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Community-based environmental monitoring in the a Costa Rican Biosphere Reserve

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In October 2023 a team of 4 researchers from Chile and Germany, 2 UNESCO chair university professors from Costa Rica, 2 rangers or community leaders from UNESCO protected parks in each of Honduras, Argentina and Peru and many students and teachers at the Universidad Técnica Nacional (UTN) of Ciudad Quesada set out on a mission to run community environmental monitoring workshops in villages in the San Carlos region of Costa Rica.

I have only starting doing community science over the last 5 years, since I have been living Chile and my traditional science training was knocked on the head big time here, making us improvise in tune with the local on-the-ground conditions. All the planning in the world to run workshops and train local people to monitor their own backyard will be turned upside down once you arrive in the local situation and understand the dynamics of their communities, the geographical situation and their take up of the activities. For a start, travelling in northern Costa Rica is painfully slow, the roads either have huge potholes or are difficult bumpy gravel windy roads. There were no sign posts between villages so each time we headed out to the area, we seemed to take a different route!

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Map of Costa Rica and of the zonification of the Agua y Paz Biosphere reserve in the north of the country. Nuclear zones in red have the heaviest protection, followed by the yellow transition zones.

We travelled to an area affected by Mercury pollution due to artisanal gold minig.The story started when a Canadian mining company bought land here to prospect for and mine gold at the end of the 1990s. After many modifications to the type of mining it would carry out and campaigns against it by environmentalists, Costa Rica created a law against open pit mining in 2011 and the mining company had to leave. However, the local people had helped with the prospection and learned where there was gold and how to extract it and gradually more and more people started artisanal mining, many of whom would come over from Nicaragua. Mercury can easily be purchased in Nicaragua as well and has been used with no regard for the workers´s health or for the damage it could cause to the environment. It has seeped into the ground water and has evaporated into the atmosphere and a state of emergency has been declared in the area due to the levels of mercury now present in the drinking water of the surrounding villages.

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The community workshops in the local villages: water, leaves, soil sampling and analysis

Hence our idea to carry out participatory workshops in these villages through a UNESCO funding opportunity. We put together low cost soil kits to test for nitrates, sulphates, Carbonates, ammonia, total organic content and we used LaMotte qualitative tests for water analysis and a few handheld digital instruments for turbidity, dissolved oxygen and pH, Dissolved solids, conductivity and temperature of the water and we tested a novel home-made turbidity tube. We field tested an air sampler based on the principles of Particulate Matter air samplers, but this one collects total dust in the atmosphere whilst pulling air through a filter for a couple of days. It was a chance to show the many and varied methods for environmental sampling- allow local people to track the state of their environment, assuming they could keep up a long term monitoring plan, in which case they would notice any changes.

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Tree ring sampling, water testing, dust sampler installation, turbidity tube and soil kit

We also collected samples for laboratory analysis in Costa Rica with Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy, Spectrophotometry in Chile and ICP-MS in Germany. We collected samples of surface soil, leaves that had fallen from the tree and leaves that were still on the tree, water from local rivers and streams. Considering it was the rainy season, the collection of dust inside schools was difficult but by sampling outside air for 2 days, we collected a small amount of atmospheric dust on a filter. Nicolas Zanetta, a researcher from the university of Heidelberg in Germany took tree cores for dendrochronological analysis of the metals in the tree rings over the past 2 decades to see if there appears to be any recent changes in certain metals in the environment.

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Extremely enthusiastic public health and environmental science students at UTN accompanied us on 2 of the 3 big field days which was an excellent way to provide a continuity of the measurements and to leave behind the knowledge of how to take the measurements and the low cost kits that we left with them.

Rangers and community leaders from Biosphere reserves in Peru (Oxapampa-Ashaninka-Yanesha), Argentina (Laguna de los Pozuelos) and Honduras (San Marcos de Colón) and the Amistad Biosphere reserve in the south of Costa Rica participated in the workshops and took home kits to test in their home ground. They provided useful feedback on the techniques we used and it became clearer on which tests could be most applicable in these circumstances.

After 3 long days of sampling and running workshops we wrapped up the activity with a seminar where we reflected on the environmental threats in the protected areas in these 4 countries and how environmental monitoring can help. Even though low cost monitoring is not certified and able to bring about legislative changes, it can raise awareness of the threats that can arise from mining, threats to the environment but also ultimately to human health as the polluted water, crops and farm animals end up in the bodies of the local population. Mercury in the case of Costa Rica (but also potentially in Peru and Honduras) is a pollutant that takes time to show effects but the neurological effects from years of mercury are extreme and frightening and still haven´t surfaced in these communities.

The legacy we will leave will be online materials and courses about environmental threats to Biosphere reserves. Hopefully these will inspire communities and community leaders to get involved with environmental monitoring and awareness raising. We hope that we can show people how special these areas  are and how rich in biodiversity and natural importance they are and that the threats to them are real. Some changes in the environment can be detected by local vigilance and then communicating this pollution to the authorities. In January 2024 we will hold a final local conference to wrap up the project but we hope we have already planted the seeds to carry out more research and build on the networks we built.

I have questioned my own knowledge and abilities as a scientist – you cannot take for granted that measuring in areas with such complex social, political, health and environmental issues are at stake will be text book style. You cannot assume that arriving to take measurements and write a scientific paper will actually help the people in the field. You cannot underestimate the ability of local students to merge that gap between the community and the future direction of the country. Also, these issues are international, but mostly from the global south, central and south America, Africa, Indonesia. Mining is feeding our insatiable desire for gold, copper, diamonds, lithium. When I lived in Europe I was unaware of the pollution and tension mining caused in the countries with extractive industries, whether it is legal or illegal. It is our role to communicate these issues that arise due to our insatiable consumer practices – we cannot take gold, metals and the move towards electromobility and the ensuing inevitable increased demand for copper and lithium for granted.

The team after 3 days in the field
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