildlife.
Reforestation of native forests
The concept of Cloudbridge was born in 2001 when South African couple Ian and Genevieve Giddy hiked Cerro Chirripó. They were shocked by how deforested the mountains surrounding the national park had become due to cattle farming. They decided to buy some of the land in order to reverse the deforestation, and in 2002 Cloudbridge Nature Reserve was founded. Since then a total of 255 hectares of cattle pasture and 28 hectares of primary forest have been purchased and added to the reserve.
The initial plan was to let the forest grow back naturally over time. However, soon it was clear that this would take a very long time, and Cloudbridge started actively planting trees instead. In the beginning whole mountainsides were planted simultaneously which led to weeds and grasses overtaking the young trees, but over the years the planting techniques and subsequent tree care have evolved and the rate of survival has become high.
The tree-planting process starts with the collection of seeds from the forest. Only native trees are selected and common trees include oak, elm, fig and magnolia. These seeds are propagated in a tree nursery and later transplanted into bags. After six months to two years, depending on the tree, the bagged seedlings are taken to the forest and planted. Before planting the site is cleared of weeds and grasses. The ground around the planted seedling is covered with cardboard, which helps retain soil moisture and reduce weed growth. Some trees can also be planted directly from stakes by cutting and planting tree branches.
Over 50,000 trees have been planted so far, and the planted trees are monitored and maintained to ensure high rates of survival. Young trees they are regularly weeded, and weeding is done less and less as the tree grows stronger. After 15 years of reforestation, natural forest ecosystems are returning to the mountainsides, and the trees are now starting to spread on their own as well.
Research on conservation efforts
Today the vast majority of the reserve has already been reforested, and the focus has shifted more towards research. Cloudbridge hosts international research interns and independent researchers who study different aspects of the reserve. As the forests have returned, so has the wildlife, and one main reason behind the research is to see how the reforestation is benefiting the ecosystem. The aim is to contribute to the wider scientific knowledge of cloud forest reforestation, and topics studied include forestry, biology, ecology, geology, climatology and sociology.
The forests at Cloudbridge are cloud forests, which means that moisture comes primarily from clouds that drift through the valley. Newly planted and old growth forests at different altitudes provide a variety of habitats for different species of plants and animals. Camera traps have shown that all of Costa Rica’s six cat species, including the jaguar and puma, have returned to the reforested reserve. Other wildlife found at Cloudbridge includes tapirs, spider and capuchin monkeys, a variety of snakes and lizards and countless insects. The reserve is also home to almost 300 species of birds – including many endemic birds that are found in no other region of the world – and regular bird surveys are one of the ongoing research projects done by visiting interns.
Tourism and education at Cloudbridge
One of the goals of Cloudbridge is to make others understand the importance of forests and environmental conservation. For this reason Cloudbridge educates visiting school groups, and there are even virtual tours and classes for groups that can’t visit the reserve itself. Cloudbridge is also open to tourists who are asked to give a donation that supports the reserve’s reforestation, conservation, research and education efforts. Most visitors only come for the day and hike one of the trails, but there are also cabins available to those who wish to stay longer.
At the same time Cloudbridge is making efforts to reduce its carbon footprint in other ways. The reserve runs on renewable energy from a micro-hydro system and solar panels. Food waste is composted and used to improve soil quality, and Cloudbridge also assist in the recycling program in the town of San Gerardo de Rivas. Cloudbridge also assists locals in reforestation efforts. Through this work Cloudbridge hopes to serve as a role model that shows how to live in an environmentally responsible way that helps conserve the cloud forests of Costa Rica and Central America.