Addressing climate change in luxury travel

25 November 2021

A Climate Change Conversation with Eric Palola of Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund

As Kasiiya forges a path toward more conscious, sustainable and responsible hospitality, issues such as climate change are inevitably top of mind. In an interview conducted by travel journalist Kathryn Romeyn with Kasiiya founder Mehdi Rheljari and Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund (GDFCF) executive director Eric Palola, we tackle the topic and address what a small hotel can do about it—if anything.


You can hear a recording of the interview by clicking the play button below:


Kathryn: Eric, you’ve worked in partnership with the Costa Rican government for years, as well as the National Wildlife Federation and Forest Stewardship Council. You’re extremely familiar with the distinctive province in which Kasiiya is located, Guanacaste. Can you explain a bit about why climate change is so serious for this region?

Eric: Sure. Of course, the tropical climate and biodiversity are what attract visitors to the Guanacaste region, along with Costa Rica’s international reputation for conservation. There are really two issues here. One is the natural climate variability between the dry season and the wet season in the tropical dry forest, which is found on the Pacific side of Costa Rica and actually originally stretched from Mexico all the way down to Panama. That has shaped the evolution of species in the tropical dry forest system in which Kasiiya sits.

And then the other, not surprisingly, is the cumulative effect of human activity, from the historic deforestation that occurred in Guanacaste province going all the way back to the Spanish colonization in the 1500s, primarily for cattle grazing, to the current and growing effect of climate change on Guanacaste in general. Essentially, the dry seasons are getting drier and there are many more intense rain events during the wet season. These extremes are being pushed by large-scale fluctuations in ocean currents and temperature that are in turn greatly amplified by climate change.

Kathryn: So is climate change actually responsible for this being the last tropical dry forest?

Eric: Well, different kinds of tropical dry forests exist all over the world: the Serrano in Brazil, areas of South Africa and Mexico. But the tropical dry forest in Costa Rica is really the last remaining intact chunk in terms of size and depth in Central America, in the New World. The largest block is located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), just north of Kasiiya where we work. There are fragments of tropical dry forest still throughout that original biome from Mexico to Panama, but fragments do not make a forest. That’s a really difficult concept to wrap your head around because you see trees and you see animals moving around, but a forest is not complete unless it’s contiguous and of a sufficient scale that the ecological processes can go on by themselves.

Kathryn: And what are some of the most marked characteristics of this type of forest?

Eric: Incredible species diversity, for one. There are something like 200 different tree species in the tropical dry forest alone—in one patch you can see more different plant species than on the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States. And many plant species, insects, butterflies and mammals are endemic, not found anyplace else in the world. Some of the oldest ranches in the New World existed in Guanacaste beginning in the 1500s or so, which meant the forest was cleared and non-native grass was planted to feed the cattle. This went on for centuries to the point where people actually forgot that a tropical dry forest ever existed. In fact, some people thought this sort of African savannah-like landscape was natural.

Then Dr. Dan Janzen, who’s the president of GDFCF and has been working in Costa Rica since the 1960s, came along and said, “You know, actually there should be a forest here. And if you give it a chance to grow back, you will get a forest.” He discovered that remnant patches of dry forest still existed.

Kathryn: We humans have certainly caused a lot of damage that needs to be undone. Mehdi, you had mentioned Kasiiya’s property is particularly prone to experiencing the effects of climate change. In what ways have you seen this?

Mehdi: Well, I have to go back a little bit in history to when I was first interested in Guanacaste. I had read a book called Green Phoenix: Restoring the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica that traced the story of Dan Janzen and many, many, many other people who saved that forest. And what I loved about it is that you always hear really sad stories, like we’re doomed, but this story is a very positive one. It’s this one generation doing something great, so it’s possible. They’re not superhumans, they were just very committed.

Since the first year I spent in Guanacaste on the property, the dry season has extended at least 10 days or maybe even two weeks. The reason this piece of land where we are is special in terms of climate change is that if you come in mid-April and then you come back in May or June, you will not believe it is the same place. It’s almost dead and then born again. It becomes the most luxurious and incredibly full of life tropical forest. That is, for me, a very positive aspect of nature. It means that, as Dan Janzen said, if you let it be, it will survive— we just need to give it time. So, it was a lesson for me and I’m just at the beginning of the journey.

