Students restore Costa Rican mangrove on trip

068A group of students from Whitehall recently escaped winter’s icy grip for a nine-day excursion to Costa Rica, but the itinerary was far different than what you would find on your normal spring break getaway.

Instead of lounging on a beach or taking in the typical tourist sites, a contingent of 25 juniors and seniors rolled up their sleeves and assisted in the reforestation of a mangrove on Palo Seco, a narrow island located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, about an hour-and-half from San Jose.

“We’ve always done the travel, but this is the first year it’s included a service learning project. We thought it would good to get involved with the community and to learn more about the country,” Spanish Teacher Sarah Ramirez said.

The trip was coordinated through EF Tours, an international company that provides educational tours to high school and college students around the globe.

Students spend nine days in Costa Rica, departing from Newark (N.J.) International Airport on March 15 and returning home of March 23.

While in Costa Rica the students helped clear and restore a Mangrove nursery. The nursery was approximately 8 feet deep and the size of a large swimming pole.

“It was a lot of digging,” Oshen Beayon said.

Students removed rocks and buried those that were too large to move. They also dug irrigation lines to a nearby river, raked excess vegetation for compost and replanted trees. Essentially the entire area was cleared to make room for new plantings, students said.

Mangroves are typically trees of medium height and shrubs that grow in tropical coastal environments. Mangroves are extremely productive ecosystems that provide habitat for a rich diversity of species. The massive root systems found in mangrove swamps also help dissipate wave energy and keeps soil in place, preventing erosion. That’s especially important on Palo Seco because it serves as a sort of barrier to the main land, protecting it from storm surges.

“If the mangroves aren’t there the landscape disappears,” Justin Hoagland said.

Ryan St. Clair also mentioned the fact that the mangroves give off oxygen, which helps species that reside in and near the mangroves.

Besides reforestation efforts, students also gleaned insight into the lives of the people who call the region home. The group visited a rural school that had 27 students, spread across six grade levels and overseen by a single teacher.

“It was kind of shocking,” Beayon said.

The students brought gifts for their hosts and entertained the kids, dancing to music, jumping room and playing limbo. And despite the fact that kids spoke very little English, the two groups were able to communicate.

“We were still able to connect,” Heather Michaud said.

Students also had the opportunity to engage in some typical tourist activities, visiting hot springs heated by nearby volcanoes and partaking on a zip-line excursion.

There were a few surprises during the trip, such as a lack of WiFi access when they arrived at their first hotel and the lack of a sanitation system that necessitated toilet paper be thrown in the garbage and not flushed down the toilet.

“They also learned they love rice and beans” Ramirez quipped.

Although the trip wasn’t necessarily relaxing, it was rewarding.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it felt really good to help out,” Michaud said.  

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