Sunday, June 25, 2017

Musings of a Naturalist III: QUETZALS AND COSTA RICA

This week, Dr. Robert Fleming transports us to the sight of an impressive ecotourism venture in Costa Rica...

The grounds of the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge. Each bungalow features a bedroom and an attached bathroom with solar-heated water. At 9,0000 feet altitude, nights can be cold (down to 5 degrees C or below) so hot water and extra quilts are much appreciated. The property is landscaped with plants that attract a variety of mountain birds including the Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher.

As we sipped hot morning coffee at the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge on the Cerro del Muerte uplift in central Costa Rica, a cloud oozed over the ridge and pushed down the western slope enveloping us in fog. But even through the mist we could make out forms of hummingbirds buzzing by and see the outlines of nearby oaks, their nearly horizontal branches seemingly decorated by a master gardener. Only oaks and similar trees with strong branch attachments can survive these conditions as the weight of the bromeliads, ferns, lichens, orchids and mosses, among others, combined with the moisture from mist and rain would spell disaster for trees with weaker joints. This was a classical cloud forest, a habitat type found at moderate elevations on many mountain slopes and ridge tops around the world...

We had traveled to Costa Rica to learn about the country’s remarkable conservation efforts and to delve into their rich natural history.  And at every turn, whether in a garden or cloud forest, birds vied for attention. Not surprising as the country lists some 900 species ranging from huge-beaked Toucans to the diminutive Green Thorntail, which weighs just 3 grams, 1/10th of an ounce.  Besides birds, Costa Rica hosts mammals, reptiles, frogs and many varieties of butterflies. And in the plant world, Costa Rica is home to well over a thousand species of orchids, including the national flower Guaria Morada (Cattleya skinneri).

One of the grandest of all Costa Rican species is surely the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), a bird in the Trogon family. Other species also attract, but this quetzal with its iridescent green upper body and bright red underparts is unmatched. And the males in full plumage sport two elongated tail feathers that shimmer an iridescent green when waving back and forth in breezes of the forest.  

The Resplendent Quetzal  (Pharomachrus mocinno) is the largest member of the Trogons, a family of forest birds featuring some thirty species in the tropical Americas, a dozen in tropical Asia, and three in Africa.  Large trogons, such as this Resplendent Quetzal, feed primarily on fruit while the smaller ones, including the Scarlet-rumped in Southeast Asia, consume mostly insects, including caterpillars and other larva. Trogons are indicator species as they are very sensitive to deforestation, and their presence speaks of good forest conditions as they are cavity nesters, excavating their own nest holes mostly in suitably decaying tree trunks, and thus require trees of a suitable size age and size.

Conservation efforts often center around habitat protection, places where species can feed, find shelter, and locate suitable nesting or denning sites.  And one of the many instruments within the conservation toolbox is the use of a charismatic species to help rally financial and emotional support. The Resplendent Quetzal of Central America, the Mountain Gorilla in Uganda, or the tiger in India fit into this category. But whether or not a charismatic species is present in a region, the key operative is habitat preservation, an effort that benefits all species within that designated territory.  

Costa Rica is one of the world’s leaders in the total area of the country under conservation surveillance with a figure that normally appears to be between 26% to 28% in a patchwork of government sponsored national parks, preserves and wildlife refuges along with a network of private preserve, some quite extensive that often border on government parks. Of the lowland tropical forest, some 80% is now under protection. In addition, there are on-going discussions regarding adding more corridors between protected areas to enhance wildlife travel. While all these areas look good on paper, some have encroachment problems. However, one needs to start somewhere and designating an area as protected is a good way to begin.

It was not always this way.  Between 1950 and 1990, Costa Rica lost 65% of its forest cover due to clearing for commercial crops (mostly coffee and bananas), cattle ranching, and forest exploitation. Conservation endeavors began in the 1950, but much of the groundwork for today’s system was laid after 1960.  Then, in the 1980s, the protecting of Costa Rica’s natural heritage accompanied by publicity fueled an ecotourism boom.   Today programs have become so successful that in some places the flora and fauna that attracts visitors in the first place teeters on the edge of being overwhelmed (for more information see The Green Republic: A Conservation History of Costa Rica, by Stirling Evan; Duke University Press.).
Our visit to Costa Rica included time on the Cerro del Muerte uplift southeast of San Jose, where we stopped at Paraiso Quetzal, a lodge with fourteen bungalows located at an altitude of 2100m (9,000ft). Here we met Jorge Serrano Salazar and learned of his family’s splendid ecotourism effort, a program that involves members of the community living along the Pan American Highway in the Tres de Junio area.  