Kathryn: So the rain has tremendous influence, with both positives and negatives.

Eric: Yes. The coastal environment of Guanacaste is greatly influenced, not surprisingly, by the Pacific Ocean and what they call El Niño and La Niña events. In an El Niño situation, warm water in the Pacific Ocean influences weather patterns and tends to cause a drying effect, while cooler water and associated weather patterns, which tend to be wetter, are referred to as a La Niña. Costa Rica has experienced the extremes of each of these just in the last five years. For example, an El Niño was partially responsible for severe drought from 2015 through 2016, where there was estimated as much as 10% mortality of certain tree species in some parts of Guanacaste. The amphibian and insect populations really crashed as a result, and they’re only now beginning to rebound.

On the other hand, La Niña has the opposite effect, increasing rainfall on the Pacific side. And it was responsible for significant flooding in 2017 from Hurricane Nate, when the Guanacaste region received huge amounts of rain, which also had negative effects on coastal marine species due to the decreased salinity of the water in some bays. We’re coming into another La Niña period, which means that we could experience some heavy rainfall through the end of this year and into 2022. The main point is that the natural cycle of El Niños and La Niñas are being amplified by climate change and are causing more extreme storms and unusual droughts.

Kathryn: It sounds like there’s not as much balance right now as there once was.

Eric: Many of the species in Costa Rica and in tropical regions generally have evolved within very, very narrow temperature gradients. And so it’s almost counterintuitive because when you think about climate change, you have these dramatic, very present visions of polar bears stranded on icebergs, glaciers calving into the sea or cities being flooded by water. Here, the changes are much more imperceptible because you still see a green forest, you see a lot of life. But many of the very small ecological niches that are occupied by highly specialized species are starting to change, and that causes ripple effects. That means birds that feed on a very particular flower that flowers only at a particular time of year may not be able to because the flower wasn’t pollinated at the right time.

Many insects in the heat of the dry season will migrate into the cloud forest or to the Caribbean in order to essentially hibernate and find cooler, wet refuge. Now, due to climate change, army ants that are never seen at high elevations are actually making their way up the side of the volcanoes and predating some of these hibernating wasps and moths and butterflies. That’s just one little example of changes that are underway throughout the tropical forest and particularly this region of Costa Rica.

Kathryn: So do you think it’s possible for a relatively small hotel such as Kasiiya to actually help combat climate change, or at least make a positive impact?

Eric: Absolutely. I think a small hotel can do two things to deal with climate change. First, it can set an example in the way it is designed, how the hotel uses energy and water, how it’s integrated into the landscape and how it strives to understand the biology in which it sits. All of this contributes to a smaller carbon footprint, and it is something that Kasiiya is already doing very well. And I commend you for that. Other hotels and businesses can follow this example.

The second role a hotel can play is basically to be a good neighbor and support those projects and programs that help Costa Rica maintain its clean and green image and contribute to biodiversity health and restoration in the face of climate change. Kasiiya is doing this in part by supporting local research on marine ecology and insect biodiversity, as well as supporting our organization, whose mission is to support the biodiversity that has survived.

One of the world’s largest tropical restoration projects, Area de Conservación Guanacaste, which I mentioned before, is only an hour away from the hotel. Having a healthy environment is such an essential part of Costa Rica’s brand, and I’m fairly optimistic because of the leadership of businesses like Kasiiya doing it in a very sensitive way that doesn’t really disrupt the coastal ecology.

Mehdi: I wanted to add that when you build, you can build differently. Right now a lot of people think that airlines create the biggest impact in terms of carbon, but something I found out doing my research is that cement and steel produce twice the amount of carbon than the whole tourism sector. So building without cement and steel, which is something we have nearly done—we have a little bit of steel—is already good. It’s better. And the reason we built like this was not that we knew about cement and steel. I didn’t. It was because we wanted to be able to adapt. We built to adapt and not to last, because we know that rivers can happen after flooding like in 2016. We had to move a couple of platform tents because of that.

