The environmental inquiry method: trialing a new approach to teaching about ecosystems

On June 8th, we had the pleasure of organizing a workshop with the local environmental women’s group AGRICOP. Their goal: transforming a hectare of their land into a showpiece for regenerative agriculture.

We are constantly exploring new ways to get people excited about the countless upsides of regenerative agriculture. Rather than simply giving a lecture on the mechanics, we simply focussed on asking a few, important questions to which we then figured out the answers together: what is the ecosystem? Why is the ecosystem so important to us? We continued to quiz them until they themselves came up with answers: functioning ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, fertile soils, and many more basic things without which no one could imagine living.

With each question, we went further into details: how does the ecosystem provide us with clean air? What happens when we interrupt the process? How can we repair it? What are the answers to these questions if we consider clean water, fertile earth, the value of biodiversity, or climate stability?

It was wonderful to witness how, in an instructed Q&A game, the group itself ultimately was providing all the right answers – all we had to do was to ask. And at the end of the Q&A we showed them how we in the Refugio are addressing the solutions they themselves came up with. Maybe this inquiry-based method of teaching about ecosystems and regenerative agriculture can inspire others to sharpen people’s understanding of the natural cycles which sustain our life on earth.

The environmental inquiry method: trialing a new approach to teaching about ecosystems

We are very happy to have Quirine Melssen (www.quirinemelssen.nl), the well known performer from the Netherlands, join us for a month of volunteering. Apart from caring for our vegetable garden and preparing wonderful meals ‘from farm to table’, her classically trained, warm and engaging voice seems to touch not only us but also several animals in the Refugio. With her ‘Songs for the animals’ Quirine adds a whole new dimension to our aim of reconnecting with nature

Welcome to the team, Quirine!

We are excited to announce that a new animal species found a new habitat in the Refugio: the masked duck (Nomonyx dominicus), a reclusive and rarely seen diving duck of the tropical lowlands. They feed at night and during the day one can see them sleeping on the pond never far from the shore. They obviously enjoy their new home in between wildlife ponds and underbrush and we hope they will become regular breeders in the Refugio.

The return of the masked duck (Nomonyx dominicus)

Bela arrived last week from Austria to volunteer at the Refugio. He is a certified permaculturalist who recently helped building up a permacultural farm in Sri Lanka. His experience in the tropics and his fine sense for patterns comes in handy at the Refugio. 

Being very proactive, Bela is in charge now of the reorganisation of our vegetable garden.

Apart from being a wonderful team worker, he is also an accomplished draftsman and with his guitar he spreads joy wherever he goes.

Meet Bela, our new volunteer

The word ‘permaculture’ was coined in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a hybrid from ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. ‘Permanence’ here refers to sustainability, to the cyclic nature of agriculture rather than the dependence on finite resources.

They soon realized though that this permanence was not achievable when dealing with it in isolation. It can only arise from integrating agriculture into an interconnected system of all related elements: energy, forestry, economy, hydrology, waste management, animal husbandry, sustainable architecture etc. and, last but not least, community development.

A permacultural system develops from focussing on the relationships between its elements rather than only on their yield. By taking the cyclic nature of natural systems into consideration, permaculture is a no-waste system. It provides a blueprint for the development of sustainable human settlements on every level.

The 12 principles of permaculture

David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, describes 12 principles which should guide every permacultural project:

Observe and Interact 
By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Catch and Store Energy 
By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

Obtain a yield 
Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback 
We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

Produce No Waste
By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Design From Patterns to Details 
By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

Integrate Rather Than Segregate
By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things, and they work together to support each other.

Use Small and Slow Solutions 
Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.

Use and Value Diversity 
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal 
The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

Creatively Use and Respond to Change
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.

What is permaculture?

We are happy to welcome Christine from Germany to volunteer at the Refugio for a few weeks. Since her arrival our culinary joys received a significant upgrade. Inventively including ‘exotic’ herbs and plants grown in the Refugio she helps us make a large step towards our goal from-farm-to-table. 

At home, Christine owns the beautiful Restaurant Michelsberg-Hersbruck (www.michelsberg-hersbruck.de). Check it out, we are sure it will be worth it!

Welcoming Christine

Exciting news: for the first time since our arrival 5 years ago, we can announce the sighting of a mother with two cubs of the neotropical river otter, another species threatened by extinction that found a new habitat in the Refugio and even produced offspring. River otters have been brought to the brink of extinction through heavy hunting for their fur from 1950 to the 1970s. Current threats are habitat loss through illegal hunting, mining, water pollution and ranching. Attempts at captive breeding proved largely unsuccessful.

This species is an important ecological indicator because they prefer ecologically rich, aquatic habitats and have a low reproductive potential. We are proud and happy that these otters were choosing the Refugio as their new home.

Watch the video below to see them playing!

Appearance of the neotropical river otter (Lutra longicaudus) in the Refugio

Being a wildlife sanctuary and having the goal to create habitats for as many animal species as possible, sightings of new species are always an exciting event. The University of Costa Rica is monitoring the animal species living at the Refugio with camera traps. This time the ‘harvest’ was particularly exciting: besides the usual peccaries, koaties, ant eaters, tyras, currassows and many others, they captured ozelot, puma and jaguarundi – three big cats that are already threatened by extinction in Costa Rica.

