Alexandre Borges' Diary


Tuesday, March 4, 2008 Monday, March 31, 2008
Thursday, May 8, 2008 Friday, July 25, 2008
Saturday, July 26, 2008 Sunday, July 27, 2008
Monday, July 28, 2008 Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Wednesday, July 30, 2008 Thursday, July 31, 2008
Friday, August 1, 2008 Saturday, August 2, 2008
Sunday, August 3, 2008 Monday, August 4, 2008
Tuesday, August 5, 2008 Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Thursday, August 7, 2008 Friday, August 8, 2008
Saturday, August 9, 2008 Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 I’m very proud to have been selected to participate in the Earthwatch fellowship program, especially as it is a program fully supported by Alcoa.
 
My name is Alexandre de Almeida Borges (just Alexandre please!). I’m 27 years old and work for Alcoa’s Alumar Consortium in São Luís, Brazil, as a mechanical engineer for the industrial vehicles department.
 
I joined Alcoa in 2006 in that very department. I work with 180 other department employees on maintenance, operations, and projects involving approximately 250 industrial vehicles. In my position, I’m responsible for keeping up both equipment availability and crew morale for connecting the metal production and all related services in Alumar.
 
I’m married to Rosana and have a four-year-old son named João. Both are also part of this adventure I’m about to begin on Costa Rica’s sustainable coffee.
 
Last year, I was really on alert for the announcement that Earthwatch applications were being accepted, because I was so frustrated to have missed the 2006 deadline. When the chance arose, I filled in all the forms and described my job and part of my routine dedicated to environment, health, and safety at Alumar. At that time, I thought I could have been more incisive, although I was relaxed because I have never been good at earning prizes of any type.
 
Time passed, and soon it was Brazilian carnival. I had not checked my email for a couple of days during that holiday when I decided to take a look at my mailbox just before leaving for a carnival party. I was curious about an email entitled 2008 Alcoa Earthwatch Fellowship Program and then amazed when I first read “Congratulations!” Carnival was transformed into a celebration with my wife at home and later on together at a São Luís nightspot.
 
I have to say that I was really happy and incredulous that I was one of the 15 selected from the other 240 people who also applied to Alcoa’s Earthwatch program.
 
I hope you enjoy my diary!

Monday, March 31, 2008 I’m the kind of person who pays attention to the little details when it comes to traveling. Since day one after the Earthwatch announcement, I started to read about Costa Rica and the sustainable coffee project.
 
I also proceeded with the required health checkup by committing to Alumar’s yearly physical exam. With that in hand, I could have Alumar’s physician fill out the Earthwatch health form.
 
I next had to renew my passport. I scanned that plus the Earthwatch profile form and liability release and digitally submitted them to Earthwatch. I believe I’ll have the travel details form soon once I send an international travel authorization request to my leadership in accord with our international travel policy. I hope I’ll have the paperwork finished soon.
 
Changing the subject, I’ll have to exercise to get in good shape, because back home we had a nice Easter with plenty of chocolate.
 
By the way, most of this year’s Earthwatch fellows participated in conference call with Alcoa’s environmental affairs staff and the Earthwatch staff to learn more about the program and how important it is for Alcoa. Some Alcoa employees who participated in prior years gave us interesting advice on behavior and rules so the experience goes smoothly. They said not to miss the physical condition points stated in our briefings and also to bring plenty of snacks while on the expedition because of the simple living conditions some of us will experience.

Thursday, May 8, 2008 Now I feel confident I’m participating in the Sustainable Coffee Earthwatch experience, because yesterday I bought my airline ticket.

As recommended, I’ll arrive in Costa Rica one day earlier. Unfortunately, the Alumar travel agency couldn’t reach the recommended Hotel 1915 , so I’m  staying at the Orquideas Inn. I’ll probably have an additional expense to get to Hotel 1915’s lobby before the meeting time.

As suggested, I’m following all the advice that can be found in our Earthwatch briefing document, which was sent to each participant. I bought Tasco 30X20 binoculars that are really small and comfortable to carry around. I also bought a headlight for walking around the ecolodge at night. We’re starting our days at 5:30 a.m. and coming back by 7 p.m. I believe I’ll feel adventurous, just like I did in South Africa and the countryside of Switzerland and France.

