Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Growing forests and livelihoods with help from Man and Nature

by Richard Joyce

Marcela Gutierrez, Paso Pacífico's agronomist, has been eagerly awaiting the rainy conditions that will allow planting of thousands of trees in the Paso del Istmo. "Because of El Niño, the rains are coming later this year, so we might plant in early July." With a degree from EARTH University in Costa Rica and ample experience working in her native Nicaragua, Marcela is leading the effort to restore forests in focused watersheds, by helping communities adopt agroforestry systems that are both biodiverse and economically productive.

Marcela Gutierrez welcomes a local rancher to one of Paso

Pacífico's community workshops.


Several years ago, in a project called Return to Forest, Paso Pacífico reforested over 4 square kilometers of land with more than 250,000 trees. With the generous support of French non-profit Man and Nature, Paso Pacífico is building off this success to plant thousands of more trees in the La Flor and Ostayo watersheds.

More than 250,000 trees were planted in our hallmark
"Return to Forest" reforestation project.
Planting trees is not a new activity in the region. In fact, plantations of eucalyptus and teak cover many hectares of land in the Ostayo watershed. However, the damaging effects of such plantations make them less than ideal models for reforestation projects. Tree plantations may reduce the demand for timber harvested from wild forests, but they consist of non-native species that secrete compounds preventing the growth of other plants, making monocultures the rule. Despite their canopy cover, tree plantations can have a barren appearance. Eucalyptus trees are very "thirsty," drawing large quantities of groundwater from the soil, and teak trees shed their leaves near the end of the dry season, exposing the soil to both desiccation and erosion.

Still, in order to be successful in the long term, reforestation efforts must address the economic pressures that drive land-use patterns in the first place. This means that, in addition to providing societal benefits like water services, carbon capture and wildlife habitat, forests must contribute to their owners' livelihoods. Marcela is working with farmers to creatively design agroforestry systems that are valuable for both business opportunities and biodiversity.

Plant a forest in the garden, plant a garden in the forest

The agroforestry systems being put into practice by Marcela and the landowners who she works with are designed to provide streams of economic benefit over time as the forest comes back. Banana plantings shade tree seedlings, offering a quick harvest while helping young trees survive the dry season. Five different farmers currently receive seeds and technical support from Paso Pacifico to grow roselle (hibiscus tea), which can sell for up to 10 times the price of corn and 5 times the price of beans. Chia is another crop grown among the young trees.

Miguel Melendez, coordinator of the reforestation project in
Sierra Siena, watches over the community foresters.  

The trees to be planted comprise a mix of over 15 dry forest species with a variety of uses and benefits. The fast growing madero negro (also known as "quick stick") will soon yield posts and firewood, while the wood of various timber species (mahogany, guapinol, Spanish cedar) can be harvested in a decade or two. 

This year, farmers will plant a large number of bálsamo trees (Balsam of Peru). Actually native to Central America (not Peru), these trees will produce a steady supply of cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented resins to sell to the fragrance and pharmaceutical industries. Like tapping sugar maples for syrup, harvesting bálsamo resin produces a high-value product while respecting the integrity and diversity of the forest.     

Other trees, such as Maya nut, Panama tree and hog plums, are meant always to remain, and are planted specifically for wildlife—offering fruits to black-handed spider monkeys, leaves for howler monkeys, and nesting cavities for Yellow-naped Amazon parrots and spiny-tailed iguanas.


The ojoche or Maya nut tree.
Reward enough

Marcela feels especially inspired and motivated by Guillermina Bustos, a landowner in Tortuga who has wanted to plant trees for many years.

"She is reforesting more land than any other farmer, about 8 acres; and next year she will plant more. Her love for the forest is such that she isn't interested in intercropping; what she cares about are the trees and is willing to hire workers to tend the saplings." 


For her, seeing animals in the forest and knowing that there is water in the La Flor River are reward enough.


Members of the local communities gather for a group photograph during one
of Paso Pacífico's agroforestry workshops.


