A Fascinating Story of Change from Cattle Ranching to Conservation and Wildlife Observation
Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge
Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge is an internationally known nature reserve with 345 hectares of protected area, including primary forest, secondary forest, selectively logged tropical wet forest, swamp forest, mangrove estuary, brush land, river bank and seashore. In addition, there are areas of silviculture (tree farming) with many different species of commercially viable timber, fruit orchards and pasture. This wide spectrum of habitats supports an equally large variety of wildlife. The reserve receives income with which to maintain and protect its natural treasure from only two sources: ecological tourism and tree farming.
Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge is a vital, living entity, inextricably connected to its surroundings. It provides all of the physical, esthetic and intellectual benefits that come from a healthy and diverse ecosystem. At the same time it is constantly exposed to threats which can diminish its vitality. With this in mind, the vision is that the refuge always be managed with care, dicipline and the holistic orientation necessary to guarantee the health and biodiversity of its ecosystems, for the benefit the owners as well as their employees and the local communty. In this manner it will guarantee a flow of environmental services and satisfaction not only for the stewards but also for visitors and neighbors.
Hacienda Barú’s mission is to preserve its natural resources and educate visitors about its biological wealth. To support this goal, Hacienda Barú provides ecologically-oriented tours, adventures and tourist services. In carrying out this mission, Hacienda Barú will support scientific research and promote responsible community development.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Hacienda Barú was all virgin jungle. With the first wave of settlers came the destruction of large areas of rain forest. As more people migrated to the area, much more forest was cleared and pasture was planted. In 1972, when the aerial photo below was taken, only the large tract of rainforest on the upper portion of Hacienda Barú and a few scattered forest parcels in the lowlands were left untouched. By then many species of plants and animals had become locally extinct due to deforestation, habitat destruction and poaching. These included mammals such as the jaguar, tapir , white-lipped peccary, harpy eagle and scarlet macaw, and trees such as the manú negro and cedro bateo. The majority of the lowlands were completely deforested and the land was used for rice farming and cattle ranching. Primary forest remained on the highlands of the property, where it was too steep to farm, and in the mangrove estuary near the mouth of the Barú River, where the salty water wouldn’t support crops or cattle pasture.
The year 1979 marked the end of that cycle of degradation and the reverse of the pendulum’s swing. It was then that the owners of Hacienda Barú decided that the ecology of the rainforest was extremely important, and that ecotourism had great potential as an economic alternative.
They began taking steps to conserve and restore several areas of the property.The restoration of habitat began in the highlands of the hacienda and expanded into the lowlands where ranching and farming activities were phased out .
In the late 1980’s the decision was made to restore all of the land to natural habitat. As nature reclaimed the land, humans lent a hand, replanting species of trees that had been eliminated in past years and creating natural corridors over which wildlife could migrate. The spider monkeys have already returned, and hopefully other species will follow. In 1995, then President of Costa Rica, Jose Figuires, signed a decree officially declaring Hacienda Barú a National Wildlife Refuge. The aerial photo shown below was taken in 2005.
Hacienda Barú Today
Today dense secondary forest has grown up where cattle once roamed, leaving little evidence of the Hacienda’s former incarnation. The cacao and teak plantations still exist, but today the cacao is harvested by the monkeys. The teak provides wood for all construction on the Hacienda, guaranteeing a sustainable resource and allowing us to leave the forest for the wildlife.
Areas of forest that were once islands of habitat, separated by open pastures, are now connected by the secondary forest that has grown up across the coastal plain. Monkeys can now roam freely all over the Hacienda and the sloths, pacas, peccary and curasows have found their way back into the lowlands after nearly four decades of absence.
The regeneration of forest on Hacienda Barú has been a fascinating process. When the property was still a cattle ranch we began planting certain species of trees for fence posts. Two years later, when these living posts were three to four meters tall, we were able to observe how a single line of trees can provide safe passage for arboreal animals from one forest parcel to another. We planted more trees to widen the passage ways. These corridors gave the animals more freedom of movement, a greater area to inhabit and reduced the risks involved with traveling across the open ground.
Hacienda Barú now forms an active part of a much larger wildlife corridor initiative called “The Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor.” This ambitious project stretches 100 Km along the Pacific coast from Sierpe-Térraba Magrove system and the Corcovado National Park up to the Los Santos Forest Reserve. Just as the fence line of trees once joined isolated patches of forest together, The Path of the Tapir hopes to create a corridor of forest joining National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and Private Reserves. Jaguar , tapir, white-lipped peccary and scarlet macaw disappeared from this area in the 1950s, but can still be found in Corcovado and Los Santos. It is our hope that one day we will see these animals pass over the corridor and reside on Hacienda Barú once again.
