In our final longform of 2022, we’re proud to present our first longform story created for audio. We talk to two women who have stepped up on behalf of their rural communities to become volunteer forest firefighters in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone. This diverse group is protecting neighbors but also priceless flora and fauna from being destroyed by increasingly frequent forest blazes. They’re also working on the most important aspect of the problem: prevention.
We invite you to listen to our first longform story created for audio in Spanish here; or if you prefer, below you’ll find the full transcript, in English.
This past Nov. 20 and 21 were busy days for the recently formed Southern Mangroves-Osa Conservation Area Volunteer Forest Firefighters.
For three days, these community members were part of the team that cleaned the entrance to the Sierpe Lagoon, a place prone to forest fires.
Costa Rica’s forest fire season is fast approaching; it takes place during the December-May dry season. The Sierpe Lagoon can only be entered from the water. If this entrance isn’t cleared, experts rushing to the scene of a forest fire could waste more than two hours trying to get in. That time can make a huge difference.
Until September 2022, this work and all other responsibilities related to preventing and addressing forest fire emergencies in this region rested solely in the hands of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC). It was more work than its officials could handle, according to Andrea Herrera, Executive Director of the Association of Friends of Nature of the Central and South Pacific (ASANA). Her non-governmental organization works with the communities of the Central and Southern Pacific to protect the environment and promote sustainable development.
In the Osa Conservation Area, forest fires have never been seen as a problem or a threat, but they have been increasing. In 2019, for example, the Terra Sierpe National Wetland had one fire that was the largest forest fire of the year in a protected wilderness area. The conservation area just did not have the capacity, or even the equipment, to deal with it. They had forest firefighters from the institution [SINAC], but they did not have hoses, a motor pump, or any other equipment they needed to respond. At the national level, the fire management program could see that there is an institutional weakness in our region.
Due to climate change models and the relationship that has existed between extreme events and the La Niña or El Niño phenomenon, the droughts and rains have become more extreme. For this entire area of the Southern Pacific, it is expected that there will be a lot of overlap between the El Niño phenomenon and extreme droughts. There has also been an increase in the use of fire for land management—to burn wooded areas—and we’ve begun to see more construction, especially along the coastal strip.
So all these problems begin to combine, right? There is no team, there’s no equipment, they do not have the capacity to attend to this fire in the Térraba Sierpe National Wetland. They had to ask for help from the National Fire Management Program and people from other conservation areas have to come to support them. They addressed the fire from the air, because in a wetland, a mangrove swamp, access by land was practically impossible.
So what happened next? In 2021, ASANA joined SINAC officials at the Osa Conservation Area to present a proposal to create a Volunteer Forest Firefighters Brigade—that’s the same group that, this past November, worked so hard to clean the entrance to the lagoon. Back then, both organizations obtained funding for the project through the Forever Costa Rica Association, which administers the First Debt-for-Nature Swap between the United States and Costa Rica.
Andrea, who is herself a member of the volunteer fire brigade, sums up what they did with the funding.
We bought more or less 30,000,000 colones (approximately $50,450) of equipment. We trained 25 people.
The courses are really demanding, both physically and intellectually. You have to pass a variety of exams, both theoretical and physical tests. We did various trainings including Basic Forest Firefighter and Incident Command System, which is how to organize when dealing with an incident. The training on effective use of water includes how to use all the equipment, such as motor pumps and reservoirs and hoses, and how to do it depending on the type of source we have at hand. How can we make effective use of that water without wasting it?
Then we had a course on how to use the VIR, the rapid intervention vehicle. Each conservation area has a Toyota Hilux with a tank in the back and a motor pump installed. It has a lot of tubes and connections, so you have to learn how to use it and load it—and how long that reserve lasts, and how to plan.
Today, the brigade has a trained team that took more than a year to train. All firefighters have certified equipment including a machete, leather shoes and gloves, and special helmets. Among the equipment that was purchased are small and large pumps, rake-like tools, fire hoses, even binoculars known for resisting the humid climates of the tropical forest.
Lilliam Nieto, a young woman from the Osa Peninsula who has participated in El Colectivo 506’s Young Writer program, is one of the firefighters in the brigade. During a conversation with Katherine Stanley as a part of our “Hop on the Bus” edition, she told us about her experience.
When I applied to the Forest Fire Brigade, I didn’t know anything about dealing with forest fires. The only thing I knew was what we see on the news, in movies and things like that. I had never been interested in going further into that subject and being able to deepen my knowledge. But when I joined the brigade, I had a chance to understand all this. I came to see that while, as firefighters, we can help put out forest fires, we can also help prevent. Our brigade is already carrying out environmental education in schools and high schools.
Despite being a young organization, the deep commitment of its volunteers has allowed the brigade to take its work further. As both Lily and Andrea told us, the most important job is not to stop the fire, but to avoid it: once the fire breaks out, the loss of flora and fauna is inevitable, among other consequences.
I’d rather prevent a fire than have to go put it out. That’s the maxim for all of us. So we introduced more training and additional materials for environmental education and changing in people’s perception of the use of fire [for land management]. Using fire is not bad, but if we don’t do it right, it gets out of control and can cause a forest fire, or burn down a house, or cause health problems for people.