One more bit of advice that I’m addressing is the physical preparation. I enrolled in a gym last Tuesday because I couldn’t deal with all the rain we have been getting here in São Luís. All of a sudden, São Luís started to get rain just like in the early 1990s. That means half of the year it’s raining, and almost torrential every time.

As I have 30 days of vacation, I’ll arrange a week in Cuba and a week in Peru after my Earthwatch expedition.

I’d like to end by presenting a little bit more about São Luís, the place where I live in Brazil:
  • São Luís is the only Brazilian state capital founded by France, and it is one of the three Brazilian state capitals located on islands.
  • The city has seaports through which a substantial part of Brazil's iron ore, originating from the pre-Amazon region, is exported.
  • The city’s main industries are metallurgical, with Alumar and Vale do Rio Doce being two of the large companies in this industry.
  • São Luís is known for its tiles, in which most buildings in the historical center are covered. Because of it, the city is also known as “The Tiles City.”
  • Nowadays, São Luís has the largest and best preserved heritage of colonial Portuguese architecture in all of Latin America.
  • The island is known as the “Island of Love” and “Brazilian Athens” due to its many poets and writers.
  • In 1997, the city's historical center was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since 1989, there has been an extensive program to restore and renovate the colonial era buildings of the city’s historical center.
 
I was not born here, but it’s the place that I love and in which I earn my living. Please, feel invited to drop by.

Friday, July 25, 2008 I left São Luís for São Paulo so I could arrive early on the morning of July 26 to catch the plane to Costa Rica.
 
I had hoped to exchange reals (Brazil currency) for dollars or euros in São Paulo but could not due to the plane’s delay (I arrived after banking hours). That really got me wondering if I should have planned sooner on that matter.
 
I’m sure there are 24-hour automated teller machines (ATMs) in Guarulhos International Airport, but I’m crossing my fingers everything goes smoothly.

Saturday, July 26, 2008 The hotel was awesome. I even got an upgrade on my room.
 
I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to catch my flight and exchange currency. After getting to the airport, I went to get some euros because I will also be visiting Cuba and Peru later. It’s a funny time that we live in, because hotels would rather receive euros due to that currency’s stability.
 
It took me an hour to exchange money, because in Brazil, there is limit to the amount you can withdraw from an ATM. I made several attempts before getting the amount I wanted.
 
Because of that delay, I arrived at the airline’s check-in counter by 5:07 a.m. To my surprise, they had just closed the counter. A guy told me they close the counter one hour before a flight, so I would have to talk to the person in charge for her approval for my late check-in. I did, and the manager told me I would not get on the plane because they were closed for good.
 
Usually I’m not the kind that begs, but it was either that or arrive late in Costa Rica. I’m pretty sure that airline’s manager was not happy with what she was doing. As for me, I’m on vacation and have pardoned her.
 
The flight was delayed 40 minutes, which was enough time to get an expensive breakfast. Airport prices are skyrocketing!
 
Costa Rica, here I am.
 
My first impression was good. It was a nice, duty-free, wonderful airport lobby with attractive people. However, I had some difficulties withdrawing local money from the ATMs because they were offline.
 
I went straight to Hotel 1915—the hotel that my travel agency couldn’t reach to book a room for me. I’ve since discovered that you need to add a “2” before all Costa Rican phone numbers.
 
Hotel 1915 is the most beautiful building in Alajuela. The city is clean and organized, and there is something that reminds me of my grandmother’s city back in Brazil (south of Piaui).
 
To end the day, I went to a Mexican restaurant and had an enchilada con muito chili. When in Alajuela, I recommend going to Jalapenos Restaurant.

Sunday, July 27, 2008 Last night, I met Vivienne Talbot, my fellow Alcoan from Switzerland, and we scheduled something for today.

After a nice breakfast, we decided there wasn’t much to do in Alajuela or San Jose, meaning the best thing to do would be to go up to Poas volcano. For that, we hired a taxi driver, Julio, who was a nice person and also very talkative.

Julio took us the next 26 kilometers (16 miles) uphill on one of the most scenic roads next to Costa Rica’s towns. The weather was great, but we could see the clouds would soon roll in and spoil the trip.

Heading up, we made several stops where we had our first contact with coffee fruit and its seeds. We also had a chance to take pictures of flowers and the locals. Julio knew more about Brazilian soccer than I did and kept talking about Costa Rica’s rivals: Saprissa and Alajuela.