 Jorge Serrano Salazar (pictured right) is the visionary behind
Paraiso Quetzal Lodge. He is also the general manager and
stands with this cousin, Jairo Serrano, behind the reception desk. 
This is a family run operation with various members assisting as needed.  
Jorge, a member of the extensive Serrano family, grew up in quetzal country and while studying rural tourism at his local high school, realized that showing quetzals to visitors could be a key income generating opportunity for the family - if only they could work out a system.  

Quetzal tours’ were already in vogue in other quetzal hot spots such as Savegre Valley and Monteverde.  Eager to see one of these birds, we visited the Savegre Valley where we engaged Marino Chacon as our driver/guide.  Early one February morning he drove us slowly up the main road from the Savegre Lodge until he heard a bird and then quickly spotted a fine male sitting on a moss-covered branch in the cloud forest. There, in front of us, was an experience we will long remember:  the classical image of a stunning quetzal.

When one party locates a quetzal along the Savegre Valley road, other hopefuls gather. And this morning, with two males spotted in this sector, I noted that forty-seven other participants had assembled, all straining for glimpses of an iridescent green back or a red belly in the openings between oak leaves.  The folks at the front of the crowd were all smiles while those in the back were likely not as lucky until they moved forward.

Thinking about the competition from these semi-zoos, Jorge needed a plan. First, he needed quetzals - which he had. Then he needed an infrastructure – which he did not have.  And finally he needed viewers.

What better way to attract visitors to a special habitat than to build a place right on the spot?  Pooling money, the family opened a small restaurant in 2005. This was so successful that in 2007 they expanded the main building and added three bungalows, enabling visitors to stay longer.  And while constructing a restaurant and three bungalows was all well and good, this was not enough - quetzals do not feed in the dinning room. Jorge needed to develop a system to show quetzals to guests.

And then inspiration hit.

Quetzals live in mountain oak forests but fortunately are quite flexible, as a good portion of the original forest around Esperanza, a small town near the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge, has been cleared for agriculture or animal husbandry. Small holders now privately own this land, often a farming family working from 2 to 10 hectares.  As the altitude around Esperanza is too high and damp for coffee, the farmers raise raspberries, potatoes, and other cold weather cash crops; most farmers also own two or three milking cows.

In a cloud forest, both rain and moisture from clouds is needed for the survival of epiphytic bromeliads such as these found on horizontal surfaces of oaks and other tree branches, usually sharing the surface with, lichens, ferns, mosses, orchids, and other plants. Curiously, bromeliads can occasionally take hold on power lines, a behavior rarely seen in other plant groups. Trees in these mountain forests need to have sturdy branch attachments in order to withstand the weight of the bromeliads, ferns, and orchids  all soaked with heavy rain.  The tree pictured here grew just northwest of the lodge dinning room.

In 2009 Jorge started his scheme by coaxing local farmers to search their property each morning, looking for quetzals, and should they find a bird, report to the lodge on their cell phones.  Quetzals feed on wild fruit – especially wild avocados - as well as on frogs and lizards (during the rainy season) and once breakfast is ingested they usually sit quietly on a branch for extended periods. Thus guests at the lodge who are interested - and have paid a substantial fee - climb aboard a vehicle for a ride of fifteen or so minutes to the selected farm. Once you know where a bird is resting, the chances of arriving guests seeing a quetzal is high.  Another seasonal method of locating quetzals, and one popular along main roads, is to find a nest with chicks and then watch the adult birds coming and going. The nesting season on the Pacific side of the Cerro del Muerte uplift normally begins early in March and lasts into May.