The brigade has not yet had to deal with a forest fire emergency in the area. On Dec. 9, half of the team members passed their last certification test, which consists of carrying 20 kg of weight over 4.8 km within 45 minutes. The other half of the team is scheduled to take the test on December 16. However, the volunteers have already been active in prevention.
The brigade works because people are committed. They have been going to primary and high schools… I think we have covered seven or eight different schools in the past few months.
The brigade has also had an impact on the community because it’s an inclusive and diverse space.
Lilliam is 20 years old. Ever since her days as a student at her community’s one-room schoolhouse, she has participated in many projects to protect biodiversity and the environment. She says that in this work, she has always been surrounded by older people, but that the volunteer firefighters project has broken this trend in her life as a community activist.
So far, I’m finding other kids my age who are part of the brigade. Previously, it was like I participated in training and it was with older adults, 30 or 40 years old… Sometimes it’s complicated when you enter training and they are people much older than you, who have much more knowledge… who perhaps do not think the same way you do, but who share your belief in your power to contribute in some way to their communities. I think it’s quite beautiful and very enriching in the end.
Andrea agrees with Lily on this.
The most beautiful thing in this group that we have right now is that there are people of all ages: 20-year-olds, super young kids with all the desire in the world to get things done, and all the strength. Then there are people like me who are around 40 with a lot of things on their minds, a little mistreated by life. And we have men and women of 50, 60 years who still pick up their machetes and go to contribute.
The diversity of gender and age that distinguishes this brigade is aligned with the diversity of actors that surround the group. Andrea explains that her work not only supports the work on fire prevention and response by ACOSA and SINAC, but has also motivated these institutions to include other public actors.
For next year there is a joint work strategy between Costa Rican firefighters, the Forest Fire Brigade, the Osa Conservation Area, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, and the Municipality of Osa. There are two more municipalities, but we couldn’t get them to join. We’ll see if we can get them to join next year.
The brigade’s mission is titanic, and the commitment of its members—at least from the perspective of Andrea and Lily, and from the results obtained in a year of training—seems enormous as well. However, these people are still volunteers, and the project cannot ignore this limitation.
We are volunteers. There’s a limit to what we can do. We should [address emergencies] when SINAC’s institutional forest firefighters can’t handle things and need more support. That doesn’t mean we can’t also be first on the scene, but I have a job. Most of us have children, are studying, are working. Can we be ready at a moment’s notice? There will be two or three [at any given time] who are free and can go right away, although all of us are always committed.
Lily adds that volunteers’ ability to respond quickly is limited not only by other responsibilities, but also by the fact that the region they serve is so large.
We’re from four or five different cantons: Coto Brus, Golfito, Puerto Jiménez, Osa. There are members from Pérez Zeledón and the Cerro de la Muerte. I think that this is what affects our mobility the most. Being from such distant places, it is difficult for us to be able to meet for trainings, to do practices, which are so important. No matter how many trainings we take, what we need is practice, being able to perform under pressure… The distance between where we live sometimes plays a very important role because it’s harder for us to come together.
The Southern Mangroves-ACOSA Volunteer Forest Firefighter Brigade is not the only brigade of its kind. It might not even be the newest. Areas such as Costa Rica’s the Northern Pacific, where dry tropical forests are highly prone to forest fires, has had a volunteer forest fire brigade for years; so have the country’s Talamanca mountain range highlands, whose páramo forests are also vulnerable, especially in mixed-use indigenous territories.
Andrea told us during her conversation with Katherine not only about the exchanges that they have been able to have and that they hope to continue having with these organized groups, but also about the admiration that she and her colleagues from Southern Mangroves feel when they see these sister brigades. She says it fills her with pride to know that they are part of this community of brigades that support each other when needed.
As a brigade, we can contribute to any forest fire issue in the country. If they ask us for support in Chirripó, in Buenos Aires, in—I don’t know, Manuel Antonio, or Guanacaste—we can go to provide support. We are certified, we are insured, and we are part of the Fire Management program on a voluntary basis.
This provides great satisfaction to Lily as well.
Later, I realized that through the firefighters I could also contribute a little to my community and well, to a large part of the country. The issue of forest fires is not something that only covers our small communities. At the end of the summer, you can see the impact throughout Costa Rica and in a large part of the world as well.
At El Colectivo 506, these conversations with Lily and Andrea made us eager to keep reporting on this topic. As rural community members step up to the plate on behalf of their regions, they provide a perfect example to study under the magnifying glass of solutions journalism. We believe that these efforts can yield important lessons about how community volunteers can strengthen local autonomy and protect environmental treasures.
Today, in our last installment of the year and of this edition, Rearview 2022, we’ve looked back on Katherine’s conversations with Lily, who is part of our Network 506 as a source of information about the work that the inhabitants of the Osa Peninsula do to improve their lives—and with Andrea, who through ASANA not only promotes environmental protection, but also supports those local activists. But we’re also looking forward towards 2023. We’re more convinced than ever that stories like these deserve more time and attention. We look forward to sharing even more information about volunteer forest fire brigades in the year ahead.
For now, we leave you with a message from Lily, the 20-year-old volunteer forest firefighter from Osa:
I would tell someone who wants to be a part of this effort not to be afraid. Go to a SINAC office or to an official who can provide more information. Because in the end, it feels so good to know that you can do something to help. You can not only help in your community, but also at the national level. Preventing and extinguishing forest fires helps the whole country and even the world, because it prevents the loss of species.