By the time we arrived at the parking lot, the weather was cold and cloudy. Soon we had the idea we would fail to have a good view, as predicted by Julio. It was a matter of chance, because the volcano was not on the Pacific side where we were. We had to climb along a steep pathway to the observation point, which let us have a view of the Caribbean side of the mountain where the crater was. Once we got there, the clouds were being blown by the wind, messing up the view.

Although we waited for 30 minutes, we decided to go back Alajuela. By the time we got to the parking lot, Julio had the idea of calling the guard who was up at the vantage point since he had perceived the weather had improved. To our surprise, we were invited to go up again so we could see Poas.

There it was—sulfur steam boiling up from the surface of the crater lake with the smell of rotten eggs. Quite a view!

Satisfied, we could go back to the hotel to wait for the others to arrive. Our free time is over, and tomorrow we’re traveling to the coffee fields.

Monday, July 28, 2008 Finally, we are together as an Earthwatch team. There are eight of us, with six being teachers.

Our official time on this expedition started by being transported for hours in a van from Alajuela to the Ecolodge San Luis & Biological Station. The scenery was great and changed constantly as the road zigzagged through the mountains.

The ecolodge infrastructure is amazing, with its labs, bungalows, and attentive staff. This evening, we sat together right in front of our bungalow so we could hear more about each other and the Costa Rica’s Sustainable Coffee expedition.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 Here is a brief description of the country and the region where we will be dispatched for our Earthwatch expedition.
 
Costa Rica is located in Central America, with Nicaragua and Panama as neighbors. There are unique characteristics that make Costa Rica a unique country—no army, high citizen participation in political elections, and high human and environmental development represented by a high literacy rate and comprehensive ecological reserves. 
 
Costa Rica is the ideal place to work in close proximity with nature, and the government maintains a strong commitment to conserving this environment.
 
Monteverde is one of the most visited reserves in Costa Rica, probably as result of a green policy for tourism and exquisite fauna and flora. It’s difficult to tell where one reserve ends and where the next once begins. There is a tiny area known as the San Luis Reserve, and one bigger known as the Santa Elena Reserve. Neither is as diverse as Monteverde, because they are composed of secondary forest (reforestation).
 
The Monteverde Reserve was created out of a community’s determination to help preserve the unique cloud forest surrounding it and to use tourism as a tool to benefit community development in Monteverde. Entrance fees are used for the protection and management of the reserve and to provide higher quality education for schools of Monteverde.

The Santa Elena Reserve of Monteverde is one of the first community administered reserves in Costa Rica (not a national park, but under the protection of the Arenal Conservation Area). It is an excellent example of what people can do to preserve and learn from their environment.
 
What will we be doing here? According to the Earthwatch briefing, we will learn about the entire coffee production system and gain a first-hand impression of life in a coffee plantation. Each plantation is as unique as the families who own them, and volunteers will explore the Costa Rican culture through these families.
 
Key activities we will be performing include the following as described in the Earthwatch briefing document.
 
Bird Transects
The best way to quickly learn the frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds of any tropical region is to find a fruiting tree to observe for a few hours. Each team will spend the first morning at the study site observing a fruiting tree for bird visitation. This will give team members an opportunity to interact and learn bird species, while directly observing them in the field.
 
This study involves 16 subplots which will be surveyed by 100-meter transects for birds for three hours daily in November and April and six hours daily in July and February. Volunteers will begin transects either in an experimental or a control subplot of the coffee plantation and then switch subplot type for their second transect. Depending upon the number of volunteers on the team, each volunteer will be assigned one or two coffee plantations per day.
 
Bee Surveys
Volunteers will use a reference bee collection to learn common bee species which may be found visiting coffee flowers. Volunteers will be trained in bee identification and will have the reference collection available for comparison throughout the study. All Team V members will spend four hours per day observing bee visitation at coffee plants, rotating between this task and inflorescence removal. Each volunteer will randomly choose three coffee plants along each 100-meter transect to observe for 10 minutes.
 
Fruit Availability
A fruit availability index will be used to calculate fruit availability per subplot twice during each expedition. Each individual tree's fruit crop size will be scaled from zero to six by a pair of volunteers to avoid observer bias. Each Earthwatch team will practice estimating fruit crop size by counting 10 randomly chosen branches and extrapolating values to the entire tree. This training will take place in the afternoon of the first full day on site.
 
