Costa Rican Land Use Impacts on Stream Quality

This topic submitted by Matt Lesher ( at 3:06 PM on 5/18/05.

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Costa Rican Land Use Impacts on Stream Quality
By Matt Lesher
Costa Rica Trip 2005

Costa Rica is located within Central America and only seven degrees north latitude of the equator. Costa Rica is a tropical country and has a variety of habitats throughout varying from high mountains areas to low lying areas near the sea. This wide variety provides many different types of ecosystems within the small area of Costa Rica. The different ecosystems make Costa Rica a good area in which to study and preserve areas of interest. This paper discusses how different land use practices, such as land conservation and land that is used for agriculture production impact stream quality.

Within the tropics and especially Costa Rica there are many different types of land conservation programs. Costa Rica has 20 national parks and eight biological reserves throughout the country covering every different ecosystem within the country (worldheadquarters). These parks and reserves are developed to protect the biodiversity of flora and fauna throughout Costa Rica. As of 2002 11% of the country had been protected by national parks and reserves, which is equivalent to having Texas and Oklahoma as parks and reserves in the United States (mongabay).

There are many other different organizations that are trying to protect desirable ecosystems in Costa Rica other then the national government. One of the more familiar organizations is The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy’s areas of interest are the Osa Peninsula which is the south western part of the country and the La Amistad/ Talamanca region in the south eastern part of the country ( In 1975 The Nature Conservancy helped the Costa Rican government acquire land for the creation of 100,000 acre Corcovado National Park on the western part of Osa Peninsula. The peninsulas extreme biodiversity present with the primary rain forest with over 700 different tree species and other animals such as jaguar, squirrel monkey and 375 bird species ( The La Amistad/Talamanca region is believed to have the majority of Costa Rica’s plant and animal species because of the variation between the low and highlands within the region and it is still fairly undisturbed. This region is important for many different migratory bird species ( A new land conservation organization that was established in 2003 was the Costa Rica Conservation Trust (CRCT). This organization works toward sustainable development in ways that protects biodiversity and threatened ecosystems. CRCT achieves this by purchasing land that it believes has characteristics of important biodiversity of an area ( CRCT is highly motivated to work with the local stakeholders within the rural areas of Costa Rica to assist them in keeping their lands through the advancement of alternative economic strategies. When working with local stakeholders CRCT tries to help land owners switch to development that has minimal environmental impact while at the same time increasing standard of living. (

Over time Costa Rica has thrived off its natural resources for means of economic advancement. Costa Rica at one time was one of the most deforested countries in the world. The main reason for the clearing of the forests was for agriculture and cattle pastures. One of Costa Rica’s oldest sources of revenue throughout the county is coffee. Coffee production began in Costa Rica in the mid to late 1700’s in the Meseta Central area. This area was perfect for coffee production for the proper soils and the seasonal climate. By 1829 coffee was being export out of Costa Rica more then cacao, tobacco and sugar. The largest growing areas for coffee in Costa Rica are San Jose, Heredia, Puntarenas and Cartago provinces ( However, due to urbanization in the areas of San Jose Heredia, Cartago and Alajuela the farmers are being persuaded to sell the land to developers decreasing the economic revenue from coffee production.

Bananas, currently one of the biggest exports in Costa Rica was established in the mid to late 1800’s. In 1890 when the atlantic railway was finished bananas became the countries biggest export commodity. In 1911, Costa Rica became the world’s largest producer of bananas. Today most of the banana plantations are in the Estrella and Matina valleys, lowland of Santa Clara and the Sixaola river basin. Currently, Costa Rica is the second largest producer of bananas, only Ecuador exports more bananas then Costa Rica.
In 1998 Costa Rica had 150,000 ha (370,768 acres) planted in bananas that produced 115 million boxes of bananas with and export value of $670 million dollars (

During the 1970’s and 1980’s large amounts f rainforest were burned and converted into pasture for cattle. Costa Rica at one time was the largest beef exporter in Central America but when the United States stopped importing their beef the market in Costa Rica crashed ( After the crash of the beef market there were large vast areas covering millions of acres of cleared land.

The current land uses that are going on in Costa Rica can have sever impacts upon the streams within the country. The impacts that grazing cattle, coffee and banana plantations have on the land and streams are similar because land has to be cleared in order plant crops or to let cattle graze. When the land is cleared erosion of the soil can be a concern, because there are fewer plants that are able to slow the water down. Therefore the flow velocity of the water on the field surface is fast. The faster flow allows for larger sediment pick up that are then transported to the stream. With less vegetation to slow the water down large amounts of sediment are deposited into the streams which may cause problems for organisms living in the stream or cause other stream morphologic changes that may bring about instability.

A particular issue with coffee production is the scrubbing the coffee beans to remove the outer pulp. Many of the coffee plantations use to dump the excess pulp into rivers, which would affect the health and stability of the stream ( Coffee plantations are usually in lower ends of a watershed where bare soil surfaces may facilitate in increase soil erosion. Some coffee fields are drained by furrows that could contribute to the sediment overloading in the streams during high intensity rain fall (Jansson).

The concerns of banana plantations are the amount and kind of fertilizers that are used. Excessive fertilizer use can be bad due to the run off into the streams. Excess fertilizer in the stream allows organisms like algae to grow faster and use up more oxygen. With the algae using more oxygen the stream may develop dead zones that inhibit aquatic organisms to live there because of the lack of oxygen. Another issue in that past with banana plantations is the number of used banana bags that get washed out to sea. Sea turtles mistake the bags as jellyfish and eat then and they end of choking (

Land conservation initiatives that are developed by governments or private organizations can do a lot to promote good stream quality. The main goal for many land conservation organizations is to protect areas that are biologically important. One component of protecting areas of high biodiversity are to include areas that provide different habitats, and streams and the surrounding habitats can add to the biodiversity making it an area to protect. When streams run though large tracts of land that are protected this allows the stream to act like it would naturally without any out side influences that could impede this process. Any type of sustainable land use has many benefits for the land and the streams within the area.

Works Cited

“About CRCT: Philosophy.” Costa Rica Conservation Trust. 1 May 2005.

“Bananas of the Costa Rican Republic.” Center of Information About Costa Rica.
Slupsk, Poland. 1 May. 2005

“Costa Rica.” 30 April. 2005

“Costa Rica’s Conservation Movement: Every Day is Earth Day.” Global Volunteers.
1 May. 2005

“Cost Rica National Parks and Reserves” World headquarters. 30 April. 2005.

Infocostarica Staff. “The Coffee Produciton” 31 Dec. 2004.
Access data. 1 May. 2005.

Jansson, Margareta B. “Determining sediment source areas in a tropical river basin,
Costa Rica.” Catena 47 (2002) : 63-84.

“Osa Peninsula.” The Nature Conservancy. 30 April. 2005

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