Q&A with Larry Crowder: New co-director of Stanford sustainable development initiative in Costa Rica discusses refocus on marine issues

The natural and cultural beauty of Costa Rica’s Osa and Golfito region has attracted the attention of tourists and developers in recent years. A Stanford initiative is working with local residents to create livelihoods that reconcile perceived conflicts between human prosperity and protection of natural resources.

Costa Rica’s Osa and Golfito region, isolated on a peninsula in the country’s southwest corner, is home to colorful wildlife such as jaguars and toucans and to equally vibrant human communities with unique traditional customs. Like many biodiverse areas of the world, it faces pressure from tourism-related development. Since 2012, Stanford’s Osa & Golfito Initiative has worked with local residents to articulate a vision for developing environmentally sustainable livelihoods – a conservation model that holds lessons for other countries.

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Ian Fitzgerald and Rob Jordan

A Stanford initiative in Costa Rica strives to reconcile perceived conflicts between human prosperity and protection of natural resources.

INOGO (the acronym for the program’s Spanish name) works with local partners to help people of the region make an environmentally sustainable living via new skills and access to networks within ecotourism and agriculture. The initiative’s components include educating and mentoring entrepreneurstraining high school students in language and job skills and analyzing ways for oil palm farmers to diversify their crops for extra income and insurance against market fluctuations and pests.

The initiative recently entered a new phase with the appointment of co-director Larry Crowder, the Edward Ricketts Provostial Professor of Marine Ecology and Conservation at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and former science director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions. Crowder will help INOGO prioritize fisheries management as part of a larger effort to provide useful, science-based decision-making tools and information to regional stakeholders. He spoke with Stanford Report about INOGO’s unique approach and evolving priorities.

What has INOGO accomplished so far?

INOGO has helped farmers explore potential innovations for sustainability in oil palm agriculture. It has taught young people about environmental leadership and prepared them for ecotourism jobs with English language skills. It has also united rural community tourism businesses with a branding effort, a sightseeing trail network called Caminos de Osa and connections to the tourist market.

How has INOGO helped make the Osa and Golfito region more resilient to extreme weather events?

Forest bridge

A suspended forest viewing bridge provides access in Costa Rica’s Osa and Golfito region. (Image credit: Flickr)

Because of its tropical climate, the region has always been vulnerable to extremes in temperature and rainfall. Increasingly dramatic El Niño-La Niña variation – periodic phases in which the ocean surface temperature either warms or cools and wind speeds change – has altered wet and dry season schedules people have relied upon for generations. The worst storm anyone alive remembers happened this past fall, and the rainy season has been starting later and later.

INOGO programs have provided local people insights on the significance of such events, organized discussions on how to react and coordinated with government relief efforts. For example, when the region experienced extreme flooding, the Caminos de Osa network was able to identify and communicate with isolated far-flung families allowing them to receive assistance for the first time during that event. The development of networks of leaders around a shared economic incentive proved to also provide a critical communication network to address emergencies.

What can other countries learn from INOGO’s work in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica has an enviable track record in science-based conservation and Costa Ricans value their environment as exemplars to the world – that’s a tough act to follow. INOGO’s model of engaging and empowering local people builds on the environmental ethic in Costa Rica. It’s an approach that works, and can be employed by any nation or region.

You want to shift the focus of INOGO to focus on fisheries and ocean management. Why is that important?

A beach with tropical trees in the distance

The confluence of the Aguajitas River and the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica’s Osa and Golfito region. (Image credit: Trish Hartmann / Flickr)

Although their country is a model for green growth, Costa Ricans often say they have developed “with our backs to the ocean.” On a relative basis, Costa Rica has given less attention to marine issues in policy, conservation and general understanding. It’s unfortunate, because Costa Rica has incredible and vast marine resources that are important drivers for tourism and other economic sectors. For example, Golfo Dulce in the Osa and Golfito region is a uniquely rare tropical fjord estuary surrounded by a relatively undeveloped watershed. Whales and sea turtles go there to give birth and normally migratory dolphins stay there year-round. There is potential for increasing conflict there because multiple interests – such as tourism and fishing boats – are sometimes competing for the same resources.

What are you hoping to accomplish?

We have an incredible foundation to build upon and valued relationships with partners. The new project will build an understanding of the behavior and movement of pelagic fishes like marlins and sailfish. We will identify zones of potential conflict among fisheries – such as when commercial and sport-fishing boats work the same areas. We’ll also illuminate the role of climate variation in reducing or exacerbating these conflicts, such as when changes in ocean temperature and currents affect fish populations.

Rodolfo Dirzo, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science, and William Durham, the Bing Professor in Human Biology, Emeritus, also serve as co-directors of INOGO. Crowder, Dirzo and Durham are senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.