Off the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, clouds form from the westerly winds. These clouds climb the eastern slope of Costa Rica’s mountains, cooling as they travel. By the time they have reached the continental divide, the clouds are heavy with rain and mist, so heavy that they appear to be sitting on the tops of the trees. It is this area of land, high in the mountains, which has been and still is home to thousands of different species of plants, animals, and humans. This area is called Monteverde, which means “Green Mountain” in Spanish, and it is one of our planet’s most rare environments, a tropical cloud forest. Dependent on the heavy clouds for life-giving moisture, its fragile ecosystem hangs in balance, struggling for survival in an increasingly hostile world. This paper gives an overview of the cloud forest, its history, its inhabitants, and the issues it faces today.
The first people to inhabit Costa Rica and the Monteverde Cloud Forest were descendants of Pre-Columbian groups. Thousands of years ago, these early inhabitants survived by hunting and gathering; around 500 B.C. they began to move from tribal societies to chiefdoms. Very little is known about these people, but pottery shards found near Santa Elena suggest that they may have cleared some forest, possibly for agricultural cultivation. When the Spaniards arrived in 1502 A.D. a rapid population decline resulted from Spanish attacks and diseases, many cultures were decimated, and some tribal groups died out altogether. The indigenous people went from a peak of 400,000 to a population of 80,000 in 1563 (Nadkarni). “The Indians who survived the wars, slavery, and diseases brought from Europe were (mostly) incorporated into a form of Spanish culture” (Wearing 87).
This Spanish culture remained dominant in the area until 1951, when a group of American Quakers arrived and bought 3,750 acres that is now Monteverde and surrounding communities. They left the United States to avoid the draft and paying taxes to a government that supported wars, something they were ideologically against. The Quakers established towns, farms, and dairies. In order to protect their water supply, they also set aside one-third of their property as a watershed and prohibited tree-cutting there After many years of protecting the land from squatters, the Quakers leased it to the Tropical Science Center (TSC), which had agreed to take over the administration and protection of the piece of cloud forest now called the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Collard). Four groups currently preserve the land that up the Monteverde Reserve Complex: Bosqueterno, the organization formed by the Quakers to protect watershed; Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve (MCFP), managed by the TSC; Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (Children’s Eternal Forest), the land acquired by the Monteverde Conservation League with the help of thousands of schoolchildren around the world; and the Santa Elena High School Cloud Forest Reserve, a piece of land given to the school by the Costa Rican government.
The vegetation of the MCFP is the most diverse aspect of the forest. It is characterized by the overwhelming abundance of mosses, epiphytes - “plants that depend on trees and other plants for mechanical support but not nutrition” (Nadkarni 72), and tree climbers, and by the variety of vegetation types and high plant biodiversity. The vegetation of Monteverde can be divided into three forest types: seasonally dry, mostly evergreen on the Pacific slope, cloud forest on the mountain top, and aseasonal rain forest on the Atlantic slope. These forests parallel the increase in moisture from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean (Nadkarni). Within the preserve, there are more than 3,000 plant species, including 600 tree species, 300 orchids, 200 ferns, and 2000+ flowering plants (Wearing). Examples of some of these include the Mucuna urens (tropical liana), a woody perennial vinelike plant; Didymopanax pitieri, which is shade intolerant and needs forest gaps to grow; Guettarda poasana, which has extremely fragrant flowers and can be used to kill a variety of microbes; and Ficus crassiuscula (strangler fig), an epiphyte which sprouts at the tops of other trees and eventually kills its host (Collard).
The animal population supported by this vegetation is also extensive. The insect and spider populations in Monteverde are very large; the butterfly population alone has 500 species. Insects studied include spittlebugs, treehoppers, scarab beetles, butterflies, social wasps, ants, bees, mayflies, cockroaches, and termites. There are 161 species of amphibians and reptiles within the reserve, including caecilians (elongate limbless animals), salamanders, frogs, toads, lizards and snakes. Some examples of these include the Harlequin frog and the Monteverde Rain Frog. Over 300 species of birds live in Monteverde; these are a mix of North American, Mesoamerican, and South American birds. Examples include the famous quetzal, representative of many Neotropical forests, and toucans and hummingbirds. The mammal population is also very diverse, with 121 species in the MCFP; these include marsupials, shrews, bats, primates, rabbits, gophers, squirrels, rats, mice, porcupines, paca, agouti, anids, cats, peccaries, deer, and tapirs. Examples of specific mammals present are the mountain lion, jaguar, white-tailed deer, vampire bats, Mantled Howler monkey, and singing mice (Nadkarni).
