SEATTLE — In the mid-20th century, increased U.S. demand for inexpensive beef caused farmers in the Nandamojo River Basin in Costa Rica to burn down vast amounts of forest to create grazing room for beef cattle. This opened room for profit in the short term, but over time, due to the lack of trees and native grasses, wind and rain caused rapid erosion.
The fertile Nandamojo river basin began to experience serious environmental problems related to the erosion, all exasperated by climate change. As the weather in the valley became hotter and dryer, the Nandamojo river has suffered severely, drying up entirely for part of the year. With water tables that are already low due to the erosion taking away the ground’s ability to absorb water, nearby communities are struggling through the dry season with little available water.
The Nandamojo river basin communities, which once supplied their own food using the fertile land, now rely heavily on imported food. The agrarian traditions of the region are rapidly disappearing under these conditions as people struggle to find ways to sustain their quality of life. Capturing the sense of desperation, The Tico Times, a Costa Rican newspaper based out of San Jose, described the concerns brought by the drought in 2009, saying Costa Rica’s farmers “now wonder if they will have enough water to make it through the next summer.” As noted, this article was published in 2009, but the drought has continued into 2017.
In light of these circumstances, the U.S. nonprofit Restoring Our Watershed has been working in the Nandamojo river basin for more than 10 years to restore the ecosystem to its full potential. ROW has its vision splashed across its homepage, declaring its goal to “restore the Nandamojo as a healthy and resilient ecosystem functioning in balance with human communities and economies.”
ROW operates as a small nonprofit with low overheads and is looking to expand its effective business model. Ithaca College graduate Brendan Davis, who joined ROW as an intern and returned after graduation, explained that ROW is able to efficiently use funding and connect with local communities across the region in a coordinated effort with other partner organizations.
Newspaper The Voice of Guanacaste published an article on March 6, 2017, describing some of the biggest farming issues brought by the drought. In the article, a local rancher explained that although farmers recognize the issues, they can’t implement new methods to adapt due to a lack of money to invest. Seeking to change this pattern, ROW’s efforts act as a force multiplier by focusing on a locally oriented planning system. By helping one farm plan for sustainable land use, the entire community benefits with more food and a better quality of life.
Davis explained in an interview that the work with local farmers to reforest land takes a long time to yield visible results, given the fact that erosion can’t be dialed back overnight, but the work is critical to pulling the region out of poverty and to fighting the effects of climate change.
In addition to working with farmers to restore the land, ROW works to build awareness and educate communities on sustainable land use, focusing on methods that the average person can easily use. With this combination of efforts, which also includes a microfinancing program called “Bees for Trees,” ROW is making progress towards its goal of restoring the Nandamojo river basin to its fertile potential.
ROW’s successes have shown that small nonprofits with good business models and hardworking supporters can significantly change the effects of poverty around the world.
– Kevin Abbott