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Curing Climate Change in Costa Rica: An Immersive Experience

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What could our world look like if everyone were provided the opportunity to learn about their local ecosystem and get to participate in research, knowing that their contributions would lend to a thriving planet? Here’s what it’s like for one entrepreneur who is fully immersed in the work, experiencing a healing ecosystem at the heart while inviting others on her journey.

Once in academics and working behind the scenes, Dr. Lilly Briggs is now living out her passion of contributing to sustainability in a more tangible way which is a dream come true for her.  Dr. Lilly Briggs addresses climate change from multiple angles through her nonprofit, Finca Cántaros Environmental Association, in Costa Rica. Its mission: “Learn. Connect. Act. Creating community and inspiring action through environmental education.”

The nonprofit restores the forest, conducts research on native plants and birds, and offers environmental educational courses for specific age groups as well as families. The forest restoration and research projects are vehicles for the educational experiences which are the foundation of the impact Dr. Briggs intends to create in the community.                                                                      

The Roots of Finca Cántaros

Before she founded Finca Cántaros in 2019, Lilly completed her PhD and post-doc at Cornell University where she later taught agroecology, which is the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming. Within her work experience at Cornell, Dr. Briggs helped to develop and pilot environmental education outside of the United States, leading study abroad experiences throughout Central America.

“Bird Loop” was the name of the program that she launched. It focused on creating and protecting habitats for birds. This work directly translates to the research studies conducted through Finca Cántaros, gathering information about the native birds of Costa Rica in order to protect their natural habitats. San Vito Bird Club is accredited with being Dr. Briggs’ gateway to studying within Costa Rica, so when the time was right, she connected the dots between her work experience and passion.  She followed her heart to become an entrepreneur and establish residency in Costa Rica.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused an international lockdown and halted her study abroad excursions, Lilly seized the opportunity to follow her own path in this entrepreneurial endeavor. Maple Bear Global Schools, a bilingual institution for early development based in Canada, believed in her mission and donated start-up funding to seed the beginning of Finca Cántaros’ journey.

The land where Finca Cántaros resides was originally a nature reserve before Dr. Briggs purchased it, and she invited the community to experience the rich ecology together. When Lilly bought the 7.5 hectares, she also bought the adjacent cattle pasture to extend the reach of the forest and launch new restoration projects. 

Teamwork makes the dream work, and Dr. Briggs feels blessed to call her family her team in this endeavor. Her mother is the communications advisor while her dad and brother are financial advisors who are invested in the success of this nonprofit.  Another important player is her partner who is the in-house biologist and research coordinator.

Feminism in Reforestation

Dr. Briggs pioneered this project as an independent woman, intent on overcome barriers of stereotype to pursue the project. She has demonstrated for her Costa Rican community that a woman can be a successful business owner and leader . While her family is acknowledged as the keystone of support, Finca Cántaros would not be on the radar without Lilly’s passion, imagination, and initiative to make it a reality.

In her transition from academic educator to entrepreneur, Dr. Briggs had to learn to confront things that didn’t come easily to her: taking on a self-appointed leadership, mediating work conflicts, and developing the mental bandwidth to grow personally and professionally. She currently manages a core staff of five people, but the expanded team tallies fifteen workers.

Leaning on a solid personal development practice, Dr. Briggs frequently listens to podcasts that coax out the power within. With these resources, she has learned to simultaneously develop the skill of giving and receiving constructive criticism with  grace, both for herself and those she works with. During the interview for this story, she shared that,

“Being a leader is not only about gaining more knowledge but also reflecting on your own personal journey.”

-Dr. Lilly Briggs

Finca Cántaros offers a collection of educational programs as the backbone of the business, but two courses align specifically with Dr. Briggs’ own journey as an entrepreneur: teaching leadership skills to women who are striving to contribute positively to sustainability and conservation efforts. These courses draw insights directly from Dr. Briggs’ personal experience as a female business owner who is making waves in the world of sustainability.  Women are empowered through “Women Committed to the Earth,” and “Women Leaders for Nature.” programs which spotlight female environmental heroes who serve as role models for other women who are driven to follow their own path and make a difference.

Healing the Land While Helping the Community

Finca Cántaros’ initiative is to heal the land but also to inspire individuals to care about the planet and make a difference in the ways that they can. While preserving the land, the community is simultaneously engaged in an effort to steward the forest and overall ecosystem together.

The goal to make the land feel like a space where everyone can come together to be part of the sustainable solution that directly impacts their society. Dr. Briggs is sensitive to being an expatriot and wants to celebrate the culture of the existing community in Costa Rica through Finca Cántaros’ offerings. Through her study abroad programs as a professor, Dr. Briggs learned to speak Spanish fluently, allowing her to communicate with the local people from the land that she currently serves. She makes a point to integrate her lessons with the existing culture, consciously adapting to be able to serve her students in the best way possible.