Some of the shots the camera trap could capture are below.

silhouette of a jaguarundi in the back
ozelot
ozelot
puma
Endangered big cats captured on camera traps in the Refugio Tinti

In 2016, I came to Costa Rica in search of a land destroyed by the methods of human activity. The goal was to restore it and turn it into as many habitats for animals as possible while producing enough food for ourselves to become largely self-sufficient. I found this land in the South-West of the country, an unproductive swamp, toxic from decades of industrial rice cultivation, and when rice would not grow anymore, it was compacted by cattle herds. Local experts were convinced that the restoration of the soil would take a minimum of seven years if not more. Among other challenges, phosphorus levels were concerningly low and erosion was rampant. However, for me a perfect starting point.

The land I bought: an unproductive swamp, toxic from decades of industrial rice cultivation

We dedicated the first year exclusively to observation and analysis. We observed the sun, the wind, rainfall, micro climates throughout the year, we analysed the soil and water on many different spots, and drew maps with geodesic lines. In the dry season, when the groundwater was low, we walked the swamp and put bamboo sticks wherever we would sink in half a meter or more, to let nature guide us where to dig the wildlife ponds.

We then went on to develop a comprehensive plan, keeping in mind that nature’s strategy is working in cycles and consists of a network of many interconnected elements simultaneously. In permaculture we have a rule of thumb that every element must have at least two functions and every function must have at least one backup, a good start in creating a system whose interrelated elements ultimately become a system which, as a whole, is more than it’s parts.

We started with digging a series of wildlife ponds. The excavated earth we piled up inbetween those ponds resulting in areas that became just high and dry enough for a variety of swamp-trees to flourish, contributing to the reforestation of the biological corridor AMISTOSA. In addition, these ponds now provide habitats for a large variety of animals that had not been able to live here before, such as the boat-billed heron, green ibis and many other birds, turtles, a variety of fish and many others.

The next step was the restoration of the soil for which we applied several interconnected strategies: microorganisms, the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia), nitrogen-fixing ‘pioneers’ and weeds.

The microorganisms are the ‘cooks’ for the plants. They transform organic material into plant-available foods. Thus, the more microorganisms a soil contains, the richer it is. First, we breed them through hot compost, which is a method where the heat it produces kills most pathogens and all weed seeds. We then multiply them with compost tea and finally protect them with biochar.

Apart from microorganisms, we planted thousands of Mexican sunflowers, a fast-growing bush that not only fixes nitrogen from the air but also draws phosphorus from rocks in the depth of the soil. Regularly pruned and left on the soil as mulch, it protects the soil and, disintegrating slowly, it replenishes the soil with much needed nutrients and minerals. In addition, we intersperse the reforestation with a large variety and number of short-lived nitrogen-fixing ‘pioneers’, that prepare the soil for the slower growing and more delicate trees.

And finally, we do not uproot so called ‘weeds’. Weeds grow where other plants can’t and draw exactly those nutrients into their stems and leaves that the other plants can’t access. By regularly ‘chopping and dropping’ them they restore the soil and eventually prepare it for any future plant we want to grow. Once the canopy closes the ‘weeds’ have done their job and are shaded out.

The combination of all these strategies led to a failure rate (i.e., the fraction of young trees which do not make it until they can be left alone) of less than 3% on our land, whereas a failure rate of 10% to 15% are not rare in this area. After less than 4 years, soil samples were deemed by the laboratory as the ‘healthiest soil in the whole area’. The University of Costa Rica installed camera traps to monitor wildlife and at their last check in June 2021, they detected, beside many other animals, an ozelot, a puma and a jaguarundi – clear signs that our restoration efforts are working!

Transformation of the Refugio: from wasteland to wildlife sanctuary

Every living cell needs large amounts of phosphorus to flourish – from phosphate-backbones in their DNA to ATP in their energy production system and many other things. But contrary to the equally essential elements nitrogen and carbon that exist abundantly in the air, phosphorus is added to the soil just by weathering (dissolving of minerals on the Earth’s surface), which is a very slow process and thus, phosphorus is often one of the most lacking minerals in soils.

To speed up our restoration, local experts advised us to use synthetic phosphorus fertilizers in the first few years. Most of the world’s phosphorus though is obtained from phosphate mines in the Western Sahara under questionable circumstances, from an environmental and humanitarian point of view. In addition, synthetic phosphorus easily ‘leaches’ away, especially under swampy conditions, contaminating water bodies on their way. We were thus looking for a socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable alternative, and after some research we found the Mexican sunflower.

The Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) mines phosphorus from the depth of the soil with the help of a symbiotic fungus. The fungus grows its filaments by growing a digging cell which transforms then into a body cell, grows a new digging cell which again transforms into a body cell and so forth. When the digging cell hits a phosphorus molecule on the surface of a rock (most rocks contain phosphorus) it kind of ‘explodes’ and chips out the phosphorus particle from the rock. This particle then travels to the root of the Tithonia which pays with a ‘piece of sugar’ which in turn the fungus needs to grow.

The Tithonia grows fast and can be chopped regularly. And as all parts of the Tithonia are full of phosphorus, chopping and dropping them returns phosphorus to the topsoil. In addition, keeping the soil-pH balanced through compost provides the perfect conditions for phosphorus uptake in plants and after four years, our phosphorus levels were largely back to normal.