For the University of Georgia’s Costa Rica campus, located in the vast rainforest of San Luis de Monteverde, sustainability is more than just a buzzword. When the architects and administrators of the campus gathered to start the planning process for construction in 2002, thinking sustainably was simply what made the most sense for the campus.
“The environment there leads naturally towards thinking about sustainability,” said Fabricio Camacho Céspedes, the general manager and associate director of UGA Costa Rica. “The idea at the beginning from the landscape architect was to keep it as natural and Costa Rica-looking as possible.”
UGA Costa Rica, the only UGA residential center offered to faculty and students in Latin America, covers 153 acres, and the majority of the land is protected forest. The campus not only hosts about 250 UGA students each year for study abroad and experiential learning programs, but also about about 1,000 students from other schools and 400 visitors, according to the UGA Costa Rica website.
The campus features three classrooms, a field lab, a Geographic Information System lab, residential facilities, a student union and a cafeteria.
Camacho, who has worked at UGA Costa Rica since the beginning and been involved in the major steps of the development process, described several of the major sustainable initiatives taking place on campus, including:
“We used sustainable, locally sourced wood,” Camacho said. “Wood that is sustainably harvested from plantations or forests is a clean, carbon-neutral sustainable material.”
Additionally, UGA Costa Rica hired local people from the surrounding town of Monteverde rather than outside crews, and Camacho said many people who were hired to work on the construction of the campus remained employed there in other positions after the construction was completed.
Initially, managing solid waste and wastewater at UGA Costa Rica was a challenge. But through education of the staff and students and the development of recycling and composting programs, now only 8 percent of solid waste goes to the landfill.
Wastewater, on the other hand, presented a unique challenge. Treating wastewater in Costa Rica can be difficult because of the large amount of rain the country receives per year (about 100 inches on average, whereas Athens, Georgia receives about 46 inches on average per year).
However, the administrators at UGA Costa Rica discovered the benefits of using a biodigester to treat wastewater.
“We developed, along with other Costa Rican engineers, a gigantic biodigester that processes all the wastewater from the dorms and the cafeteria,” Camacho said.
The biodigester takes in wastewater and breaks it down using microorganisms which turn waste into methane gas. Camacho said the by-product is 99 percent clean water. In addition to clean water, the methane gas that is also produced in this process is piped into the kitchen where it is utilized in cooking — the kitchen’s two burners run completely on biogas from the biodigester.
UGA Costa Rica also contains 30 acres of farmland where much of the food consumed on campus is grown or harvested. Camacho said all of the campus’s milk and pork is produced on the farm as well at 20-25 percent of all of the fruits and vegetables eaten on campus.
The food purchasing strategy for UGA Costa Rica is what Camacho calls a “concentric circle purchasing policy.” The campus grows everything it can at the on-campus farm, and if something can’t be produced at the farm, UGA Costa Rica looks within the local community to find the products. If the products can’t be found in the community, then the campus looks to the region.
“We inject capital in the local economy,” Camacho said. “The vast majority of our food is sourced directly from the farmers at market price so the farmer doesn’t have to sell at a lower price to an intermediary.”
Solar water heaters
The vast majority of energy produced in Costa Rica is renewable energy — reports say about 99 percent of the energy comes from wind, water, geothermal, biomass and solar energy.
“The energy is already renewable from the grid, so what we’ve done is try to reduce energy consumption,” Camacho said.
To accomplish this, UGA Costa Rica switched from electric water heaters to solar water heaters, taking advantage of the sunlight that’s ever-present during Costa Rica’s dry season which lasts from December to April. With this initiative, Camacho said UGA Costa Rica’s electricity bill hasn’t increased in the last three years.
Challenges still on the horizon
Even with these sustainable initiatives, many obstacles are still present in the efforts to become fully sustainable. Camacho said UGA Costa Rica is not a fully sustainable campus, and it’s probably too soon to be able to measure the effects of the sustainable campus initiatives.
The country of Costa Rica is also facing challenges in its sustainability efforts.
“Costa Rica is a global leader in sustainability and environmental stewardship,” Camacho said. “But when you come to Costa Rica, you realize it’s a place of dichotomy. You have something really nice and something really horrible.”
Camacho said because transnational companies in Costa Rica grow many pineapples and bananas, pesticide use becomes a dangerous problem when pesticides start ending up in rivers and eventually the ocean.
“We have a lot of really good things in terms of sustainability, and huge challenges,” Camacho said. “Everyone has the image of Costa Rica being green, and it is like that, but at the same time there are hidden things happening.”
Although these challenges still prevail, the country aims to be the first carbon-neutral country in the world.
“There is a global consensus that we have to start reconfiguring our economy that so that it becomes more in tune with carrying capacity of the planet,” Camacho said. “If we take out more resources and more energy than we’re putting back, we’re compromising our own capacity to satisfy future needs.”
Even though it seems daunting, adopting a sustainable mindset happens one step at a time.
“There is not a recipe,” Camacho said. “The most important change that needs to occur is becoming aware and serious about it ... At a personal level, the most important thing is to inform yourself and create your own system.”
Whether it’s eating less meat, utilizing public transportation or carpools, or shopping at thrift stores for second-hand items, each person can adopt their own system for mitigating environmental damage. All of these actions start with a simple first step — to become aware of the problems, and to care.
UGA Costa Rica is accepting applications for 2019 programs. Find a program here.
Infographic on UGA Costa Rica's sustainable initiatives:
Written by Jordan Meaker