Pollen Counting
Volunteers will be assigned the task of counting pollen grains on each slide (though you will not collect or prepare slides). This task will require the use of a compound microscope, for which training will be provided. Volunteers will also be trained to differentiate pollen grains from other materials, like insect hairs, which may be found on the stigmatic surface. You can also use grids underneath the slides to count pollen grains in quadrants.
  
Today, we had the opportunity to meet the basic objectives of the Earthwatch program.
 
There are six farms where the Earthwatch team will survey the interrelationship between birds, bees, and trees in the production of coffee. To conduct the bird transects, we will walk silently for 45 minutes four times a day on a coffee plantation, counting precisely the birds we see and their activities.
 
This morning, we did a trial run on bird spotting, and it is definitely difficult for untrained eyes. We also installed a net called a mist net that allows you to capture a type of toucan called a toucanet. The net probably got its name because it’s almost invisible to the eyes, so birds fly into it and get entangled without any harm.
 
This was the first time we introduced ourselves to a local farmer. His name was Joel, and he was 83 years old. As I speak Portuguese, I tried to talk to him while the others stayed at the place where the toucanet was supposed to be caught. The bird didn’t come, though.
 
Joel talked about his relationship with his neighbor and the previous results of students from Georgia (USA) who came after the toucanet. I hope we will have better luck, because it seems to be tricky to catch a toucanet. He also said he was the local godfather for separated couples after he saw the Virgin, who performed a miracle by getting him back together with his own wife for a second try. Religion is definitely strongly attached to Latin American roots.
 
Just like in Brazil, locals here are very happy to talk to you. One subject that comes up in any conversation is soccer.
 
We stopped for lunch, and our meals are particularly rich, composed of local fruits and other food that are typical of what you would also find in the Brazilian countryside.
 
After lunch, we were introduced to the lab activities and research equipment we are going to be using in the coming weeks. Later at night, we had a lecture given by a leader from the Monteverde coffee cooperative. It was the most important activity to understand our work here, since Valerie, our project leader, didn’t want to spoil or bias our point of view.
 
The leader of the cooperative said that it was possible to reverse the deforestation of tropical forests in Costa Rica because of the Quakers, who bought lands that were divided by 24 families in the region of San Luis, Santa Elena, and Monteverde. Quakers preach peace and respect for nature, and they came to Costa Rica from America.
 
He also told us that sustainable production is an effort to circumvent the difficulties farmers in Costa Rica have with bank loans and with buying the necessary equipment to have a modern way of production. At first, sustainable production came as an answer to those farmers who didn’t have the means to clean up the terrain that was used to produce coffee.
 
The cooperative brings together approximately 100 families who work at processing the coffee until its sale. A portion of what is collected as profit is disseminated among the families, and another portion is put toward community services.
 
With the collective’s effort and the support of international organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and Fair Trade, sustainable production is possible and is making the production of coffee in Costa Rica attractive again since the price of sustainable coffee exceeds that of commodity coffee by up to four times.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 This morning, we again practiced bird recognition. After breakfast, we went to one of the six farms to observe the behavior of birds and bees and the consequence of sustainable coffee production. Sustainable farming is composed of coffee planted under fruit trees, which attract pollinators and natural insecticides, namely bees and birds.

At each farm, we basically will walk 100 meters (328 feet) in 45 minutes. During this time, we will identify the birds and their activities. This whole process will be repeated four times a day for the next two weeks.
 
The six farms that are part of Valerie’s research came to exist along with 18 other one-hectare (2.4-acre) farms to form Finca la Bella (Beautiful Farm). This farming and conservation project was initiated in 1991 through the joint efforts of the local Quaker group and concerned citizens in the San Luis area. The Quakers, who settled in the areas around San Luis in the mid-20th century, were especially instrumental in jumpstarting the cooperative effort.
 
The community of San Luis had been struggling for years when the project began. Huge tracts of land were held by one landlord, and all primary forest comprising the San Luis and Santa Elena regions had been cleared for cattle pastures. The village was suffering economically, socially, and environmentally as a result.
 
A U.S. non-profit group provided initial funds to purchase the tract of land from its owner, who had used it for conventional coffee. From the beginning, one-hectare parcels of Finca la Bella were offered to landless residents of San Luis through a lottery system combined with further analysis by a committee.  
 
