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By Laura MacInnis, IFC Communications

SIQUIRRES, Costa Rica—On a blistering hot afternoon, biologist Franklin Zamora Esquivel and three colleagues from the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) hack through dense rainforest with machetes, trying to remain on an overgrown path they had last used two months before.

With eyes lowered to navigate through deep mud and avoid snakes, the group makes its way to a camera trap secured to a tree with a heavy chain and padlock. As they open the metallic case housing the camera, a swarm of biting bullet ants cause them to jump back. The men quickly extract the memory card, swap in a new one, and keep moving.

The trip is part of a high-stakes mission: to evaluate whether environmental protection measures put in place around the Reventazón hydropower station—the biggest dam in Central America—are working.

“It is an incredible living laboratory to work in,” says Zamora Esquivel, as he hikes back with memory cards from three of the 40 motion-activated cameras ICE has set deep in the jungle, aiming to establish patterns of jaguars, pumas, and ocelots roaming the area. There is chance involved—these nocturnal animals are notoriously good at hiding. “We just have to keep measuring,” he says.

Nearly a decade after construction on the project began, the 305-megawatt Reventazón hydroelectric facility has had several successes. The International Hydropower Association has praised its strong record in social, environmental, and governance practices. And the project is the main reason that Costa Rica now relies almost solely on renewable power for its electricity generation.

But its clean energy came with trade-offs. The project lies in the middle of the Barbilla-Destierro biological sub-corridor connecting Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama—an area known as “the path of the jaguar.” Flooding Reventazón’s reservoir created an obstacle in the area traversed by big cats and their prey, and threatened to isolate animal populations that need to interact and breed for their long-term survival.

‘We need data’

ICE is Costa Rica’s national power company and the country’s main focal point for private sector investment in infrastructure. To qualify for financing from IFC and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which together contributed $300 million in loans for Reventazón, the company had to develop an ambitious biodiversity action plan that took into account the project’s large environmental footprint and sensitive location.

Like all IFC clients, ICE had to adhere to IFC’s Environmental and Social Performance Standards, which require application of good international industry practices in areas ranging from managing impacts on local communities to supporting employees’ health and safety.

IFC’s performance standard on land acquisition and involuntary resettlement, known as PS5, outlined actions related to purchasing land. It required ICE to go beyond its usual policies to take a tailored approach to helping to relocate families directly affected by the Reventazón project. The performance standard on biodiversity, or PS6, similarly required ICE to make commitments that went beyond the construction-phase mitigation work that is more typical for hydropower projects in Costa Rica and elsewhere.

Image: Reventazón’s dam is the largest in Central America.

This included laying out steps to achieve a “net gain” in connectivity between animal populations along the sub-corridor surrounding Reventazón for 20 years (the life of the IDB and IFC loans). The lenders’ biodiversity standards also required actions to protect fish and shrimp species affected by the dam on the Reventazón river, which flows into the Caribbean Sea.

“This goes beyond ‘do no harm’—the project needs to show that conditions are improved over time,” says Pablo Cardinale, a Principal Environment Specialist at IFC who has been working with the project since the drafting of its biodiversity action plan. We need to increase forest cover and also make sure it is actually being used by animals over the long term. For this, we need data, and a new take on ‘business as usual’ even in a conservation-minded country like Costa Rica.”

Biologists use 40 cameras to monitor jaguars and other cats roaming the area.

Tree planting

This means that ICE-employed scientists like Zamora Esquivel, equipped with rubber boots, insect repellent, and field journals, are hard at work taking measurements in local forests and watersheds. At the same time, forestry specialists like Mario Castillo Chavez are helping people living near the dam to plant new trees and leave existing jungle untouched so that animals can pass through more easily. In this verdant area, it takes only five years for saplings to turn into four-foot trees.

Those who choose to plant trees on their land instead of growing crops are eligible for a payment through Costa Rica’s National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO), which the World Bank helped develop. Castillo Chavez is welcomed like family into many farmers’ homes. “Most of the success we have had is from the relationships we have built over the years with property owners,” he says.

ICE’s Mario Castillo Chavez meets local farmers to discuss and design reforestation plans.

Another key member of the research team: Tigre, a two-year-old Labrador Retriever who is being trained to identify six species of wild cat based on their scat. (His predecessor, another specially trained dog named Google, died of a tumor in 2015 at the age of eight.)

When Tigre finds feline feces, his handler Stephanny Arroyo Arce—a field scientist working with the global conservation organization Panthera—collects the sample and sends it for genetic analysis. “The quality of samples that a person can collect does not compare with what a dog detector can locate, because they are much more accurate,” she says.

This information will help piece together where jaguars are moving around the sub-corridor—even if they continue to elude motion-sensor cameras.

Stephanny Arroyo Arce is the handler for Tigre, a Labrador Retriever who is being trained to detect the feces of jaguars.

Meanwhile, on the Parismina River, ICE scientists wearing chest-high waders and holding large nets are documenting how freshwater animals are faring—catching, measuring, and releasing fish and shrimp in fast-running water. The free-flowing Parismina is adjacent to the Reventazón river and has been designated an “aquatic offset” under ICE’s biodiversity action plan. It is providing a habitat for species whose upstream path was blocked by the dam.

“The rivers are always changing. Every time we come here it is different,” biologist Jorge Leiva Navarro says during a sampling excursion. “We need a full year of data points to make an inference about trends.” On this occasion, the team finds two individual Bobo mullets and two migratory shrimps at different points along the river—a welcome sign of continuity. One shrimp is a female full of eggs.

Biodiversity ambassadors

Leiva Navarro, who regularly spends weekends with his young daughter splashing around the Parismina, says the ICE scientists are serving as ambassadors for the hydro plant and its conservation efforts. “Not only are we able to gather this important data, but also the local population sees what we are doing,” he said. “Everyone who lives in this area knows that we are here, and that makes a difference.”

“This goes beyond ‘do no harm’.”

— Pablo Cardinale, IFC Principal Environment Specialist

Inside the Reventazón power station, the engineers and field scientists work side-by-side. Overseeing this activity is Eduardo Alvarado Soto, Reventazón’s manager, who laughed when asked about the muddy boots outside his pristine control room.

“This is the first power station in Costa Rica that has both engineers and environmental specialists working on site,” he said. Having an environmental team that’s fully integrated into the plant’s operations “is an adjustment, but it helps us. We can exchange experiences and understand the work we do and how it is connected.”

Both engineers and environmental specialists work side-by-side, says Manager Eduardo Alvarado.

In a cubicle a few steps away, Zamora Esquivel scrolls through photos and videos captured by the camera in the rainforest. The memory card holds two months of images, but he goes through it fairly quickly—the camera only activates when it detects movement.

Over the past two years, the ICE cameras have documented 56 animal species in the sub-corridor, including pumas, coyotes, armadillos, foxes, rabbits, iguanas, and lizards. But on this occasion, there was something new: on June 16, at 4:42 a.m., an ocelot entered the frame. A second later, the ocelot’s kitten appeared.

The sighting thrilled Zamora Esquivel. This was the first sighting of a new generation of wild cats finding its way around the reservoir.

“We have not had this luck before,” he said. “It is a very promising result.”

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Published in October 2018