This project is funded by Man and Nature

Monday, April 7, 2014

Building Resilience: Beekeeping in the Paso del Istmo

by Richard Joyce
Paso Pacifico Meliponiculture Intern

A lean man past middle age, Francisco Cerda still goes to work most days of the week at a limestone quarry in Las Mercedes, an area of the Paso del Istmo near the Costa Rican border. His house is rustic and similar to many in the region. Approaching it, we pass a well, an outdoor shower, and a large basin for washing clothes. Scrawny dogs lie sprawled on the ground, and chickens peck at insects in the shade of a mango tree. The house´s walls are made of rough boards with large cracks, and the smell of wood smoke drifts from the kitchen.

Our eyes are drawn to dark specks darting in and out of logs hanging horizontally from the eaves of the house´s metal roof. They are bees, and they are why we are here.

Francisco owns hives of jicote manso, a species of stingless bee that has been kept by people in Central America for millennia. The word jicote comes from the Nahuatl word xicotl (meaning bee or wasp, and manso means docile in Spanish. Francisco used to have over forty hives, but when violence broke out in the region during the 1970s, his family immigrated to Costa Rica, leaving the bee colonies behind. When Francisco returned home after the war, only about five hives remained.

Today, he cherishes those hives, marking the age of each hive by the birth dates of his grown children. Stingless bee honey is traditionally given to pregnant women as their due dates approach, maybe as a nutritional supplement or maybe just as a sweet indulgence!

My coworker Marcos and I have been visiting Francisco´s home every week since the end of January, expressing Paso Pacifico´s interest in conserving native bees, explaining the process for dividing hives, and catching bees in Ziploc baggies in order to collect pollen samples from them. Initially, Francisco seemed skeptical about our project, but it soon became clear that the maintenance of stingless bee populations was a concern that we shared.

Francisco has noted the increasing scarcity of jicote manso, attributing the population decline to the conversion of forest to teak plantations and the proliferation of both feral and domesticated Africanized honey bees. His hypotheses are quite plausible, likely compounded by pesticide use and overharvesting of honey from the forest.

The plight of bees likely sounds familiar to you; with some regularity, we read in the news about colonies collapsing and fruit orchards being left without pollinators. Honey bees support many livelihoods and pollinate many crops, but with thousands of bee species in the Americas, it is shortsighted to focus exclusively on the preservation of honey bees. Reliance on a single pollinator species makes us vulnerable, and honey bees are not great pollinators for all plants. For example, they do not perform buzz pollination, a mechanism needed by crops such as tomatoes.

At the very end of March, Francisco, Marcos, and I moved a colony of jicote manso from a rotting log hive to a brand new box hive. The brood combs were of modest size, but so far it seems that the bees are adapting well to their new home. Perhaps by working with them, we can build our resilience together.



Taken from the forest more than fifty years ago, the hollow log that housed this bee colony was falling apart. The hive´s owner stands next to his brand new box hive.



Meliponiculture expert Marcos Calero creates an access port on a log hive, allowing for the future extraction of brood comb.



Examining a brood comb, where the queen bee lays her eggs.



A stingless bee visits a lemon flower. Some of the bee-pollinated crops grown on the isthmus include mango, vegetable pear, coconut, annatto, squash, guava, cashew, noni, and bell pepper.



A honey producer looks at pollen under a microscope for the first time.



The green orchid bee is an example of the fantastic biodiversity found in the Paso del Istmo.



Honey harvested with a syringe is clearer, mixed with much less pollen, and less acidic that honey harvested by perforating the honey pots and allowing the honey to drip from the log.



Stingless bees store their honey in pots, unlike honey bees, which store honey in combs.



Stingless bee honey is finger-licking delicious!



These pollen grains, collected from the thorax of a stingless bee, belong to an important nectar plant.



This "pollen parfait" illustrates the importance of two plants, the dry forest tree Cochlospermum vitifolium and the shrub Senna skinneri, for the stingless bee Melipona beecheii during the dry season.


This project is supported by The Loyal Bigelow and Jedediah Dewey Foundation.




Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Women's Cooperative Oyster Farm

In 2013 Paso Pacifico made a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative to strengthen economic development and restore coastal environments. To achieve this goal, Paso Pacifico has begun a partnership with local women in the fishing village of Ostional in order to develop a women’s shellfish farming cooperative.  This past month Paso Pacifico volunteer Angie Gerst from British Columbia, Canada, conducted an exploratory study to document the current economic and cultural systems surrounding oyster cultivation. Her study was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund. The goal of Angie’s research was to determine the importance of oysters to household economies, the level of interest women in the community have in regards to participating in a sustainable oyster farm, and to assess the potential sale of oysters to local markets.  Her results indicate a strong potential for the development of a women's oyster cooperative.

The women of Ostional have been harvesting oysters for most of their lives and have learned these practices from their mothers, grandmothers, and other members of their community.  All of the women Angie interviewed have a similar method for harvesting these hearty shellfish.  First they use a hammer, or heavier iron “masa”, to hit the oyster shell on the opening end until they are able to pry the shell open. They then use a spoon to scoop out the oyster and leave the other half of the shell attached to the rock until it naturally falls off.  The women harvest oysters several times a week and collect between .5 and 7 pounds of oysters on each outing.

Most of the women Angie interviewed reported that the harvesting of oysters damaged the beds and that some members of the community harvest too many oysters or ones that are too small.  All of the women, however, indicated a strong interest in working to preserve the resource for future generations, in turn providing future jobs and income for the community.  The women interviewed were also asked what actions could be taken to protect and restore the oyster beds near the community.  They suggested implementing regulations to protect smaller oysters from being harvested, using different harvesting methods, and developing an oyster farm or nursery. 

Based on Angie’s findings, there is evidence to support the development of a women’s oyster cooperative in Ostional.  This type of project would be new territory for Paso Pacifico requiring small business development, skills training in shellfish production, evaluation of market demands, and a detailed evaluation of the project’s ecological sustainability.  We are excited about this project’s potential.  Small-scale fisheries are vital for feeding local families throughout Central America and, if managed properly can also help restore the region’s coastal fisheries.  Women are often overlooked for their role within these fisheries, and generally do not have access to technical training to sustainably manage these resources.  It is fitting that women lead this transition to sustainability in fisheries, and that they and their families reap the economic benefits that shellfish production can bring.  As one of Angie’s interviews revealed, the development of a women’s cooperative oyster farm in Ostional, “would be a dream come true!”.

Photo credit: Angie Gerst

Paso Pacifico volunteer Angie Gerst spent a month visiting and interviewing the women of Ostional, Nicaragua.

 Women in Nicaragua are traditionally the primary cultivators of oysters along mangrove estuaries and rocky shores.

All of the women Angie interviewed expressed an interest in restoring oyster habitat for future generations.

A women's oyster cooperative in Ostional could be a tremendous economic benefit for the community and would help to restore the region’s coastal fisheries.


Many of the women in this community have been harvesting shellfish their entire lives and learned these practices from their mothers and grandmothers.


The preferred technique to harvest oysters in this community is to use a hammer, or heavier iron “masa”, to hit the oyster shell until they are able to pry the shell open.


Paso Pacifico is committed to develop a women’s shellfish farming cooperative.


The rocky coastline of Nicaragua's southern Pacific coast makes for ideal oyster habitat, like the beach pictured here.


For many Ostional women, harvesting oysters is a tradition that has been passed down through the generations. 

The rocky Nicaraguan coastline is not the easiest place to navigate and harvesting oysters in this environment is challenging work.


Small-scale fisheries are vital for feeding local families throughout the world and, if sustainably managed, can also help to restore our world’s coastal fisheries.


 Currently, women do not receive any recognition for their role in coastal fisheries and their contribution to the social and economic well-being of fishing communities is often overlooked.


Women in Ostional average collect between .5 and 7 pounds of oysters on each outing.



Monday, February 17, 2014

Poco a Poco, Bird by Bird

by Sarah Otterstrom

I grew up spending lazy summers along the shores of northern lakes in the Inland Pacific Northwest. Maybe this is where my love of “biodiversity” was born. If anything, it was where I first learned to recognize the magic of the natural world.

At the lake, my cousin and I built a tree fort with a plush carpet made of fresh moss and we decorated the ceiling with pine leaves. We imagined living a simple life balanced between gathering and storing wild berries, and relaxing to the sound of the whispering pines. During those times, we were part of the forest, just like our fort.