Because rainforest comprises 15 hectares (37 acres) of Finca la Bella, a special requirement to leave the cloud forest untouched was inserted into the individual farm agreements.
 
Finca la Bella has many such guidelines based on the Quaker’s point of view regarding the relationship between mankind and the environment. In the agreement, the Quakers made sure to include respect for nature by forbidding chemicals that would harm the fauna and flora. The farmers are allowed to raise animals and advance tourism only through subsistence means.
 
Later in the afternoon, we went to Santa Elena, a village near the ecolodge. We had noticed the interdependence of coffee and tourism in this region, and the town basically consists of hotels and restaurants. There are some minor activities concerning adventure sports that complement the main attractions, which are the reserves of the primary forest of Monteverde and secondary forest of Santa Elena.

Thursday, July 31, 2008 This morning, I did bird observations at Rafael’s farm. The first thing that I observed was the temptation of some farmers to raise cattle instead of coffee and other subsistence crops. Rafael’s farm seemed to be under this dilemma, and as a result, we saw a large field cleared to give cattle a place to graze. This was reflected in the lower number and variety of birds I saw there.
 
We had a picnic in front of the house of Oldemar, another farmer. Since we started, we have substituted regular lunches for picnics, which I think is not common for us Latin Americans. This is a pity, since it takes away an opportunity to eat and learn about typical lunches and food in this area.
 
After the picnic, we were invited by Oldemars’ wife, Erzi, to taste the local pancakes made of corn. These were even better with the cream filling offered by the family.

With our batteries recharged, we returned to the land of Joel, where the mist net was set. We extended it to try catching a toucanet, and this time we used equipment to reproduce its sound to attract a bird faster. Toucanets are territorial and would come to check if there was another one trespassing.

The emerald toucanet is a common relative of the more known toucan, though it is smaller, green, and not so noisy. It’s very common in the Monteverde region.
 
Unfortunately, we weren’t successful with a toucanet, but we collected a sparrow with white ears. I was concerned about the bird, because it was really entangled. However, Valerie was able to quickly remove the bird, and she released it after a brief session of picture taking. This gave us an opportunity to see what steps would be taken once we have our toucanet in hand.

We did not have the opportunity to try again because of the heavy rain that started all of a sudden, forcing us to return to the ecolodge.

Friday, August 1, 2008 Jennifer and I went to Olivier’s ranch for one more day of bird transects. Jennifer is passionate about birds, and as we did our path in the midst of that coffee farm, she could not contain the excitement of each new discovery. This facilitated my work, since this is my first experience with birds.

I learned that these birds have a routine for vocalizing, seeking food, and seeking partners for reproduction. The demand for food contributes most to the coffee, because it eliminates the insects that attack the coffee without the need for pesticides. This is particularly important, since in addition to the production of better quality coffee, it protects workers from diseases and contamination.

Our visit today also included the collection of bees on Olivier’s farm. The other groups were also collecting bees, so it will be possible to compare the biodiversity of pollinators working in the region.
 
These bees are important, because they allow for the natural reproduction of coffee, generating a greater quantity of fruit per plant. The work of these small beings also ensures the necessary fertility in the trees that make up the main source of food for the birds that live on the farms.

Soon after lunch, we had to divide the team. The largest group went to count trees on Oldemar’s farm. Another group, consisting of Elaine, Valerie, and I, stayed on Joel’s farm for another attempt at capturing a toucanet using the mist net.
 
Again we extended the mist net and activated the transmitter, sending out calls that resembled toucanet sounds. We left the place for about 40 minutes and returned to find a pigeon caught in the net. This time, the removal of the animal did not take long, and in minutes we were ready to try again for a toucanet.

Approximately one hour later, I returned to the mist net. Apparently, there wasn’t a bird stuck to it. After moving closer to the net, I saw that I was confusing the green of a toucanet with the green of the forest. We had caught a toucanet!
 
Valerie urged us to keep calm so the bird would not be stressed or have the opportunity to get loose. I was on one side and Elaine on the other, so we closed the poles at the same time, getting the bird to rest over Valerie’s hands.
 
Initially, Valerie took care to tie the threatening toucanet’s beak, which could easily cut off a finger. She patiently removed the bird from the mist net, and when it was free, we took it to where all the necessary material and equipment were previously stored.

