Many people said it wouldn't work – the idea of bringing together a group of people from different backgrounds from five continents would never allow for an effective course in creating and managing protected areas.
Plus, the seminar was in Costa Rica, a remarkably stable country famous for its conservation successes, its protected area system, and its well developed tourism and scientific infrastructure.
How would learning in this relatively advanced nation benefit conservation practitioners working in countries with significantly fewer resources, generally more unstable and often embroiled in, or emerging from conflict?
Still, this was the plan devised by protected area management specialists Miguel Morales and Jim Barborak. Both are members of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.
From All Over the World
The first "Mobile Seminar on Protected Area Planning and Management" was held in Costa Rica during June 2008, organized by Conservation International (CI) in conjunction with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Training Center (CATIE). Participants hailed from 11 different countries (Liberia, Ghana, South Africa, Fiji, Cambodia, Guyana, Suriname, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru).
Only five of the seventeen participants were native English speakers. The youngest participant was 23, the oldest 57. The breadth of experience also varied widely – some had only a year's experience working as a conservation practitioner while others had more than 30. Several participants work for large international conservation organizations, others for local NGOs, the government or communities.
What commonalities did the group have? All came from countries that have experienced or are currently experiencing conflict. This course was designed to develop the capacity of CI staff and partners and bring them up to date on current global conservation trends and thinking regarding different aspects of protected area management.
Challenges & Successes
Costa Rica offered some excellent lessons for the participants, not only about its success, but also about the mistakes it made and the challenges it currently faces. Just 30 years ago, Costa Rica had among the highest population growth and deforestation rates in the world; forest cover was reduced to only 20 percent.
As Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, a former Costa Rican Environment minister and now head of CI's regional program in Mexico and Central America explained to the group, perverse incentives created by national policies that favored cutting forests, particularly for their conversion to pastures, caused the majority of forests to be lost.
Recognition of the economic potential of conserving the country's natural wealth, daring political leadership and a reversal of these destructive policies aided in the country's rapid turnaround.
With an innovative system of payment for environmental services now in place and set to be expanded, private landowners have a greater incentive to conserve their forests.
Despite the recognition Costa Rica has received, mistakes have been made along the way. The nation's extraordinary biodiversity continues to face many threats, including massive real estate development along the coasts, overfishing, an inadequate waste and sewage disposal system, and the destruction of almost all the old growth forests outside of parks (to the extent that Costa Rica is now dependent on wood imports).
Value for Participants, Protected Areas
Participants said that the Costa Rican experience was extremely valuable for them.
"It was marvelous to visit different protected areas in Costa Rica and to have listened to the point of view of managers, politicians, park guards and people of the communities on the successful experiences and challenges in the management and the administration of its protected areas," said Miriam Castillo, who works in CI's office for northern Central America in Guatemala*.
"No matter who the actors have been in the long journey of Costa Rica's conservation efforts, their frustrations, failures, anger, and sense of hopelessness when things looked so impossible, have been overshadowed by the impressive success story they showcased during the seminar," said Michael Abedi-Lartey of Flora & Fauna International in Liberia.
"This has strengthened my hopes that I am not wasting my life believing in a dream of man living in harmony with nature is actually possible."
The seminar participants studied the importance of buffers and corridors to gain insight into how to protect today's existing fragmented protected areas, which are increasingly threatened by climate change and surrounding human activity.
Participants heard from world renowned expert Allan Pounds on the disappearance of the golden toad from Monteverde's cloud forests and the threat climate change is posing to other species.
Sharing with colleagues from all over the world who have dedicated their lives to conservation in many different roles was an excellent opportunity to engage with the global community that is working towards a similar goal.
READ MORE: Costa Rica's Debt-for-Nature Swap
IN PHOTOS: Explore Costa Rica's Landscape
*CI's office in Guatemala closed March 2011. Read "Successful Chapter In Guatemala Comes To An End".