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Rios Tropicales Story: Planting Seeds of Awareness
By Rafael Gallo, Co-Founder, Rios Tropicales
Vision for Sustainable Adventure
In 1985 Jimmy, Fernando and I started Rios Tropicales because we loved running rivers, we knew our small country of Costa Rica had some of the world’s best paddling in the world, and we wanted to share these rivers with others. It was natural to us to protect the rivers we were running, help the communities we were visiting and train fellow Costa Ricans to do what we were doing.
Whitewater Action on the World-Famous Pacuare
From our years of international paddling experience we knew guide school best practices and started our own guide school right away. Our first two Costa Rican guides were local inner tubers from Turrialba, a small town that is now the whitewater guide mecca of Costa Rica. We continued to grow our company organically, adding more Costa Rican guides, hiring the first Indigenous guides to lead our hikes into the jungle and to build our rainforest lodge huts.
We started to protect the rainforest by buying land and reforesting with native seeds collected from the rainforest, building up to over 2000 acres one acre at a time over 25 years, because we saw the deforestation damage and wanted to reverse it.
Recently, we were pleased that National Geographic recognized Rios Tropicales as an international geotourism leader because of the things we have been quietly doing since 1985. Thirty-three years later, we remain dedicated to sustainable adventure and sustainable communities because we believe it is right for us all.
Partnerships for a Sustainable Future
In addition to supporting the work of international organizations like TIES, Rio Tropicales partners with local, national and international NGOs that are working in sustainable tourism, nature conservation and environmental education, such as - Red Costarricense de Reservas Naturales Privadas, which promotes the private reserves in Costa Rica and the rest of Central America; Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal (FONAFIFO), which works with local landowners and organizations to fund their reforestation of natural areas to offset pollution generated by tour activities; the International Rafting Federation (IRF), whose primary purpose is to promote the Rafting World Championship and international Guide Training and Certification Programs, while encouraging cross-cultural experiences and education for local guides; and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)'s Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign.
While government organizations and NGOs are certainly important to help Costa Rica protect its natural resources, it was gaining the partnership of local and indigenous communities to truly support and self-monitor wildlife and forest protection, including those who were the very people who had been poaching and deforesting the land, that is the biggest achievement of Rios Tropicales’ efforts. Without such grassroots ownership and involvement, many valuable and well-meaning efforts at environmental protection ultimately fail.
The Rios Tropicales Foundation
Fundacion Rios Tropicales (FRT) is a non-profit environmental organization established by Rios Tropicales in 1994 in order to assist in the preservation, protection and restoration of the rivers, streams and watersheds of Costa Rica. FRT's main rivers of focus are the leading recreational rivers of the national ecotourism industry - particularly the Rio Pacuare, Rio Reventazon, Rio Sarapiqui, and Rio General.
These four rivers, like many others, are threatened by massive hydroelectric projects, as well as water contamination and pollution. The FRT is now focusing on the purchase of rainforest that is threatened and/or can be placed into permanent conservation through private purchase. Most locals are unaware of their direct impacts on the rivers and the benefits of keeping them clean, clear and free flowing. Many international adventurers and professional boaters frequently visiting these rivers are also unaware of the threatened status of these rivers and the likelihood that they will no longer be navigable in the very near future.
As part of FRT's initiative to address these challenges and help raise awareness of the environmental problems facing our rivers, the Regional River Environmental Education Pilot Project was created. Historically, environmental education programs had only been offered at some schools in San Jose. This program brought education and awareness to rural schoolchildren to get them involved in protecting their uniquely diverse Costa Rican environment.
Through direct participation and hands-on learning activities, and with the assistance of volunteers, FRT's River Education Program has organized art projects, physical activities, field trips, and outings to raise awareness on the following issues: water quality monitoring, river ecology, watershed management, river pollution/contamination and solutions, land use practices, and hydroelectric projects.
Thanks in part to nationally recognized efforts like FRT's, the Costa Rican government started promoting environmental education programs for schools. FRT's original program remains a significant contributor to the government's involvement. The foundation has since focused on primarily rainforest restoration, land conservation through purchases of protected areas, and more recently, sustainable community development.