Puerto Jiménez, Costa Rica – In this languid town carved out of rainforest, the chatter of howler monkeys and toucans mixes with the drone of motorbikes and diesel trucks. Orchids and bromeliads that would sell for $20 each in the U.S. cling to power lines in heavy clumps. Unlike wealthy eco-tourists who flock to the region, Félix Cambronero Blanco long saw the surrounding forest as an obstacle instead of an opportunity. Cambronero resented federal regulations that prevented him from clearing trees to expand his crop of corn and rice. “We didn’t see it with good eyes,” Cambronero said. “The forest was our enemy.”

The Osa & Golfito region contains 2.5% of the Earth’s biodiversity & 50% of Costa Rica’s biodiversity

Eco-tourism accounts for more than 12% of Costa Rica’s gross domestic product and more than 11% of jobs

In the Osa and Golfito region, the unemployment rate hovers around 60%

40% of the region's land is protected:

  • 3 national parks
  • 10 wildlife reserves
  • 1 biological reserve
  • 1 forest reserve
  • 2 wetlands

Costa Rica is the world's 9th largest exporter of African oil palm, exporting more than 170,000 metric tons annually

The region's poverty rate - 35% - far exceeds the national average - 20%

With his wife and son, Cambronero now runs a small café and two tourist cabins. The family’s change of fortune and mindset is emblematic of the change that a unique Stanford-led program is working to foster: helping people develop environmentally sustainable livelihoods. The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Osa and Golfito Initiative – known by its Spanish acronym, INOGO – embodies a new community-focused approach to conservation that reconciles perceived conflicts between human prosperity and protection of natural resources. It could provide a model for harmonizing the needs of people and nature in biodiversity-rich regions around the world.

  • Nuria Figueroa, co-owner of Rancho de Oro gold mining history

    “The concept of sustainable development for me is to take opportunities while thinking about the next generation. If I cut the trees and burn them, then what?”
    – Nuria Figueroa, co-owner of Rancho de Oro gold mining history

  • Johnny Rodriguez, owner, Tour al Trapiche don Carmen

    “Other institutions in the area are interested in 100 percent conservation. So, the environment is doing very well, but the people are suffering.”
    – Johnny Rodriguez, owner, Tour al Trapiche don Carmen

“We want to combine the profound local knowledge with a scientific and educational approach,” said INOGO faculty co-director Rodolfo Dirzo, Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “To the extent that we can do this elsewhere in the world, the potential for effective conservation will increase.”

Conservation: Cost or Benefit?

Restrictive conservation efforts often conflict with the needs of people accustomed to hunting, harvesting or mining natural resources. In Costa Rica’s Osa and Golfito cantons or counties, major government and business investment has gone into conservation and resource maintenance, while local communities have been largely overlooked.

Booming markets for palm oil and tourism have also brought significant changes. Farmers have planted palm plantations in once-fallow fields that served as wildlife migration pathways. Government officials are discussing plans for a new international airport and a major hydroelectric dam. Meanwhile, the number of flights into Puerto Jimenez’s tiny airstrip has tripled in the past three years, and the number of people entering the region’s famed Corcovado National Park doubled between 2007 and 2014. Together, these and other pressure points, threaten to unravel the tenuous balance between conservation and development in the region.

VIDEO: Making a Living Sustainably: the Osa & Golfito Initiative

“When you come here, you feel like you’ve gone back to the beginning of time,” said Julie Oliveira, a sustainable tourism consultant in the region. “But it’s not, and in the world of today, people need money. So, how do you make financial wealth while protecting natural wealth?”

Working with residents, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector, INOGO generates powerful decision-making information, and brings people together to realize their goals via new skills and access to networks within ecotourism and agriculture. The initiative’s components include educating and mentoring entrepreneurs, training 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.

“Sustainability isn’t just about nature,” said Andrea González Yamuni, an adviser to Costa Rica’s vice president, Ana Helena Chacón Echeverría. “It’s about people. I think this program emphasizes that. They have a long-term view, and are very actively empowering people.”

Different Approach, Different Outcome

“I’ve seen so many organizations come and go,” said Lana Wedmore, an American who has run an eco-lodge in the region for 25 years. Most efforts failed because they didn’t establish community buy-in, according to Wedmore.

At the start, INOGO researchers spent a year listening to local businesses owners, community leaders, Costa Rican scholars, and government officials discuss their needs and their vision for the future of the region. A shared vision emerged: family-run businesses meeting the socio-economic needs of the communities, while sustaining the valuable natural capital of the region. INOGO’s mission became supporting local actors in achieving this goal.

“We’d like to see locals get more benefit from caretaking of the environment,” said INOGO co-director William Durham, Bing Professor in Human Biology and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute. “We see eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture as part of that goal. It’s fundamental to the future of the region and, indeed, it’s probably fundamental to the future of our planet.”

  • Alberto Herrera, mentor in Caminos de Liderazgo program

    “There is no conservation with poverty.”
    – Alberto Herrera, mentor in Caminos de Liderazgo program

  • Mario Torres, owner of Finca Agroforestal La Tarde

    “INOGO has had success in creating collaborations.”
    – Mario Torres, owner of Finca Agroforestal La Tarde

That vision is beginning to come into focus for Cambronero and his family.

Initially, Cambronero had trouble getting the cabins off the ground as a destination. Because he had little knowledge of the industry and few contacts, he was unsure how to attract visitors, and depended on well-established nearby lodges to send overflow guests their way. “We only got the crumbs of bigger places,” Cambronero said. “There is not a lot of opportunity here.

Through Caminos de Liderazgo or Pathways to Leadership, a program developed and co-funded by INOGO and the CRUSA Foundation of Costa Rica, a successful eco-lodge owner mentored Cambronero’s family and advised them on a variety of improvements, such as a poured concrete floor for the café and curtains and fans for the cabins. Caminos de Liderazgo implementing partner Reinventing Business for All (RBA) connected Cambronero’s family with national tourism agencies that certified his food preparation for tourists and a grant agency that helped pay for the upgrades. RBA staff check on Cambronero’s improvements and help him keep track of his goals.

Now, Cambronero’s business has a Facebook page and is part of Caminos de Osa, a newly created tour route modeled on the Inca Trail. The family plans to build more cabins and plant a variety of organic crops for guests, including a cacao variety that can be used to make skin cream. “I have more hope to receive tourists because we’re more prepared,” Cambronero said. “INOGO gives us the chance to be entrepreneurs.”