The path of the Tapir Biological Corridor initiative is a project of the Asociación de Amigos de la Naturaleza del Pacifico Central y Sur (ASANA), a local environmental organization that works for the protection of nature in this area. The Mission of ASANA is to conserve, preserve and restore corridors of natural habitat in the central and southern pacific zones of Costa Rica through the coordination of efforts with other environmental groups, environmental education, promotion of scientific and technical study and community involvement. ASANA hopes to accomplish this through education and the creation of incentives for local communities. Over the years Hacienda Barú has supported ASANA with donations of cash and services and the donation of a small parcel of land where the ASANA office was constructed.
Hacienda Barú Lodge and Ecotours
Hacienda Barú Lodge is the only lodging facility on Hacienda Barú. It is a creation of the same people who restored natural habitat to 140 hectareas of formar pasture and farm land, and is operated with the same philosophy of respect for nature and the environment. In addition to the restoration and protection of natural habitat, Hacienda Barú Lodge does many things to minimize its impact on the environment.
- The lodge occupies less than one percent of the 345 hectareas of land that comprises Hacienda Barú. In an area where 140 hectares of land was once exploited for cattle ranching and farming, there is now a lodge located on a lot that measures 2.7 hectares, 80% of which are green areas consisting of gardens and natural vegetation. The other 137.3 hectares are now natural habitat.
- All of the wood used in construction and repair of the lodge and other constructions comes from renewable sources. The teak and melina come from Hacienda Barú’s own plantations. Additionally, some plantation pine was used in the construction of the new superior rooms and most of the furniture in the cabins and rooms is made from plantation cypress.
- No electricity is used to heat water in the tourist lodging. Instead it is heated by the sun’s energy in solar heaters.
- Most of the lighting is with compact florescent bulbs. Some of the outdoor lighting is with super efficient 12 volt LED lamps.
- We do not use airconditioning anywhere. For cooling we depend on insulation in the ceiling, well ventilated design and fans.
- We monitor our consumption of electricity and constantly look for ways to economize.
- All organic waste is composted and used as fertilizer in the gardens.
- Waste water is treated in septic tanks with drain fields. Microorganisms are used to enhance the decomposition of solid waste in the septic systems.
- Everything that can be reused, paper, wood, building materials, etc. are used a second or third time for different things until they are completely deteriorated. For example, all office paper is used on both sides. Old wood removed from buildings is used on trails to form steps. Old roofing tin is used to cover signs.
- We ask tour clients to bring a water bottle which we will fill free of charge. This avoids buying bottled water and adding more plastic to the environment.
- We do not use toxic products. We do fumigate the lodging facilities several times a year, but the products used are non toxic.
- All of our cleaning products are biodegradable.
- Dispensors of hand soap and bath soap help avoid waste.
- Clients have the option of using towels for a second or third day, a measure aimed at conserving water and lessening the amount of cleaning agents that go into the environment.
- Laundry is dryed by the sun in a solar drier rather than with electric driers.
- The swimming pool is disinfected with ozone, which is non polluting, rather than chlorine, which is very toxic and corrosive.
- We encourage clients and tour agencies to use email rather than faxes and keep paper usage to a minimum.
- At this time Hacienda Barú has 38 employees, 36 of whom are Costa Ricans. The only non Costa Ricans are Diane Ewing, the president’s wife, who has lived on Hacienda Barú since 1977 and French guide Florence Vallet. Of the Costa Rican employees, 25 grew up within 20 kilometers of Hacienda Barú and 11 came from other places in Costa Rica.
- Hacienda Barú has a policy of welcoming local school visits. Last year we received groups of students from 17 different elementary and secondary schools. At no cost to them, these groups receive a presentation about Hacienda Barú, its history, and the importance of protecting wildlife habitat. They go on a guided nature hike and visit the orchid garden and butterfly garden. During turtle season they visit the nursery. We try to coordinate the visits with the release of baby turtles. Those that wish to do canopy tours receive a special rate equal to one-third of the normal rate.
- Hacienda Barú management and employees are active in community affairs. They occupy leadership positions in local government, development associations, school boards, water associations, neighborhood security committes, and local environmental organizations. Additionally Hacienda Barú supports these community organizations with donations of cash and services.
- All products in the gift shop are Costa Rican and, when possible, purchased directly from the artesans.