Warm, wet Costa Rica is home to a huge amount of the world’s biodiversity – or different kinds of life. The land here is a beautiful rainbow of plants, insects and animals! Still, Costa Rica’s earthquakes can make it a shaky place to live.
What makes this environment special or different?
Costa Rica is a small country. About five Costa Ricas could fit inside of my home state of New Mexico! Still, Costa Rica is home to a huge amount of the world’s biodiversity. Biodiversity means “different kinds of life.” Costa Rica is home to over 500,000 different species of plants and animals, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world!
We have been lucky enough to take some great nature hikes during our time here, and I have gotten to see, hear, smell and touch some amazing plants and animals. Sometimes the plants are so gigantic and strange to me, I feel like I am in a scene from Jurassic Park! (Does anyone watch Jurassic Park anymore?) Why does Costa Rica have so many more different kinds of life than New York, for example? One reason is that Costa Rica has so many different kinds of climates. There are rainforests, beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, mountain ranges, wetlands as well as mangrove forests and plains. This means that plants and animals that are adapted to any one of these habitats can live here. Warm and moist all year round, it is a great place for life to flourish. Another reason is that Costa Rica and its southern neighbor, Panama form the bridge that connected North America with South America millions of years ago. This narrow strip of land contains living species that have evolved in both continents.
What parts of this environment help people to live here?
Biodiversity actually helps people live easier. Do you remember how in our Field Notes on food, we went to the organic farmers market and ate the green orange? While I was there, I talked to a lot of farmers who explained to me that biodiversity – the existence of many different kinds of life – is really important for growing food. When there are more kinds of potatoes, it is more likely that they will survive insects or diseases. Pesticides keep away bugs, they told me, but they can also make people and animals sick.
I met one grower, Carmen, who explained to me that if there are one hundred kinds of tomatoes, it is important that humans keep growing each and every kind, not just a few. Each different kind has its own specialties. One might keep away bugs. One might help your onions grow if you plant them next to each other. One might taste better! One might contain a cure for cancer. Here in Costa Rica, the many kinds of life have provided medicine for people for centuries, helped their crops grow, provided materials for housing, clothing, art and fun. Biodiversity means all kinds of life, including humans, live in a richer, healthier world. In that way, Costa Rica’s many kinds of life help lots of delicious food grow.
Did you know that cashews come from these fruits?
I have noticed another way that Costa Rica’s environment helps people live here. A warm climate with lots of biodiversity can make life less expensive! Houses do not have to be insulated to keep people warm, and nobody pays for heat. In the house I live in, there are no tight windows or screens, mostly simple glass shutters. In the country, houses can be tiny because of the big yards where people can grow food, hang out clothes to dry, cook, and simple spend time. When we buy our food from far away, it costs more because it has to be shipped long distances. Costa Rica has so many fresh tropical fruits and root vegetables grown nearby and sold in stands, markets and grocery stores all over town. This can make eating cheap because food doesn’t have to travel far. The same goes for seafood. Because Costa Rica borders an ocean on both sides, it is easier to get fresh fish at a very low price.
What challenges do people face living in this environment?
Costa Rica is full of many beautiful kinds of life, but living here is not always easy. One rocky challenge is the earthquakes. I have felt two since I have been here, both early in the morning when I had just woken up! It felt like someone was shaking my bed. The earthquakes I felt were little, but there have been some big earthquakes that have destroyed buildings, homes and roads. Costa Rica lies on a “fault line” which is a place where two of the earth’s tectonic plates lie next to each other. Tectonic plates are pieces of the earth’s crust that actually slide around on top of its molten mantle, or the next inner later! Scientists are still learning about this, but what they know is that these plates move up against each other and create pressure, which can cause the earth’s surface to crack, making the earth shake. Places in the world that lie on fault lines have more earthquakes, mountains, and volcanoes. California is on a fault line, and that’s why there are more earthquakes than in New York, for example.
My Spanish teacher, Doña Sarita, was just telling me about the last serious earthquake, which happened in the Nicoya Peninsula in the northwest, about six months ago. It destroyed schools and buildings. But, she said, it was very lucky that it happened near a city center, and not in the city center. No one was killed, she said, thank goodness. Some clever construction of the buildings has saved many lives.
How have people been adapting to this environment?
To protect buildings and homes in Costa Rica from being destroyed in an earthquake, many are designed in special ways to handle being shaken. Special kinds of concrete and strong steel frames make a building stronger. Foundations are sometimes made to shift a little bit with the shaking earth, so that they bend instead of breaking. Sometimes they build really thick walls. The church in the Central Park has walls that are three feet thick. (See the picture!) These cool, creative ways that engineers have learned to build have helped many Costa Rican cities and towns survive big quakes.
Palm leaves are still used to make roofs of some houses in rural and beach areas.
One of these is from a mango tree, one from a papaya tree.
The jungle and beach environments meet in Costa Rica
An “ear” seed pod from Costa Rica’s national tree, the Guanacaste