For much of my adult life I have returned to spend summers at the lake. For years I set out on these trips with a stubborn naiveté, that the ecological problems in Nicaragua were separate from the problems in the Inland Northwest.

Two summers ago, however, I was huckleberry picking with my two young sons in the woodlands surrounding Priest Lake, Idaho. We heard the chuckle of two young boys and the sound of BB gun fire. I figured, all is well, just some kids goofing around. Well, the laughter continued and it soon developed into what we might call “bullying”. I could not resist walking through the woods to see the source. Standing there were two young boys, BB guns in hand, poking a dying bird.

It was a Western Tanager (pictured below).

 "Western Tanager" by http://www.naturepicsonline.com/ licensed by Creative Commons


The Western Tanager is a colorful migrant that spends its summers in the Pacific Northwest and winters in Mexico and Central America, including Nicaragua. The bird that was killed by these boys may well have been a bird Nicaraguan “Junior Rangers” had worked to keep safe. I was devastated. While I preach to Nicaraguan children to spare the life of birds, children in my country are busy doing the same thing, but with higher caliber weaponry. My magical corner in the Northwest was not as singular as I had imagined it and I struggled to explain such hypocrisy to my children. 

The lesson to me from this experience is that, as conservationists, the solutions we are all looking for must be global. Paso Pacifico can be effective at disarming Nicaraguan children of their sling-shots and we know that our small effort is worthwhile, because each bird is valued. But, as long as we work in isolation from the entire geography of the bird’s life cycle, we will fall short.


By surrendering their slingshots and pledging to protect wildlife, these two young Nicaraguan boys earned binoculars and have become students in Paso Pacifico's environmental education programs.


Fortunately, in the bird world, partnerships abound and through them we are finding ways to safeguard birds throughout their migratory path.

Poco a poco, bird by bird, Paso Pacifico and other bird conservationists will arm the world with binoculars and help protect birds and ecosystems they make whole.

Please help us give 100 children in Nicaragua a chance to enjoy a tanager with binoculars:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/binoculars-for-slingshots/x/6418779

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stingless Beekeeping in the Paso del Istmo

Marcos inspects a Melipona beecheii worker captured at a flowering bush on the property of a beekeeper.


It is dry season in Paso del Istmo, with trade winds wicking moisture from the Pacific slope forests causing upwelling of nutrient-rich water offshore. Deciduous tree species are dropping their leaves and tree crowns full of yellow or purple blooms dot the landscape. The dry season blossoms bring increased bee activity and with it a flurry of projects in our meliponiculture program.

In the rainy season of 2012, intern Sarah Rudeen and veterinary student Marcos Calero Pérez piloted Paso Pacifico's bee program by reaching out to keepers of stingless bees in the vicinities of the Flor and Ostayo rivers, gathering data and leading workshops on modern stingless beekeeping techniques developed in Mexico, Brazil, and Costa Rica.

Marcos Calero Pérez and intern Richard Joyce are carrying the program forward by assisting in the transfer of hives from logs and branches to wooden boxes. These specially designed boxes allow for less disruptive and more sanitary harvest of honey, easier monitoring, and, most importantly, the ability to divide hives, increasing the number of hives without having to cut trees and branches from the forest.

In addition to supporting and promoting the keeping of native stingless bees, we are collecting data on the bee diversity in the isthmus and using pollen samples to better understand the relationships between bees, native flora, and cultivated crops.

When dry season comes to a close, we will transition to connecting honey producers with stores in Rivas and Managua where they can get a good price for their product. In addition, we will create a plan for a women's beekeeping cooperative.


Stay tuned for more updates on the project!



A rustic log hive in the Ostayo watershed. Paso Pacifico is helping beekeepers transfer hives to boxes that facilitate harvest and hive division.


Marcos Calero Pérez teaches children the basics of Melipona bee biology.


Roble de sabana, a dry season blooming tree.


Bait for attracting swarms of Tetragonisca angustula, a small stingless bee whose honey is highly medicinal for eye ailments.


Special thanks to author and photographer Richard Joyce!


