“There were almost no plants in this park,” says Victor Manuel “Nengo” Rojas, sidestepping branches and blooming trees in Bagaces’s central park. He offers us fruit and leaves from the trees, tells us to smell the branches and explains to us what they are and how they got here.
Nengo is 63 years old and wears a wide-brimmed sombrero and a long-sleeved shirt to protect himself from the beating sun. Three years ago, the City of Bagaces hired him to clean the streets and green zones. Ever since then, he has been planting trees and bushes on city property.
He started in this park. Then he built a nursery on a dusty city lot full of unused vehicles and construction material. In another abandoned city park, he is nurturing more than 100 small trees.
He remembers when he was a child, the canton was full of forest and water. “Now, the Bagaces River is very different than it was when I used to swim in its delightful waters.”
Deep down, what most worries him is how his grandkids will live in the future.
I believe in reforestation and in oxygen from plants,” he says in a calm voice. “But I get older every day and I worry. We have to lay a solid foundation for the kids.”
Nengo’s arguments are very similar to those of scientists and climate change researchers.
Róger Blanco, director of research for the Guanacaste Conservation Area, says the forest has the capacity to reduce temperatures, which continue to rise because of global warming caused by carbon emissions.
Trees in the city serve two functions. For starters, they absorb carbon dioxide we emit via vehicles that use combustible engines and turn it into oxygen. It also provides shade and makes towns more “walkable,” according to forestry engineer Óscar Benavides.
Nengo’s ingenuity has set off a chain reaction. The city now gives trees to schools, plants new ones at the Llanos de Cortés waterfall and plans to plant more than 100 along the banks of the Bagaces River in May. Residents have also gotten involved. They seek out Nengo and give him seeds or ask him for advice on how to take care of a plant.
“Victor gave me advice on a tree that started to grow in the corner of our building,” says Bagaces resident Héctor Paniagua. “The tree has grown well and, as Victor says, we are guiding it in a way so it doesn’t affect the sidewalk or the wiring.”
This guy is helping create a resilient community,” says environmental expert Sara Cognuck, general secretary for Costa Rica’s Youth and Climate Change Network.
What she means is that as Bagaces gains greenery, droughts and floods will have less of an impact (because trees protect water and also help prevent erosion.)
As we talk to Nengo in the park, the city’s general services coordinator Sandra Pichardo walks by on the sidewalk. “Boss, boss!” he calls her. Pichardo comes over and tells us that Nengo has helped change public spaces. “Victor always passes on his knowledge to new generations,” she says.
Cognuck agrees. The contagion phenomenon and the inspiration phenomenon are evident. “I think human beings are like that. Things start with one person, and the others around him get curious about what he’s doing and start doing it themselves,” she says.
The Power of One?
“A single person can’t effect change,” says Gustavo Arias, head scientist for the Marviva Foundation. “You need dialogue, a scientific base and the good will of different actors including politicians in order to effect change.”
But Arias says immediately that the efforts of united individuals can bring results.
Every time someone has a good idea for conservation efforts, more people join and that counts as affecting substantial change in the way in which we interact with natural resources,” he says.
Arias and Cognuck agree initiatives have a broader impact if each community identifies their environmental risks and works to mitigate them.
Nengo’s goal is clear. He wants to reforest green areas to clean up Bagaces’s air. “If the trees break, I plant them again. I have learned to plant bigger trees so kids don’t snap them,” he says. “Look how big that royal poinciana is!”