Students looking for a chance to study abroad have the opportunity to go to Costa Rica this summer with the Rainforest Immersion and Conservation Action (RICA) program, sponsored by Western’s Huxley College of the Environment.

Troy Abel, assistant professor of environmental policy in Huxley, is leading the program, which runs for five weeks this summer. This will be his 10th time visiting Costa Rica. The core of the program is environmental conservation and policy, he said.

“I think that the biggest reason that a student should apply to this program is because it really gives them an experiential opportunity to truly understand rainforest and biodiversity that can only be experienced in a tropical setting,” Abel said.

The group will begin by spending 10 days in the Carara National Park field station and will later visit the Corcavado National Park field station for another 10 days. At the stations, students will experience the national park in a manner similar to that of a park ranger, Abel said.

“Essentially what we’re doing, and what students do, is mimic what an actual park ranger would do,” Abel said. “So they truly get the immersion experience by being in the rainforest, working in the rainforest, eating and sleeping there, for 10 days.”

At the field stations, Abel said that the living conditions wouldn’t be like a hotel but that mattresses are available and meals are prepared by cooks.
“It’s comfortable enough, but it’s right there,” he said. “The rainforest is our backyard, so to speak.”

In the rainforest, students will conduct field studies. One of these includes monitoring scarlet macaws on the “macaw cam” in order to better understand how to conserve the park and its species. Poaching puts pressure on the macaw population, but so do other factors. Understanding what all those factors can lead to better protection for species such as the macaw, Abel said.

“The environmental research that we do is action research, if you will,” Abel said. “So we’re specifically doing the kind of monitoring that is more directly going to feed into decisions about what they [park rangers] should be doing on the ground in the national park to help protect species.”

The rainforest is an important area of study, namely for the contribution of rainforests to absorption of carbon dioxide, Abel said. This carbon dioxide is then converted and released as oxygen. Abel called the rainforest the “lungs of the earth,” underscoring its importance to the livelihood of our planet. Because of the prominence of rainforests in environmental science, the RICA program provides an opportunity for a hands-on experience on the forefront of the study of global ecology, Abel said.

“In environmental studies, you are always going to hear about tropical rainforests, their importance in our global ecology,” Abel said. “This gives our students kind of a frontline experience in one of the most important ecosystems for our planet.”

Abel also encouraged students with interests other than environmental science to apply. He pointed out that preserving and understanding the rainforests is important for anyone, from biology majors to those studying sustainable education.

In addition to the field studies, the trip also includes excursions to the Central Pacific region, located on the west coast of Costa Rica, and the Osa Peninsula, which is located further south.

In addition to the field studies and excursions, students will also spend three days attending lectures at the University of Peace, a United Nations-approved school. In addition to the campus visits, participants will attend a student research conference for two days at the university.

The University of Peace was given special recognition by the U.N. because Costa Rica does not have a military. It began in 1980 and its mission, according to its Web site, is “to provide humanity with an international institution of higher education for peace with the aim of promoting among all human beings the spirit of understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, to stimulate cooperation among peoples and to help lessen obstacles and threats to world peace and progress, in keeping with the noble aspirations proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations.”

Because Costa Rica does not have a military, their culture is quite different than that of the United States, Abel said. This and other cultural differences add a valuable element to the program, which is the ability to learn from both Costa Rican and American cultures.

“I think a lot of students will understand our own culture better, if they haven’t traveled abroad, by going abroad and then returning,” Abel said. “I think it gives them a fresh set of eyes.”

The RICA program offers three courses for a total of 10 credits. Cost is $4300, which includes tuition, room and board and food, but not airfare. For more information, visit the Huxley College Web site or contact Troy Abel at
troy.abel@wwu.edu.