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2008-01-27 | story

Francisco Alpizar gets his boots muddy

Francisco Alpizar

”I want to create a research environment that works like an academy but with people who are prepared to get their boots muddy – ready to go out into the field and to contact policy makers,” says Francisco Alpizar, coordinator of the EfD in Central America. 

Francisco Alpizar completed his PhD in environmental economics at the University of Gothenburg and is now coordinator of the Environment for Development Program for Central America. Among other things he is doing research on Costa Rica’s national parks, which include some of the most interesting biodiversity hotspots in Central America.

”The most important reason why I wanted to be an environmental economist is that I love these parks. I want to make sure that these protected areas are well-managed and funded according to their particular objectives, be it conservation, tourism, education, or a mix of these,” says Alpizar.

The last stretch of the gravel road from Sacramento to the ranger station near Barva Volcano in Braulio Carrillo National Park is quite bad. Alpizar is bumping back and forth in CATIE’s four-wheel drive vehicle. (CATIE is the Spanish acronym for Tropical Agriculture and Higher Education Center, of which the EfD program is an integral part.)

”The tourist busses can’t do this road. What we want to study in our research project is the implementation of an integral approach to tourism management that closely links carrying capacity with a fee structure that accurately captures tourist preferences. Moreover, this study is conducted in close consultation with the local communities that are most likely to affect, or be affected by, changes in the park: What would this park turn into if the road were improved? The answer to this question partly depends on the level of previous planning and work with the local community.”

Collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and SINAC

Francisco Alpizar’s research team is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on this particular study. The results, presented to the park director in early 2007, show that in terms of visitors it would be worth restoring the road. The park is part of a huge protected area, one of the largest in Costa Rica. Yet, in comparison to other parks, Barva Volcano has very few visitors due to its relative inaccessibility, the dirt road, and lack of public transportation. The community is deeply committed to protecting the area, and sees the reconstruction of the road as a positive result of the joint work with national park authorities.

Although Costa Rica is an international leader in conservation and the country’s national park system may be one of the best developed in Latin America, deforestation is still a problem. About 25 percent of the country’s land is protected area, mainly national parks. But outside protected areas, the pressure on land for pasture, agriculture, and recently residential use, is high. All land use change is considered illegal in Costa Rica. Making the rain forest more accessible to the public is another way of making it economically productive and hence less likely to be cleared.

Alpizar works closely with the Costa Rican System of Conservation Areas (SINAC). His advisory role in the design of the management of Barva Volcano and other protected areas addresses, for example, establishment of entrance fees, optimal park design for ecotourism and participatory decision making with local communities.

Besides research on sustainable funding and management of protected areas, Alpizar and his colleagues are working on adaptation to climate change, the effects of decentralization on natural resources and drinking water management, among other topics.

Devoted to EfD and LACEEP

Alpizar devotes half of his time to the EfD Program for Central America and the other half directing LACEEP, the Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Economics Program, established in 2005 with support from Canada’s IDRC and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida).

From 1997 to 2002, he studied environmental economics in the University of Gothenburg PhD program, and after completing his thesis he began teaching and researching at CATIE. Hence, when the Environmental Economics Unit (EEU) at the University of Gothenburg initiated a new phase, moving from the teaching of students from developing countries to building domestic research capacity in their home countries, it was natural to ask Alpizar to coordinate the program for Central America and locate it in CATIE.

”I want to create a research environment that works like an academy but with people who are prepared to get their boots muddy – ready to go out into the field and to contact policy makers," says Alpizar.

Such a center, he explains, should have seminar series and ongoing interaction with researchers at the center as well as with researchers from abroad coming and going.

”My vision for the longer term is to create an institution that becomes a point of reference for everyone doing environmental economics in Central America. For that, we have to create a research environment that is encouraging, rich, interesting, and rewarding.”

The best part of being an environmental economist

On his way to the top of the volcano at 2,906 meters, he explains more about his choice of occupation.

”I like the opportunity to do fieldwork. As a researcher I’ve done many different things, but I always end up coming back to Costa Rica’s protected areas. Working in the context of protected areas and being able to visit them inside out, not as a visitor but as an insider, is for me the best part of being an environmental economist. The possibility of spending time at an isolated station is just great. It’s a very peaceful experience.”

At the Barva ranger station there is a wooden sign saying:
This land belongs to Costa Ricans 
Some have already died
Others are still alive
But most are not yet born

Link to Francisco Alpizar´s page

By Karin Backteman