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Costa Rica: A first-hand perspective on Sustainable Development

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Posted: February 16, 2018

By Rosemary Nicholson (BioRenewable Systems—BioProducts option major) "Is sustainable development possible? How to bring sustainability home?"
This photo depicts a sunset in Granada, Nicaragua with some of my best friends, after a day of studying the effect of tourism on local economies.

This photo depicts a sunset in Granada, Nicaragua with some of my best friends, after a day of studying the effect of tourism on local economies.

I am Rosemary Nicholson a current senior, Schreyer’s honors scholar, and am majoring in BioRenewable Systems—BioProducts Option. This past spring (2017) I had the opportunity to study abroad to the School for Field Studies in their Sustainable Development program in Costa Rica. This was not the glamorous tropical vacation side of Costa Rica that most people are familiar with, but still was one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had.

When I was abroad I lived in a community living environment alongside 23 other students, with no hot water, no air conditioning, class six days per week, minimal internet connection, and even a mild experience with illness in the tropics. However, by living this way I was able to gain a primary understanding of what it is like to live in a developing world, and truly gain a more realistic understanding of how the majority of the population lives.

Although the living situation was a shock, I was in a program that had the opportunity to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world and have a completely immersive education experience. I was able to learn about the mangrove ecology while on a boat floating through a mangrove forest, I learned about natural resource management inside several different national parks, and was able to have discussions firsthand with local coffee farmers about the pros and cons of agroforestry and organic growing practices while touring their “fincas”.  In addition to the field trips and travel I was able to experience in Costa Rica, our program also took us to Nicaragua, which allowed us to compare and contrast the sustainable development between the two countries. A place that differs dramatically in culture, development status, politics, but holds similar opportunities for things like eco-tourism and potential of being a “green” country.

In addition to the classroom/field-trip portion of my program, I was also able to work on an intensive research project that analyzes carbon storage and sequestration in tropical agroforestry systems. This is something that has dramatically improved my technical research and writing skills, which allowed me to gain a first-hand understanding of what field research entails. As well as working closely with faculty to contribute to a research area that is dramatically impacting agriculture practices in the developing world.

This trip made it apparent to me the unnoticed privilege we have in the United States and how much harder we all must work to make a difference in combating global problems such as rising population and climate change. On many occasions, my eyes were opened to the vast over-consumption of both resources and material things that exist in our society, the devastating damage to our ecosystems that is likely anthropogenic, and how much is wasted in the United States vs. Central America.

In conclusion, I cannot express how grateful I am to Penn State and the College of Agriculture, for allowing me to study with the School for Field Studies. Without a doubt, my life has been dramatically changed by this experience. I have come home with so much perspective on the developing world, particularly related towards the environment, and my goal is to continue to fight for changes in our world to benefit our planet. If you are reading this and wondering what you could do right now, I encourage you to consider your consumption habits (What do you buy? What do you eat? Do you really need that? Can you recycle?), limit your consumption of natural resources (turn off the lights, don’t run the water, is it possible to walk or bike?) and really try to be conscious of your individual effects on the environment. We have one Earth, so it is critical for each and every one of us to consider our lifestyles and push for changes to be made, no matter how small they may seem.