Morning at the Biological Preserve (1/7)
After our first night at La Selva Biological Center and a hearty breakfast of rice and beans, we started the day’s activities with a guided hike through the rainforest.
Leading us through the sweltering heat of the jungle was Kenneth, our OTS guide for the day. Obscured by the dense tree cover, macaws and howler monkeys could be heard (but not seen) calling across the rainforest canopy. On the ground we saw a number of beetles, frogs, and bullet ants. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) we did not see any snakes during the day.
We took a brief respite on a boardwalk cutting through a large swamp. Kenneth explained that depending on the season, the swamp could expand to more than double its size and highlighted how the various forms of swamp life have adapted to this dynamic environment. He pointed out a cecropia tree just off the boardwalk, explaining that the tree was a pioneer species, meaning that it is one of the first species that will grow in a freshly cleared forest area. Covering the tree were tiny cecropia ants. The ants used the tree as shelter and, in return, help defend the tree by attacking other insects and herbivorous animals.
On our way out of the jungle we caught a glimpse of a family of spider monkeys climbing through the trees overhead. Lucky us! According to Kenneth, spider monkeys are not seen as often as howlers or Capuchin monkeys.
After a quick lunch, I rallied up the troops and we headed for CORBANA.
Arriving at CORBANA we were greeted by one of the laboratory leaders, Miguel Gonzalez. He explained to us the role of CORBANA and how it operates. Since Miguel only spoke Spanish, Dr. Werner Rodriguez assisted by acting as a translator. Miguel explained that 25¢ from every box of bananas sold by farmers goes to CORBANA to pay for the research they conduct. This research primarily concerns combating fungi and nematodes that attack banana plants. We were led from lab to lab, with various lab technicians and researchers presenting information along the way (unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos within the labs).
CORBANA is a nongovernmental organization that is funded by the farmers that the researchers support. Farmers bring samples (primarily soil and plant tissue) of their crops to CORBANA for testing. CORBANA researchers investigate the samples and return to the farmers with recommendations and new tools to combat a myriad of issues. Additionally, CORBANA has 9 meterological research stations that provide accurate weather predictions and comprehensive agriculture strategies.
The researchers described to us that nematodes, a microscopic worm, pierce the cells of the plant and pull nutrients away from it. In order to combat these organisms, several strategies were developed (Gonzalez, 2016):
- Using other fungi or bacteria to attack the nematodes
- Using plant extracts to drive off banana-specific nematodes
- Using organic soil amendments
- Rotating Bananas out with a crop of Pineapples every few years
- Using nemoticidal chemicals
The most sustainable of all these strategies is the use of crop rotation. Typically, bananas grow in the same soil year after year, draining the soil of the nutrients the plants need and fostering the growth of banana specific nematodes. By rotating in a crop of pineapples, farmers could allow banana specific nutrients to replenish in the soil and drive of the banana specific nematodes. However, as we soon learned on our tour of the banana plantation, this method is extremely labor intensive. The easiest solution is the use of nematocidal chemicals, but these chemicals can end up in the the final product or in water runoff, causing to both humans and the surrounding environment alike. CORBANA’s researchers are looking to use alternative solutions.
The Banana Plantation
We drove about a half hour from CORBANA to the plantation. On our way in, we passed by a number of small houses. Miguel, who accompanied us to the plantation, explained how the banana pickers are allowed to live on the farm in these houses for a reduced wage. He also explained that the plantation refuses to motorize the system by which bananas are delivered to the packaging house. This commitment to manual labor allows the plantation to provide more jobs to the surrounding area, which is a principle of social sustainability.
We were led into the banana plantation to learn about how bananas grow. Did you know that bananas are actually a large type of grass? The way that a banana tree grows presents an interesting problem for banana farmers.
Banana trees are composed of several ‘stalks’ that share one central root system. A tree has one main shoot that flowers and produces fruit. around the base are ‘sucker’ shoots, which may be leafy. All suckers but one are removed to prevent a reduction in yield. Once the main shoot is harvested, it is removed from the ground and the sucker shoot becomes the main tree. Another sucker will appear and the cycle continues (Campbell, 2008).
However, farmers will often see their plants start to ‘drift’ as the suckers grow up off to the side of the original stalk. This causes a lot of headaches and requires trees to continue to be shifted back to maintain some order.
After our tour of the banana plantation, we headed to the packing house. We saw bananas pulled in by workers on a series of overhead rails. Once in the packing house, the unripe bananas were separated from the bunch and deposited into a giant bath of water and diluted chemicals. The cleaned bananas are retrieved on the other side of the bath to be boxed and shipped. Although the water was reused for several cycles, it ultimately gets dumped into a drainage ditch the leads back into the plantation. This runoff contains chemicals and latex produced by the banana and is not treated at all before reentering the watershed.
On our way back to La Selva, we discussed the effects of monocropping. It was mentioned that commercial bananas today are almost entirely of the Cavendish variety (Gonzalez, 2016). While this makes planting and maintenance easier on the surface, it actually promotes the development of Cavendish-hungry nematodes and fungi in the soil and reduces the plantation’s resistance to disease (GRACE, 2016).
After dinner in the OTS cafeteria, students broke off to go on self guided night hikes or work on the projects.
Leaving La Selva (1/8)
The group breakfasted at 6:30 and spent some time looking around the gift shop before saying goodbye to La Selva. We boarded the bus and headed back to Hotel La Rosa in Alajuela.
After a brief pit stop to visit shops in San José, our group grabbed a bite to eat at restaurant nearby the hotel to discuss some readings. We had made plans to go zip lining later in the day but due to a slow lunch we missed our window of opportunity. Faced with an open afternoon, the majority of students opted to take it easy by the pool while two other students went off with Wei to explore Poás Volcano.
We said our goodbyes to Luis and Mercedes, the two UCR students traveling with us, and loaded up into cabs to grab dinner in downtown Alajuela. We met up with freshly flown in MSU students at the Backpacker hostel and walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant together to conclude the night
In-person interview with Miguel Gonzalez, Laboratory Leader at CORBANA, 2016
Campbell, Bob. Cavendish Bananas (n.d.): n. pag. DPI. NSW Government. Web. <http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/251898/Banana-growing-guide-cavendish-bananas-Complete.pdf>.
“Biodiversity.” GRACE Communications Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <http://www.sustainabletable.org/268/biodiversity>.