The lodge's mission statement speaks to the importance
of taking pride in caring for Mother Nature for future generations.
Jorge’s program, started with only two farmers, but now has become so successful that his list of reporting individuals has grown to twenty-two with two more waiting in the wings.  In the high season, the lodge runs three ‘quetzal tours’ a day, each with a limit of ~6 people per group.  It is mportant to limit the number of visitors to any one site, Jorge says, so as not to overly disturb the birds. Evidence of the success of this program is that some farmers are now planting wild avocados and other fruit-bearing trees on their properties.

Most effective ecotourism efforts involve a number of steps and players. And Jorge’s program, while not replicable everywhere, certainly exhibits some components of a successful ecotourism project.  First, a species or an area of special interest (such as a sacred mountain) is identified.  Then a project needs a visionary person to propose a plan and who is willing to devote resources and time to the effort. In addition, there is the infrastructure. Visitors need to be able to reach the site and, where possible, have a place to stay. In addition, personable guides trained in natural history are a must. Also an enticing website is a distinct plus as this is a most useful tool for drawing attention to the site.

Costa Rica is located reasonably near the large North American market. This is fortunate, but an ecotourism program that depends on international guests is not totally reliable as world affairs influences travel.  Thus it is best to cater to a steady stream of local citizens and, as available, add foreigners to the mix. The Serrano family benefits from being only three hours drive from the capital San Jose, and within a six-hour drive of close to half of Costa Rica’s population.

And the family also profits not only from the quetzal but also from the quiet and peaceful nature of its oak forest location, one that overlooks a fine view towards the Pacific. Thus staying here makes for splendid interlude from the hustle and bustle of San Jose, Cartago, and other cities.  Moreover in addition to the quetzal,  hosts of hummingbirds buzz around the grounds and these, along with other mountain species, make Pariso Quetzal an ideal stopover for birders, international or otherwise.

       This Firey-throated Hummingbird (Panterpe insignis), one of 54 Costa Rican hummingbird species, was photographed at the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge. This is a montane resident usually found above 2000m (6,600’) altitude in central and southern Costa Rica and into extreme western Panama.  The Firey-throated is a nectar feeder, sometimes probing for food at the bases of a bromeliad flowers by utiizing holes originally made by bees. Hummingbirds also consume insects and spiders as a source of protein and are so agile that they have no trouble darting into the air to catch a flying morsel

Above all, sustainable ecotourism projects revolve around enhancing the participation of local communities. If the local residents see financial benefits, they are ones who are most likely to best safeguard the resource. And we see in the Tres de Junio area where, thanks to the Serrano initiative, farmers are now aware of the advantage of maintaining their environment and augmenting their quetzal habitat.

Jorge and the Serrano family are to be congratulated on their on-going conservation success.

Dr. Fleming with naturalist/guide Alanzo (pictured right), Quetzal showing
farmer William (left) and Serrano family member (far left); photo
taken by James Regali, Bob's companion on the Quetzal search.
This week's blog piece and photos make up the third installment in our Musings of a Naturalist series, courtesy of our own Dr. Robert (Bob) Fleming: Professor Equity and Empowerment/ Natural History. Having grown up in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, Bob has long been interested in the beauty of nature. This progressed into a fascination with natural history and cultural diversity, leading him to obtain his Ph.D. in zoology. He has  explored many of the planet's special biological regions, ranging from the Namib Desert in Africa to the Tropical Rainforest of the Amazon, and the Mountain Tundra biome of the Himalayas. He has worked for the Smithsonian's Office of Ecology and the Royal Nepal Academy and, along with his father and Royal Nepal Academy Director-Lain Singh Bangdel, he wrote and illustrated "Birds of Nepal," the first modern field guide to the birds of the region. In addition to his work with Future Generations, Bob is the director of Nature Himalayas, a sole proprietorship that he began in 1970. Through this company, Bob has led some 250 outings. He currently lives in the temperate rainforest of western Oregon in the USA's Pacific Northwest.

Many thanks to Dr. Fleming for another great contribution!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day from Future Generations!

