Colvin Winner Abby Hewitt ’13 Examines Environmental Conservation in Rural Costa Rica

Nick DiUlio for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

In May 2012, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major Abby Hewitt ‘13 received the Becky Colvin Memorial Award. During the following summer, Hewitt used the Colvin funds to examine social and economic factors influencing environmental conservation in rural villages in Costa Rica. Her thesis, “Land Use Dynamics on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula: A Model for Balancing Ecological, Economic, and Social Integrity,” was based upon findings from that work.

Below, Hewitt describes her research, how the Colvin Award made her ambitious project possible, and how this project impacted her decision to work for an environmental consulting firm that focuses primarily on conservation planning and land use sustainability.

Please describe your senior thesis project.

There is no doubt that significant progress has been made in recognizing the importance of protecting areas of high biodiversity. But simply barring land from all human interaction often isn’t feasible due to a range of barriers, including economic and social concerns. And these barriers are often even more pronounced in tropical, developing countries, where a high proportion of the world’s biodiversity exists. The field of conservation biology is now increasingly moving away from strict protectionism and towards conservation approaches that are highly specific to various contexts. To that end, it’s really important to consider the social perspective and economic needs of the area’s local population.

However, questions remain as to how we can balance environmental protection with these considerations in order to maximize the area’s overall worth while also satisfying the stakeholders involved. Several studies have attempted to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation plans in meeting these requirements, but very few have attempted to actually quantify an area’s ecological, economic, and social health. My thesis was driven by creating indicators for these variables and determining how to balance them in this larger context of conservation.

How did you conduct research for this project?

I traveled to the southern portion of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. This is an area of land that lies just beyond the highly biodiverse Corcovado National Park, and it has a long history of environmental degradation and poverty within the local population. While I was there, I conducted interviews with local landowners and collected lots of data corresponding to measures of economic value, ecological preservation, and social perception of the national park.

From this data, I’m creating a quantitative land use model that predicts the factors contributing to an area’s health in these three key areas. With such a model, I’m able to more analytically evaluate the effectiveness of the current conservation approach and to make specific policy recommendations for balancing the area’s needs.

How did the Colvin Award support your research?

The Colvin Award covered my expenses for traveling to and living in Costa Rica for two months this past summer. While I was there, I conducted more than 75 interviews with local landowners, as well as one of the founders of Costa Rica’s national parks system. These in-person interviews were essential to completing my study, because there’s very little data available for this remote area. I am very grateful for the funding, as it not only made my thesis research possible, but also gave me the incredibly valuable opportunity to live in a developing country and meet people from an entirely different life perspective than my own.

Did your project change once you began the research? If so, in what ways?

I had never conducted field research before, but I quickly realized after conducting my initial interviews that I would have to alter a significant portion of my questionnaire. The main concepts remained the same, but I had to change a lot of the wording as well as some of the variables so that all of the landowners would be able to answer without requiring extensive knowledge in any of the three areas of focus.

For example, I quickly realized that several farmers did not know their yearly or monthly revenue. So instead I asked whether they would classify their land use as providing subsistence living, generating economic gain, or resulting in economic loss.

What surprised you the most over the course of this project?

I was amazed by how much I learned before I even started analyzing the results, just by being in a foreign country and talking to the locals. I quickly realized how easy it is to become closed-minded by Westernized ideals when considering what needs to be done for effective environmental conservation.

What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned over the course of this project?

Conducting these interviews really helped teach me the importance of self-confidence. In order to collect my data, the landowners had to take me seriously and trust that their private information was going to be used purely for research purposes.

The next phase of my research, which was the actual data analysis, taught me how to know when to ask for help. Statistics and model building are not my areas of expertise, but Princeton has an incredible amount of people willing to help you in the exact area you are struggling. By using these resources, I have learned so much and been able to create a much more meaningful thesis.

Why is your research important, and in what ways do you hope it will have an impact beyond the campus?

There are numerous places in developing countries worldwide that are in a similar situation to the one I studied, in which the local populations surrounding protected areas are struggling to generate economic livelihood and, consequently, degrade the area’s natural resources. In order to effectively increase environmental conservation in these areas, local needs have to be adequately addressed. Ideally, my quantitative model could be used to create a context-specific conservation plan for any area that has high biological value, as well as a local population.

Were you able to accomplish what you originally intended, or did the parameters of the project change once you began?

Ideally, I would have had more specific data about revenue and land boundaries. My original intention was to generate geographic information system (GIS) maps of the area with land uses distinguished by their revenue per hectare. This would clearly demonstrate where the opportunity costs of forest conservation would outweigh the current economic revenue of cleared land. However, the majority of my interviewees said they were simply a subsistence business and did not track expenses. What’s more, there was no way of finding specific land boundaries, since the area’s method for claiming land is simply to settle there for five years. This creates unclear land boundaries that can’t specifically be delineated between owners.

So instead of this original idea, I found out each land use’s total number of employees, average monthly salary, and total hectares owned. This allowed me to determine an “economic generation” variable, based on how much each land use was economically providing the local population per hectare owned. With the geographical coordinates of the land use and the total hectares owned, I could then represent spatial patterns of the economic generation to get a broad idea of the most economically productive areas. This was a slightly different way of measuring how much the land use was worth to the area, but still effective for my overall goal.

In what ways has this project influenced your plans post graduation?

My project got me very interested in environmental land-use planning with analytical tools and GIS mapping, as well as the economic and social considerations that need to be made when creating an area’s management plan. I am actually going to be working for an environmental consulting firm whose major focus is on conservation planning and land use sustainability—so I guess it influenced my decision a lot.

What advice would you give this year’s Colvin winner?

If you are doing field research, find out as much as you can about your area of interest before you leave. It will allow you to save time while you are at your study location and help you really focus in on the most pertinent data for completing your project. It’s easy to lose sight of the end goal with everything going on when you are actually in the field, as well as to get discouraged when things are not going exactly to plan. The more you research before hand, the better you will handle yourself when you face barriers along the way.

In addition to Abby Hewitt, ecology and evolutionary biology major Tara Thean was also awarded Colvin funds last spring. Both students will graduate with certificates in environmental studies in June 2013. Thean’s research is featured in a separate PEI News article.

The Becky Colvin Memorial Award supports summer field research projects, in support of the senior thesis. The award was established in 1995 by Dr. and Mrs. Robert Colvin in memory of their daughter, Becky Colvin ’95. Becky was an ecology and evolutionary biology major who was very interested in field research. Students are selected to receive the Colvin Prize by competitive application in the spring of their junior year.

Additional information about the Becky Colvin Memorial Award and prior recipients of the prize is available on PEI’s website.