With her past work in the academic field, Dr. Briggs was accustomed to developing research and publishing her findings. While the written work is a contribution to environmental progress, it was a challenge to really see the impact because she could not track how it affected readers’ actions. Now she finds fulfillment through experiencing the land, knowing that it is because of her own initiatives forests have been preserved. To be able to see a tree growing that she helped to plant, witnessing the literal fruits of her labor, and experiencing community come together is where the magic happens for Dr. Briggs.

Environmental Education

“When people are educated, they are empowered with the knowledge to make a difference in their own way.”

–Dr. Lilly Briggs

Educational programs are the financial backbone of this organization, and a diverse range of programing ensures that there is something for everyone! Students are invited to explore the ecosystem and nothing is more powerful in education than to learn by experience.

“The Childrens’ Forest of Coto Brus”  was the first program launched by Finca Cántaros,  bridging the work that Dr. Briggs previously conducted through Cornell. It offers children the opportunity to experience the working of the ecosystem first-hand while also learning to work together. With the support from community partners, San Vito Bird Club, Las Cruces Biological Station and Osa Conservation, youth get to invest their time in a unique experience of “tree-growing” which goes beyond “tree-planting.” With consistent care, the participants can witness their efforts from the planting stage to prosperity. “Nature Sketch” is an extension of the program, encouraging nature appreciation through creating art.

“People & Nature” is a volunteer-based educational tour program consisting of weekly night-time excursions where participants encounter Costa Rica’s nocturnal wildlife  such as owls, kinkajous, and the famous “Bruja Blanca” (White Witch) moth, which is the largest in the world!

As a metaphor for forest succession, the educational programs are continually evolving based on feedback from participants with the intention to better serve as one event gives rise to the next. For example, “The Childrens’ Forest” has expanded to be more inclusive of a wide range of ages beyond its original design for youth only. The women’s program continues to plant the seed and give roots to more niche programs.  For example, a new program for young men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, invites them to focus their energy implementing environmental action projects, leading healthy lifestyles and communing with nature. 

At the completion of each program, Dr. Briggs assesses its success and thinks about how to build a stronger program and create a more engaged experience in the future.

Research

Finca Cántaros is involved with several research projects:

  • The “Bat Night” educational offering simultaneously enrolls those who join to participate in research endeavors. Small groups are invited to observe the nocturnal behavior of bats and record their activity.
  • PROALAS Bird Monitoring uses methodology developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and CONABIO, something that Dr. Briggs brings into her entrepreneurial endeavor from her previous work.  It follows the changes in species over time.
  • The Motus Receiver Station is equipped with cutting edge technology and is led by Birds Canada. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System, which monitors movement of birds and other species in the jungle, “is an international collaborative network of researchers that use automated radio telemetry to simultaneously track hundreds of individuals of numerous species of birds, bats, and insects” (Birds Canada, 2020).

The Wildlife Bridge Project is a combination of reforestation and research where many different groups have banned together in order to create a pathway for wildlife to safely cross the highway.

Restoration

“The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” 

-Rabindranath Tagore

Dr. Briggs is transforming cleared land into the natural forest ecosystem that belongs to Costa Rica. While the peak benefits may be seen beyond her time, the expanded forest will contribute to generations of locals and many other diverse species who share the land.  Through her labor of love, she is literally planting seeds for the future to replenish an area of Earth that will count toward curbing climate change. Once a cattle pasture, the adjacent land to the educational center is now a forest restoration initiative which includes both native and edible plants. The reforestation efforts are backed by a tree nursery collaboration where Finca Cántaros provides the land for Osa Conservation to cultivate native species in this region to restore the natural environment and wildlife.  This is brought to life through Tree Planting Days which enlist the help of the community.  Transforming the previous cattle pasture into a fruit tree orchard shows that restoration can have many benefits to people. The food on site may not transform the entire distribution issue, but it will help by nourishing the local population. Those who participate are empowered with the knowledge about how to grow food for themselves if they have the land to do so. The food trees and plants do need more care as they are not as adaptable as native species to the area, which supports a deeper education through an agroforestry lens. 

Dr. Briggs emphasizes that the work of reforestation is more like “tree growing” rather than “tree planting” because there is more nurturing within the care process to bring the plants to maturity. Reforestation supports the benefits of shade, carbon sequestration, and food in addition to being home to many important species.

Learn more at:

https://fincacantaros.org/
https://www.facebook.com/FincaCantaros
https://www.instagram.com/fincacantaros/?hl=en
Heather Hough
Author: Heather Hough

I am a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Environmental Studies - Sustainability Track with a minor in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. My passions include leading communities to understand their environmental impact and contributing to a healed world through innovative ideas. With an entrepreneurial mindset, I am keen on taking initiative and exploring all possibilities for innovation to lead to a better world.

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