When thinking how we could give a shout out to fathers on the blog today, my mind immediately went to the Taylors. Daniel Taylor, his father Carl Taylor, and son Luke Taylor-Ide, all worked together to bring the vision for Future Generations to life. Three generations of fathers and sons working together has made this already special relationship even more dynamic. The Taylor family has long worked to promote community-based education, and each has brought their own unique approach to the field.


Carl Taylor founded the academic discipline of international health and dedicated his life to the marginalized people of the world. He was also the founding chair of the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Up until a week before his death, he continued sharing his near century-long perspective with his students while working as the Country Director for Future Generations in Afghanistan.

Daniel Taylor founded Future Generations, as well as twelve other nonprofit organizations. He's been engaged in social change and conservation for more than four decades with a focus on building international cooperation to achieve ambitious projects, and has received widespread recognition and award for his efforts.  He is one of the synthesizers of the SEED-SCALE method, and since 1995 has continued to lead global field trials of SEED-SCALE and educate the world on this method through the sharing his research and books.

Luke Taylor-Ide has worked to combine academic interest in applied education with a parallel field-oriented approach to social change, having had extended, multi-year assignments in Afghanistan, India, and rural America. His findings affected national health policy in Afghanistan in regards to enabling women, and addressed the impacts of modernization on sustainable living in India. He currently focuses on the intersection of local agriculture economies, community-based preventive healthcare, and entrepreneurship in West Virginia.


I reached out to Luke to help me create todays' post, while keeping true to the purpose of the blog, and he kindly agreed to help. We hope you enjoy the following post in tribute to fathers everywhere.

Is there a project in particular that you all worked on that really sticks out to you?

Probably the most memorable project that I worked on with my father and grandfather was the "Pregnancy History Project” in Afghanistan and India. Several points are noteworthy about this project, most importantly it was the closest professional collaboration I got to share with my grandfather—it ended up being his last major research and action project. During this time, Bapu (Carl) and I traveled to Afghanistan and India to first launch a research effort to assess the impact of the Pregnancy History Method implemented 2 years earlier in Afghanistan and then also launch a parallel implementation approach in Arunachal Pradesh, India. We were closing our time in Kabul, Afghanistan when Dad (Dan’l) arrived to complete programatic work and we all overlapped for two nights in the guest house of the International Assistance Mission. One night we got into a debate about the appropriate placement and role for the concept of establishing a Shared Vision for change in community within SEED-SCALE. Each of us had a strong opinion and they were all different; we debated that point for hours in the living room until the other guests united and asked us to go to bed—we had no idea how late or opinionated we each had become. I am still not sure that any of us went to bed that night at all convinced of the other’s views—but I expect each of us thought our point had come out on top. 

What's the greatest benefit to working with your father?

We get to spend a lot of time together! As a result of interacting on a virtually daily basis, usually regarding work, we have learned to adapt our relationship from one of typical father-son to being colleagues and friends. We gain insight into one another’s daily life in a way that most father-son relationships cannot do. While this can be a delicate balance, having an enduring relationship that has evolved throughout the years has allowed us to know one another professionally as well as personally, which for better or for worse has brought us closer together. 

What's the hardest thing about working with your father?

At times the line between our professional and personal relationship can get blurred which adds significant strain on both. It is often difficult for us to “turn off” work when we are together. While this can have its perks such as working through a complex issue over dinner, it can also easily turn a relaxing evening into a night of work and debate. Unlike many working relationships, we are unable to cut ties completely if we have a disagreement so we generally work out our different views and are both better for it—but getting to common ground is not always the most fun. 

What's been your most memorable interaction while working with family?

In March of 2008 I got a phone call from my grandfather asking me to come and assist him on the Pregnancy History Project that summer. On the call he stated that he had discussed this idea thoroughly with Dad who had authorized and approved of the idea—“everything has been arranged as long as you are willing to do it," he said. Obviously when your 92 year old grandfather asks for your help, you say yes, so I did. The next day I spoke to Dad who said that he had just gotten off the phone with my grandfather who reported that I had requested to be involved with the Pregnancy History Project and that I had made a compelling case. By the time Dad and I both spoke to one another to discover that we each had agreed to part of an elaborate plan orchestrated by the family patriarch all we could do was laugh and go along with it. I still chuckle about the fact that my first official employment with Future Generations was the result of orchestration from my grandfather. 