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Paso Pacifico 101

In October of last year I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua to learn more about Paso Pacifico and its work in the Paso del Istmo.  The trip was a crash course in all things Paso Pacifico.  In just five short days we patrolled beaches with the Sea Turtle Rangers, climbed trees looking for endangered Yellow-naped parrots, met the Junior Rangers at the Karen Warren & Susan White Spider Monkey Sanctuary and met with a significant portion of the staff.  It was possibly the five most exhilarating and exhausting days of my life and I am so grateful for what we were able to experience and learn from this organization and its members.

By far the best part of trip was getting to meet with so many of the organization’s employees.  I rarely experience such genuine warmth and compassion so quickly after meeting someone and all of the folks we met had these qualities.  They were especially considerate of our language barrier and maintained their composure when listening to us stumble through what little Spanish we could conjure. I understood after meeting these individuals why Paso Pacifico has been so successful.  Their interactions with one another and with the members of the various communities demonstrated the real strength of the organization.  Compassionate people like this are the ones who make conservation happen and who, with persistence, will change the world.

As of earlier this month I am proud to say that now I too am a Paso Pacifico employee.  I will be helping the organization manage its media presence and organize its digital media.  I am proud to now be a permanent part of this community and look forward getting to know them better, hear their stories, and be a part of conserving this amazing landscape.




Salvador Sanchez, Paso Pacifico’s Turtle Program Coordinator, explains the life cycle of a sea turtle at La Flor Beach Natural Reserve.  



Marcela Gutierrez recently joined the Paso Pacifico team and now leads our reforestation project in which we are reforesting two major watersheds.  She was instrumental in the community focus group we attended in the small community of Tortuga.



Paso Pacifico’s Turtle Rangers took the morning to explain to us their work protecting and researching sea turtles at Brasilon Beach north of the community of Ostional.



Julie Martinez leads our environmental education program and is well known in many of the small communities in the Paso del Istmo. 




Daniel Sanchez, one of Paso Pacifico’s Turtle Rangers, took the afternoon to give us a tour of the mangrove forest near the community of Ostional.  His extensive knowledge of the local ecology and gentle demeanor make him a great naturalist and guide.  



Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Primates in Fragments: Complexity and Resilience

Primates in Fragments: Complexity and Resilience
Primate Populations in Fragmented Tropical Dry Forest Landscapes in Southwestern Nicaragua

The lack of information on how primates respond to habitat fragmentation across a variety of ecosystems and regions hampers conservation efforts in the fragmented landscapes where populations are most threatened.

We investigated the status of primates in the highly fragmented forests of southwestern Nicaragua, a region containing some of Central America’s few remaining patches of tropical dry forest. We surveyed primates in two areas, the Chococente Wildlife Refuge comprising the country’s largest remaining fragments of tropical dry forest, and an area of Rivas just north of the Costa Rican border, where tropical dry forest exists in much smaller, more isolated patches without formal protection.

Of the three species found in Nicaragua, howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) were least affected by fragmentation remaining relatively abundant in both areas. However, capuchins (Cebus capucinus) and spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) were far less abundant and have suffered local extinctions both inside and outside of protected areas. Interestingly, our data suggest that all three species are currently least threatened in the human-dominated landscape on the Rivas Isthmus, the more fragmented study region where forests receive no official protection.

In spite of extensive fragmentation, southwestern Nicaragua’s remaining tropical dry forests may maintain a functioning metapopulation of primates, including populations of the endangered spider monkey. However, reasons why the endangered spider monkey is more common in the more fragmented region are unclear. Our results demonstrate both the surprising ability of primates to survive in highly modified landscapes, and the critical importance of coordinating conservation efforts with private landowners, local communities, and other stakeholders.

Planning for primate conservation in such anthropogenic landscapes must consider historical factors and larger spatial context. In Nicaragua, the local NGO Paso Pacífico has adopted the spider monkey as a flagship species, and is working extensively with landowners and local communities to conserve this species and the forest fragments in which it lives.

Chapter authors are Paso Pacífico's:
Director of Science Kimberly Williams-Guillén
Collaborator Suzanne Hagell
Founder Sarah Otterstrom
Collaborator Stephanie Spehar
You can download the full chapter here

Read more about the black-handed spider monkey on our website.