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Research Spotlight: UGA's Ecolodge

by Carole VanSickle



Back to the Land in Costa Rica. You awaken to birdcalls and open your eyes to a riot of colors just outside your window. Soon, you head down a winding rural path to the leaf-shaded cafeteria, where you meet with your partners over breakfast to discuss whether today you’ll be, say, trapping birds, counting bees, sampling streams for water quality or venturing into the locally owned and operated coffee plantations to help the locals get certified in environmentally friendly farming by a major coffee company. This is life at the lab if you’re a researcher at UGA’s Ecolodge in San Luis, Costa Rica.

Purchased by UGA in 2001, the Ecolodge is situated on land that forms a corridor between the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and the San Luis Valley below. Most of this 153-acre research station remains in its natural state. The buildings there include a laboratory, a library and accommodations for researchers as well as “ecotourists.” A portion of the land is also devoted to farming, given that much of the research carried out in the area has to do with noninvasive and restorative farming techniques. Moreover, the Ecolodge lies near a large piece of land called Finca La Bella (literally “Farm the Beautiful”) that has been divided into parcels owned by a cooperative and managed by the residents of San Luis for simultaneous cultivation and reforestation.

A good part of the station’s mission, according to Alan Covich, a UGA ecologist, is to serve as an example of sustainability in local and international communities, foster understanding of natural, cultural and social resources, and manage natural resources while encouraging a healthy development of the local economy and preserving Costa Rican culture, values and traditions.

Lindsay Stallcup, a UGA doctoral student in ecology and a Fulbright scholar, collects samples for her research involving the ecosytems of streams.

“The result is a new doorway of opportunity for local residents and UGA researchers to evaluate how natural ecosystems provide goods and services to the local community,” Covich said. “The Ecolodge opens its doors to scientists from any discipline who wish to implement research on the campus and in the surrounding area. And students returning to UGA from their first encounters in the tropical cloud forest tell me that the experience has changed their views on the importance of biodiversity and, often, that their career goals have moved in entirely new directions.”

Lindsay Stallcup, a UGA doctoral student in ecology and a Fulbright Scholar, studies how coffee cultivation influences stream ecosystems.

“I’m looking at the decomposition of coffee leaves themselves to see what kind of a food resource they might be for invertebrate and microbial consumers in streams,” she said.

Recently, Stallcup expanded her research to include an investigation of the impacts of coffee processing plants on aquatic ecosystems.

“This aspect is really interesting because coffee is not only an agricultural product; it’s also become a tourist attraction in and of itself,” she said. “Local farmers are generally very supportive of people doing research on their land, because good ecological research benefits farmers, as well.”

Research can help farmers to refine their techniques, for example, or get certified by international companies that support environmentally-friendly, high-quality coffee.

Sonia Hernandez-Divers, a UGA grad student supported by the National Science Foundation, is studying how reforestation efforts in the San Luis Valley below the Ecolodge — which include teaching farmers how to plant “shade-grown,” or rustic, coffee on the forest floor or among fruit trees — are affecting local bird populations.

“I’m interested in finding out how this type of farming, replete with human activities, domestic animals and their associated pathogens, actually impacts the avian populations,” she said.

Valerie Peters, a UGA ecologist sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute, has tailored her research to enlightened farming in the San Luis area.

“I look at coffee plantations as an actual tool for conservation,” she explained.

In return for the parcels of land in Finca La Bella, farmers have agreed to use all- natural controls for their crops, making the area entirely pesticide-free. Peters believes that maintaining a consistent and diverse population of birds and insects — specifically bees — throughout the year will create natural ecological services within the agricultural system. By growing certain plants that provide resources to birds or bees, a farmer can ensure that crops are sufficiently pollinated to create higher yields and better grades of coffee.

Peters’ project also has a training element. Four to five times a year she takes five to 10 Earthwatch volunteers to the Ecolodge to study diversity and farming techniques as part of her research team.

“At some point, there may be coffee company-sponsored competitions for these spots,” she said, “because many corporations prefer shade-grown coffee and want employees to understand the techniques and ecological benefits involved in this kind of cultivation.”

In addition to providing a unique research resource to the academic community, the Ecolodge dedicates about 30 percent of the campus to small-scale farming. Students and other guests help with farm activities, and the station is home to a collection of medicinal and edible plants that are used to introduce people to the native flora of the San Luis Valley.


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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