It’s true that the coast will be more impacted than most of the other places where people are living. I just finished a book from Bill Gates about how to avoid climate disasters, and he estimated that the cost of climate change on coastal cities will be a trillion dollars per year. So even as a businessman, if you invest in any beachfront business you need to think about that. An event may happen once every 20 years, but it can be catastrophic. So you have got to accept it, put it in your plan and start to understand it. If you understand the land much better, you will act better, you will adapt and there will be a chance we can really reduce our impact on the coastline by a lot. We should not aim to reduce the number of people, but we should educate, understand and act differently. There will be a lot of technologies in the future that will help us.

Kathryn: Eric, you’ve had some amazing success with the Area de Conservación Guanacaste, both inland and in the ocean.

Eric: Mehdi earlier referenced the book, Green Phoenix, which is a great read, and the history of ACG goes back to 1985 when Dan Janzen and his wife, Winnie, went from ivory tower academics to really applying themselves to conservation and protection. All the species they were studying were at risk of extinction and collapse because of the loss of the tropical dry forest. So they took a very small national park called Santa Rosa that was only 10,000 hectares in size and over a period of about 25 to 30 years they raised a lot of money internationally.

With the help of a lot of Costa Ricans and political permission from the president, they grew this area to its current size, which is roughly 169,000 hectares. That’s about 420,000 acres or about 640 square miles. And what makes it really special is not just its size, but the fact that you’ve got four distinct ecosystems that are contiguous to each other going from west to east: coastal marine, tropical dry forest, cloud forest on the tops of the three volcanoes and then over the Continental Divide into the Caribbean rainforest. And that is super important, especially these days when we talk about climate adaptation, because it’s a place that’s big enough that allows species to move and adapt. Our motto these days is to be kind to the survivors of climate change and make a protected area as big as possible so that you give species the room to evolve and to adapt to the effects of climate change, which we know are coming.

It’s going to affect different species in different ways, but you basically give them the best possible chance to survive. You’ve got a very large, complex area containing 65% of Costa Rican biodiversity, and an estimated almost 3% of total global biodiversity, just inside the protected area, so it’s significant. We also have a very important system of employment and training of local people for research. We operate 12 remote research stations throughout the park that employ 38 local Costa Rican parataxonomists. These are people who actually go out and collect and do graduate-level field research, even though most of them do not have anything more than an eighth grade or high school education.

That’s led to the discovery of roughly 12,000 species of moths and butterflies and other types of species using a genetic fingerprinting technique, known as DNA barcoding. All this is done in very close partnership with the Costa Rican government and working side-by-side with them and Costa Rica’s equivalent of the national park service. Scientific discovery is really important and there are still many, many species that are being discovered. On average, we identify somewhere between 500 to 1,000 species each year, and that informs conservation management.

One way to think about it is: research to learn, learn to teach, and teach to conserve. Even with the effects of climate change that are globally pushing down on insect populations, there’s a tremendous, tremendous reservoir of biodiversity in ACG.

Kathryn: Incredible! I know the two of you, Kasiiya and Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund, are partnering. What does that look like?

Mehdi: We have two big projects, one that will take a couple of years to be put in place. That is that I would love that every single guest who comes to Kasiiya has a positive impact on the place that they visited, so you leave knowing that your stay has actually helped the place. This is a bit more complex because it’s not just about carbon footprint. Of course, we’re going to calculate the carbon footprint carbon of a family coming from London or New York, but it’s also about the animals. What we are trying to do with Eric and his team is hopefully in a couple of years—with our 20% of profit going into those types of actions—we will be able to buy one or two of what we call forest corridors, which are forests between other parks. When animals want to go to another park to find water, they have to go through farmland, but if we buy these and give them to ACG then it’s sacred. The animals could go there, but at the same time, it will balance the footprint of every guest. This will take time, but we will do it.

Another one is barcoding, but we’ll have a special podcast to talk about it. It’s exciting because we are acting. We are all concerned, but ACG is helping us be part of the solution.

Kathryn: That’s amazing to hear. I assume this is the dream you told me you had about GDFCF?

Mehdi: Yes. I would love when you go to a place and you love it, you know that when your children will go back it will be even nicer, more vibrant and alive.

Kathryn: I know we all agree on that. Thank you both for your time. I’m very inspired and excited to hear about all of the positive actions you’re taking.

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