Many thanks to Luke for his contribution to today's blog, and Happy Father's Day from all of us here at Future Generations!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Ecological Footprint of Afghanistan and More: A Comparison of Afghanistan with Iran and Pakistan

As a human, my work, behavior, and future plans all are making an impact on the planet's finite resources-- simply by living , I am using resources.
From the usage of water to caring for nature, building safe environments, creating opportunities for the next generations... The examples go on and on. Simply put, every one of us has a strong direct impact on the planet's finite resources. And yet there is a huge percentage of the population of humans in this world that can’t get access to clean water. I, in one corner of this world, have more than enough access to this resource. How I am using this opportunity of having unlimited access to clean water, which is not available to others in the world, makes a large impact on our planet's finite resources.

Comparison of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan

Examining the similarities and differences of Afghanistan with Pakistan and Iran makes for an interesting comparison; Pakistan and Iran both are economically stabilized countries, maintain armies, industries, and have higher populations. Conversely, Afghanistan has had to grow during more than 4 decades of war, building everything from scratch, dependent upon  assistance from the international community, with very a low economic system, low revenue, and most prevalently, the ongoing threats of insurgency. This creates a large difference between Afghanistan and the two neighboring countries mentioned.


Afghanistan and Pakistan are both in Southeast Asia, which neighbors world super economic power, China. On the other hand, Iran serves as a connecting point between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. At a quick glance, these three countries are all faced with the ongoing threat of insurgency insurgency, however, only Afghanistan is currently involved in actively fighting this problem. The other two aforementioned countries are also involved, but this involvement decreases going from Pakistan towards Iran.
Insurgency aside, the potential for economic growth and power that exists in this region, for all three countries, is similar.  These three countries are located in an important geo-politically strategic location. If we think of the trade of natural gas from Iran to Central Asia, and consider the abundance of Iran's natural resources, Afghanistan is the only bridge in between the two areas, which creates a big economic impact on the region. The same Afghanistan serves as the in-between for connecting Central Asia with Southeast Asia.
Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, just recently started the TAPI project, which will further establish Afghanistan as a connecting point for Central and Southeast Asia. Through this project, natural gas will be sent from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, via Afghanistan, and then via Pakistan to India. The similarities, from an economic standpoint, can be seen as significant. The contribution from all of these countries, and in general, Central Asia with Southeast Asia, makes a great impact on the planet's finite resources. This is  especially so in the case of Central Asia's supply of natural gas, and the high demand for it in Southeast Asia.


Unfortunately, many differences also exist between these three countries. The fight against terrorism in the region, Afghanistan's long-lasting war, Pakistan's involvement, Iran's involvement, etc. all makes a big difference. Furthermore, while Pakistan has access to nuclear weapons and Iran is trying to make it for themselves, or use the uranium for the energy purposes, Afghanistan has no involvement in this regard. All of which makes Afghanistan a strange white elephant in the corner of the room.
Both Iran and Pakistan are well-enough-stabilized countries from their economic and military prospects, while Afghanistan is not even at the initial stage of such a comparison. While Iran and Pakistan are working towards their financial and economic strategies, and thinking of  ways to grow their economies stronger and stronger for their people, Afghanistan struggles to at the very least provide a safe environment for its people, and to avoid the resulting huge migration flows of its populations to European countries.
Another big difference is Afghanistan struggling to bring peace and prosperity to its people. And while Afghanistan has a high amount of natural resources, it has not the facilities to extract or to use them. Meanwhile, Iran produces a significant amount of the oil in the world and the profits put it in a higher position than the other two countries being examined. A further complication: while the international community is trying to help Afghanistan in fighting against terrorism, Afghanistan blames Pakistan and Iran for supporting and creating insurgency in the region.
Economical differences aside, socially and politically, these three countries differ from one another. Iran has a combined version of democracy and religion, which rules the country while ignoring its minorities. Pakistan claims a democratic governance system with the incorporation of Islamic values, and has a categorized public with high, medium, and low incomes. This "normal" people can't reasonably hope to ever become president, minister, or manager in a government institution as a result.
Afghanistan has tried the new cut-and-paste democracy of the West, with its localized values. Unfortunately, in a similar manner to Pakistan, the society is growing into categorized subsets of people, with the very high and very low income, and the middle class. This greatly limits the abilities of those not in the high income category.
Each of these countries is arguably corrupt and not honest with its people. Additionally, the nuclear facilities in Pakistan and Iran, and the usage of the uranium to build nuclear weapons or as an energy source, has had a very strong negative impact on the planet's resources. The practices has been damaging to the environment, destroyed societies,  and brought more fear to its citizens. Religions is also a common source of power in each of the three countries, but currently all of these countries are trying to maintain positive relationships with the West.