First, the bird was weighed and measured for health monitoring purposes. Then I had to hold the animal while Valerie placed a radio transmitter on its tail. The unit should remain attached to the animal for about a month, but may reach three months before the battery stops working. It’s important to highlight the delicacy with which Valerie looked after the animal.

Although Valerie didn’t tell us about the objective of the transmitter, I was sure we would be following this very toucanet in the following days so we could observe its behavior. Like everybody else, I’m curious to understand how all our activities here will get assembled for Valerie’s doctoral research.

Saturday, August 2, 2008 Valerie suggested a different activity for this day. In the morning, we split several pieces of fishing net so we could segregate coffee plants. We then went to another farm, this time Odilio’s, where we used four aluminum poles to surround three coffee plants in a square-shaped space.
 
We attached the net over the section where the three plants were, and then we made sure the leaves were not touching the net. Supposedly, the birds won’t reach the plants, allowing those plants to be susceptible to insects. After segregating the plants, we counted their leaves with different grades of insect damage and took note for later comparisons. This experiment will take a whole year to complete, so we will have to email Valerie for her results.
 
We had lunch back at the ecolodge, and Valerie gave us a free afternoon, which was taken gratefully by the group. We decided to hike to a local waterfall not far from the ecolodge. Although it wasn’t long, the trail was tough and took 45 minutes each way. The prize? A 40-meter (131-foot) waterfall with a lake filled with crystal-clear water by its basin.

Sunday, August 3, 2008 This was my day off, and I went to the Monteverde Primary Forest Reserve with Elaine. We decided to still wake up early so we could seize upon our unique day off.
 
Once at the reserve, we couldn’t find a guide, since all of them were committed to groups. However, it turned out to be the best thing, since a guide is very expensive around here and walking in a pack of tourists makes it more difficult to see exquisite birds.
 
We walked all morning until we reached the continental divide, where we could supposedly see the Caribbean and the Pacific from the same spot. It was cloudy, so we couldn’t see through the mist.
 
In the afternoon, I went to the Sky Trek park, where I could enjoy the whole afternoon playing on the zip lines with Viv. That was something that took my breath away several times. Jumping from one tower to the next attached to a wire is wild and keeps you shaking way after the experience.

Monday, August 4, 2008 We were all motivated today because of the free day we had yesterday. I was again assigned to do a bird transect on Oliver’s farm with Elaine.

We had some luck, managing to find some migratory birds that had not yet been seen by the rest of our team. This was really unusual, because this time of year these birds typically are in North America.

The presence of migratory birds in crops of coffee is only observed under the tree canopy, as this type of bird spends only 10% of its time eating insects in the soil and the rest of the time in the tops of trees.

We had lunch at Rafael’s ranch, after which we isolated some coffee seedlings with a net to prevent the birds from eating insects on those plants. As mentioned in an earlier entry, the goal of this activity is to compare current damage to the plants’ leaves with damage a year later to see if the damage increased because of a great proliferation of insects.

At night, we watched a Smithsonian video on shade coffee and sustainable crops that was filmed in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Besides being educational and institutional in nature, the film was also promoting fair trade and stating how unfair the commodity prices are.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008 It was a short morning for Alice and me, during which we pursued the toucanet with the radio tracking device. There was no secret to following the animal, because the signal was clear and intensified as we approached the place where the bird was located.

What went wrong was that the wind was very strong, causing a very high noise that resulted in bad readings. After two hours of dubious readings, we returned to the ecolodge to wait until it was time to get together with the others for lunch and for other activities in the afternoon.

The picnic this time was in front of Erzi’s house at Oldemar’s ranch, where a group of tourists was presented the history of the place. This is the ranch with the largest number of frugivorous trees, so consequently it attracts the largest number of exotic birds.

Oldemar has taken control of the coffee processing at his own farm. Before, he sold the coffee to the cooperative and lived under the rules of the community. After trying without success to convince the other farmers to share his views, Oldemar bought equipment to process and roast the coffee his family now sells directly to tourists at the same price as the cooperative’s coffee.

The morning’s wind brought torrential rain. We went back to the ecolodge, where we continued with activities in the laboratory.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 I spent one more day following our friend the toucanet, but this time with Mark. The toucanet had moved fairly far, and we went into a ravine where he had decided to hide. After we used the global positioning system (GPS) device to mark the toucanet’s location, we returned to the ecolodge.