Tropical mountain cloud forests are among the world’s most threatened ecosystems; if the cloud atmosphere is lost, the forest and most of its inhabitants die also. As a result of this rare environment, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve is home to many endangered species. The most publicized has been Bufo periglenes, the golden toad. Changes in the ecosystem, probably triggered by global warming, caused a population crash in 1987 “which affected most of the fifty species of frogs and toads that inhabit this area of forest. As a result, no fewer than twenty species became locally extinct. Unfortunately the golden toad is found nowhere else on earth - so in this case, local truly did mean global” (Moss 18). The golden toad has not been seen since, and it is now considered extinct. Other endangered animals within Monteverde include the resplendent quetzal, the bellbird, the tapir, jaguars, and spider monkeys (Conservation International website). Protection of these animals and of the cloud forest itself is an important, immediate issue.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is faced with many serious environmental issues. One of the most urgent problems concerns the existence of the cloud forest itself; studies have shown that the cloud has been lifting, providing less mist and rain to the environment beneath. There are two hypotheses explaining this lifting: global warming and deforestation. In a study published in Nature in 1999, Pounds et al. asserted: “The biological and climatic patterns (in Monteverde) suggest that atmospheric warming has raised the average altitude of the base of the orographic cloud bank” (611). This conclusion is built on evidence that evaporation from warm ocean surfaces released heat as it condensed, accelerating atmospheric warming and decreasing the difference in temperatures between the lowlands and the highlands. In response to this, the cloud-formation height, which is dependent on relative humidity surfaces, has moved up. The study also showed that the increasing dry periods in Monteverde are “associated with warm episodes of the El Nino/Southern Oscillation” (612). This study provided much evidence to support the “lifting-cloud-base hypothesis” and global warming has been widely accepted as at least part of the cause.
Another theory advanced to explain the lifting cloud is that of lowland deforestation. In a study published in Science in 2001, Lawton et al. advanced the theory that “reduced evapotranspiration after deforestation in tropical lowlands decreases the moisture content of the air mass flowing up the slopes of the adjacent mountains. This increases the lifting condensation level and thus the elevation of the cloud deck. The model results thus suggest that deforestation in the lowland tropics of the trade wind zone tends to shift the cloud forest environment upward in adjacent downwind mountains” (586). This theory does not contradict the global warming results; in fact, its authors maintain that the two theories are complementary. Both causes could have an effect on the moisture levels and thus height of the clouds, and both recognize the danger of the cloud deck disappearing altogether.
In addition to this major threat, another significant environmental issue has been discussed. Ecotourism, environmentally responsible travel intended to provide income to the host country and preserve natural habitats at the same time, is an issue that many countries around the world are facing. Costa Rica, with its vast system of national parks and private reserves, has embraced this idea, and in 1992 tourism became its largest industry. The theory itself sounds like a perfect solution. In an article in Americas, Martha Honey states: “Monteverde has been viewed as a model – a beacon light on the road to sustainable and sound ecotourism” (43). The Cloud Forest Preserve was originally intended for research and protection, not tourism, as evidenced by the mere 400 visitors in 1974. However, when the ecotourist boom began in the mid-1980’s, tourism increased 36 percent a year in the late 1980’s and 50 percent in the early 1990’s. “The Cloud Forest Preserve is now bringing in $850,000 a year – more income than all Costa Rica’s national parks combined” (Honey 44). Yet the increase in tourism has increased the population and infrastructure needs. The demand for water, electricity and telephone grew faster than supply, roads deteriorated, the price of land went up, and waste management problems were created. In addition to these problems, the inhabitants of the region began to feel alienated from their own land, and much of the profits from the tourist industry did not remain in the region. Monteverde is an example of the ecotourism conflict: while it does provide economic growth, it also creates social, economic, and infrastructure problems (Nadkarni). The emerging consensus from Monteverde and other ecotourist locations and studies appears to be that it is a great tool for sustainability but must be carefully administered and critically examined in order to be successful.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is an extremely important resource, both for Costa Rica and the international community. Its environment contains a tremendous amount of biodiversity that must be protected and studied. Like most of the remaining tropical forests, it is also threatened by many factors, most of them caused by humans. Studies have provided much evidence that global warming and deforestation are endangering the entire cloud forest, and these problems must be recognized and addressed before it is too late. The industry of ecotourism must also become more responsible for the effects it has upon the environment and community that it is utilizing. Monteverde is a clear example of the extent of human effects upon nature and the difficult and never-ending task of protecting those remaining areas of undeveloped natural habitat.
Collard, Sneed B., III. Monteverde: Science and Scientists in a Costa Rican Cloud Forest. New York: Franklin Watts Publishing, 1997.
Conservation International: Mesoamerica. http://www.conservation.org/xp/CIWEB/regions/meso_america/costarica_panama/costarica_panama.xml.
Honey, Martha. "Paying the price of ecotourism." Americas Nov 1994: 40-47.
Lawton, R.O., U.S. Nair, R.A. Pielke Sr., and R.M. Welch. “Climatic Impact of Tropical Lowland Deforestation on Nearby Montane Cloud Forests.” Science 19 Oct 2001: 584-587.
Moss, Stephen. “Weather Watch: Casualties.” The Guardian (London) 26 Apr 2001: Guardian Leader Pages, 18.
Nadkarni, Nalini M. and Nathaniel T. Wheelwright (eds). Monteverde: Ecology and Conservation of a Tropical Cloud Forest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Pounds, J. Alan, Michael P.L Fogden, and John H. Campbell. “Biological response to climate change on a tropical mountain.” Nature 15 Apr 1999: 611-615.
Wearing, Stephen and John Neil. Ecotourism : Impacts, Potentials, and Possibilities. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999.
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