The Main Factors Subject to Difference:

  • Huge population of Pakistan, and the ongoing fear of poverty in this country
  • The economic crises in Iran
  • The ongoing insurgency and terrorism threats in Afghanistan
  • The ongoing fear and increase in the percentage of poverty in Afghanistan

Conclusion of Differences, Potential Directions to be Taken

To conclude, Afghanistan has the potential to transform into the economic center of Asia. It is able to connect the central and south regions, and to connect Southeast Asia to the Middle East. Pakistan could transform its industrialized economy to one of greater success, using this to aid in the ongoing efforts against terrorism and to bring peace to the region. Iran could make its economy even stronger also aiding in the fight against terrorism so that they can expand their oil business via Afghanistan to China and Southeast Asian countries.
Additionally, Afghanistan's access to unlimited water can be also be seen as a difference, and so an asset. If Afghanistan gets stabilized and in accordance with international laws and norms, it could seek to set a price for its extra water, which Pakistan and Iran currently use for free. This would benefit the country economically and help it to not rely as much on the international community. 

Personal Footprint


There are many positive things to be said for Afghanistan that rarely get acknowledged. The natural beauty, green landscape, natural mines, rarely seen animals, and things of this nature are among our planet's greatest finite resources.
Pakistan is a larger country than Afghanistan, with a higher population and more stability.

Iran is well-stabilized economically, due to its abundance of natural resources, especially natural gas, and an industrialized economy.
Living in Afghanistan with limited resources, and low development in terms of transportation, connection to the outside world, education, and employment, are the biggest factors that affect me and millions of others in my country. The struggle of development in the country has been very slow within the last 14 years, however, the current government creates some hope. Although negative points have been seen in the way the National Unite Government serves in Afghanistan. Two major issues: too many political factions, and the level of employment in the country remaining low due to lack of opportunity for an increased workforce.
Development in every corner of the world creates more opportunities for our resources, as well as more manageable and sustainable ways of using them. Sadly, Afghanistan is missing the essential components to follow suit, which creates an uncertain future for millions of people in the country. Education has easily risen in the last 15 years, yet the level of employment has dropped, unable to fulfill the needs of this educated generation. These factors are all directly impacting the development inside my society and overall in my country.
This lack of development and opportunity creates an international problem, consisting of issues such as the flow of migration of Afghan youths to the Middle East and Europe, the government's struggle with insurgents and against terrorism, reliance upon the international community's economic support...All of these factors are connected and directly relate towards my personal footprint the developments around me. 

This week's blog post contributed by Future Generations Alumnus Yasar Ahmadzai. Yasar has more than a decade's worth of experience in the fields of peacebuilding, community development, democratization, and journalism. Carrying international expertise into the field of positive community change, Yasar was recently featured for his peacebuilding efforts by the Global Peacebuilding Center and the United States Institute of Peace. He previously worked with the Afghanistan High Peace Council, and also has the practical experience of working with different government institutions in Afghanistan and in the ongoing peace negotiations taking place in the country.

Yasar established the Afghanistan Institute of Peace, a think-tank for positive community change and peacebuilding in 2015 (, using methods learned through his practical international experience with Future Generations University in the fields of peacebuilding, bringing positive change. Yasar's goal is to promote a culture of peace among Afghanistan's new generations.
Furthermore, Yasar has been working with Democracy International since 2011 for good governance, democratization, positive community change, and anti-corruption.

To know more about Yasar and his various involvements, visit the links below: