Compost’s connection to a healthy rain forest



By Terri Petersen and Gary Strehlow

       Terri Peterson and Gary Strehlow own Nueva Tierra de Osa and make their composts, Worm Gardens, and other organic products in the shade of their 17 hectares of rain forest in Los Pargos. They also offer school and community programs and on-site and remote compost consulting services. Tico Pet Veterinary offers some of their products in Puerto Jimenez. They can be reached at and welcome visitors to their small operation



House Front

With the focus of this edition of Sol de Osa being the examination of threats to the Osa forests and how to mitigate some of those threats, a discussion of compost in general and how it might offer some practical benefits to the overall environment is perhaps warranted. No doubt fellow contributors will highlight the value of our precious Osa forests and the importance in protecting and managing them. Various government ministries, local agencies, local people, ONGs, lodges and other tourism-based entities have outstanding plans and projects to do just that. The Osa needs ALL of them and our support to be successful. I’m not sure I can weave composting all that tightly into this specific topic, but I’d like to try by concentrating on the ‘what we can do’ personal responsibility piece of the solution by sharing our own experiences.

When Gary and I arrived 11 years ago from small-town Oregon, our lifestyle changed dramatically to say the least. Of course that was what we were hoping for, as we had lived most of our lives in relatively sealed buildings complete with municipal water, sewer treatment, storm drains, trash and recycling pick-up, and various other advances that reduced our connection ‘to’ and impact ‘on’ our environment.  Our move to the Osa was in hopes of living closer to nature. Goal Accomplished! We live IN nature and steward about 24 hectares of rain forest between our house and the Golfo Dulce. Everything we build, dig, drain, flush, collect, and throw away has an almost immediate impact, affecting the watersheds, creeks, the forest, beach and gulf.  Additionally, four to six meters of rain each year provide ample challenges to minimizing erosion and the transfer of contaminants into the forest. We didn’t like the effect that our ‘disturbance’ of just moving here had caused. We wanted to make amends and since we had learned the joys of composting in our previous life, we knew compost was a place to start.


Our side

One challenge we had from the beginning was the red clay mud surrounding our small caretaker’s home (soon to become our home) and the very sparse vegetation that had managed to return after the road to Jimenez had been built about 10 years earlier. “Cuesta mucho pegarlos” was Henry’s favorite reply when we asked him why there was no grass, no plants, no garden. “Too hard to get anything to grow.” There was a recovering forest edge complete with Cecropia and other post-disturbance tree species, but every time it rained the road ditches ran red with eroded mud, fast and furious all the way to our precious gulf. Knowing that vegetation would greatly reduce the erosion, we set out to plant, using compost to create healthier soils that could support healthy plants and grass. Chemical fertilizers were never considered since 95% of chemical fertilizer is not utilized by the plant and would end up contaminating our forest and gulf. Other ‘tools’ included roof gutters, grass blocks, good drainage ditches and drains to control the water around the house. Within a couple of years, vegetation covered the bare spots and provided us with even more yard wastes to make even more compost. So much in fact that we decided to start a business making compost!  Adding in worm composts, compost teas, and organic fertilizers we are proud of our lush little oasis supporting a balance of organisms, insects, birds, other animals and a healthy forest.

A second issue we encountered quickly upon arrival was what to do with our trash since there simply was no trash service within 20 kms of us. After finding the previous inhabitants’ trash ‘hueco’ or dump on the forest edge, we knew we had to find alternatives. The toxic nature of current day wastes and the leachates that are produced in decomposing garbage can definitely impact the ground water and in our case, our forest border. Our organic wastes including food wastes, paper products, coffee grounds, fish wastes and more quickly became valuable compost resources.  Thanks to some hard-working, aware local people, recycling became a reality in Jiménez and then at our nearby elementary schools.



Forest-friendly, biodegradable cleaning products was another area where the growing awareness of our daily impact made it a no-brainer to change what we used. I have to confess I did love the smell of clothes cleaned with Tico detergent. It was the SMELL of Costa Rica. But there was nowhere ‘far enough’ that we could send that waste water that wouldn’t have an impact. We tried but sadly killed off a couple of trees in the process. So we started using many of the now readily available eco cleaners.  Kudos to local and Costa Rican entrepreneurs for providing us these excellent products to use.

So, bringing this back to the topic of our column each issue, composting is really just a part of how we look at the day-to-day management of our home in the Osa rain forest. For us it has become more about reducing the impact on our small piece of the forest and a tool to help rejuvenate the land damaged by the highway and our home site. Other residents on the Osa probably do even more than us, still others CAN do more than they do now.

Knowledge, awareness and maybe a little ‘you can do it’ encouragement can help. Knowledge is an amazing thing. Once we learn and assimilate a new truth into our awareness, we cannot UN-learn it. Once we see how the banana skin can become food for worms or learn that a glass bottle can be recycled endlessly, we become aware. That changes us. That changes everything. We can choose to ignore that knowledge and just throw it in the trash. Being human indeed offers us choices.  But we can also embrace the opportunity, respect the intimate connection we have with nature, do our part and make a difference in our homes, our health, and even in the forests of this little peninsula.




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