I did not participate in any activities this afternoon due to health problems my wife was experiencing and about which I had to get informed before getting worried. It is difficult to contact the outside world here, since there is only one telephone and many guests at the ecolodge.

Thursday, August 7, 2008 Elaine and I went on a bird transect at Odilio’s farm. That means going to the bottom of the San Luis area and later coming back. There is no uphill hike as tough as this one.
 
It was a special hike, because we had white-faced monkeys jumping from one tree to the other. While that was a nice diversion, it ruined our chances of seeing exquisite birds, because they got scared by the monkeys.
 
By the afternoon, I went with the Earthwatch team to Santa Elena for cultural activities as part of the program’s free time. At night, we had a party back at Oldemar’s house—pizza with local ingredients!

Friday, August 8, 2008 I’m pretty sure they think I have a special connection to the toucanet. I went with Pamela to track it once more, though the weather (tropical rain) got us a ticket back to the ecolodge. I was tired of mist rolling downhill.
 
Valerie finally presented to us the research being done for the Costa Rica’s Sustainable Coffee project. At first, I thought this research was just about coffee, but it isn’t at all. The sustainable techniques being used and studied here can be transferred to other crop production.
 
Mankind can manipulate the environment in different ways, so why not manipulate the food chain to help in crop production? Farmers can introduce a greater quantity of fruit trees where there are high levels of energy (fruit) that can attract birds to their fields. Because these birds remove unwanted insects, the farmer does not need to use chemicals to treat the plants. That’s also true when analyzing if the presence of bees induce coffee plants to produce more fruit. That works for me!

Saturday, August 9, 2008 I tracked the toucanet again, this time with Vivian. I tried to teach her how to get a signal and locate one’s position with a GPS device, and she did great.
 
After last night’s glimpse of Valerie’s project, I think I now know the reason we are following the toucanet. It’s her model for bird behavior in a coffee plantation, since toucanets are territorial and both frugivorous and insectivorous. By studying this bird, she can keep track of both behaviors at the same time.
 
Later after lunch, we attended a class on sugarcane given by Alvaro. He took us back in time to when they still used a trapiche (sugar mill) to extract juice out of the sugarcane. Alvaro revived his father’s and grandpa’s way of living by refurbishing an early 19th century trapiche, which originally was powered by cows.
 
Everybody helped turn the mill since there weren’t any cows to do the job for us like in the past. As a result of our work, we got a full jar of juice, which we shared on this melancholy day.
 
A final job for us to do as a group was preparing a farewell party and thanking the farmers for the trouble of having strangers around their farms. We had fun with the games and prizes.

Sunday, August 10, 2008 It was not over yet. This morning, we did Valerie a favor by assisting a group of students that had just arrived to participate in field work. Valerie, Alice, and I went to three farms with the students and their professor. It was a nice time since I got to check out the cool part of being a teacher.
 
In my two weeks here, I observed that human intervention in a given place is not always negative and does not always result in pollution. Just exploring Valerie’s project, where the farmers changed the environment by reinstituting flora, changed my way of thinking. That’s so simple, you say, but this experiment did open my eyes to sustainable ecosystem manipulation.
 
In addition, such ideas get people together in small and poor communities to give them the option of cutting out the intermediaries. If they get organized into cooperatives, they can sell their products at prices higher than the usual commodity market.
 
But I’m not a utopist, because that concept never gets done. It shall be improved through continuous education and capitalist thinking, although this time by the producer’s side. I mean, Oldemar abandoned the cooperative and tried bank loans and self education about the coffee-roasting process to get to a level where he eliminated one more intermediary. He is now the one buying his fellow farmers’ production for final processing.
 
As for Costa Rica, I was impressed with some government programs that, instead of giving financial aid, taught people how to produce goods, apply the idea of preservation, eliminate waste, etc. It’s not a solution to take these people far above the poverty level, but it does eliminate some of their misery and brings their quality of life up one degree.
 
That’s it! I am very thankful for the opportunity to get in touch with nature and a different culture. I also appreciate the research and friendship provided by the Earthwatch expedition team.
 
Thanks Alcoa! I had a wonderful time learning about a sustainable project that opened my eyes not only to the relevance of conservancy, but also to the proven results (even financial results) our actions delivered to make the world better.

Photo Gallery


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Earthwatch Institute



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Costa Rica's Sustainable Coffee


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
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