The following piece, with a selection from the collection of photos, is published in the 2017 issue of con’text.
Costa Rica: The name conjures images of rich dense vegetation spilling down hills to pristine beaches, but these landscapes are threatened. With nearly a thousand miles of coastline, Costa Rica faces loss of land from rising ocean levels. Inland, where the volcanic spine of the nation spills down toward the coasts, land is also being lost. These steep areas, with naturally occurring dense tropical rainforests, harbor agrarian communities and their land-use patterns of development, livestock grazing, and crop production.
I was fortunate to be chosen as Conway’s 2016 David Bird International Service Fellow and to experience the hospitality of a country that is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire put together. My goals were to immerse myself in the culture and community of my project site, create a management plan for a 100-acre privately-owned property, and lend my professional photography skills to document the landscape and community. The property, bordered by the area’s main river, Rio Chires, abuts sustainability education center Rancho Mastatal’s private wildlife refuge that borders La Cangreja National Park. A corner of the site lies a stone’s throw from Mastatal, a town of 100 residents within the capital city’s province, and yet two-and a half hours from the capital and major tourist attractions.
I witnessed rampant erosion on the steep terrain of Mastatal, particularly where livestock trample the vegetation that stabilizes the soil, and along the roads and built environment where runoff channels. The anticipated increase in storm intensity, variability, and intermittent droughts from climate change will result in a higher rate of soil erosion, further affecting the region’s ability to maintain healthy agricultural systems as well as water quality and quantity.
The extreme soil erosion I witnessed comes from years of road building, logging, and cattle grazing, all done without implementing measures to limit movement of soil from the impact of pelting rains and overland flow. Installing water bars, regrading roads, planting on contour, and limiting access of cattle to waterways and steeply sloped areas would reduce the loss of soil, increase groundwater retention, and help regenerate biodiverse tropical ecosystems.
Perhaps the least publicized problem of climate change is the unmitigated loss of our most underrated natural resource—soil. If we hope to feed the planet, maintain sources of clean drinking water, and support healthy ecosystems in any biome, soil conservation must become the vernacular of all citizens in the 21st century.
Gioia Kuss (left, at the Río Chires) is a photographer, printmaker, and land-use planner from Weybridge Vermont. The combination of art and science in her academic background informs her images of natural and man-‐made structures and processes, along with her sense of ecological patterns when working on a land management plan, park, or commercial design. Her photojournalistic style and sensibility and her ability to connect with people were strengthened by her work as a counselor in Vermont communities, which were damaged by severe flooding after Tropical Storm Irene. These experiences drove home how important and vulnerable society is from the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.
While firmly rooted in Vermont, she has lived in Paris, Switzerland, and several states across the US. Speaking other languages has helped in her quest to understand different cultural and natural environments while traveling widely.
As a consultant she works with individuals and groups to support personal and organizational development and educational outreach. In photography, she works with clients to capture images that match their editorial communication goals, and most recently has developed personal projects that explore the way we as humans live on and with the earth:
Land Views—Alchemy of Soil, Water and Community, which explores how nature and culture combine to affect the land, and our perception of man’s place in the environment through agriculture and landscape design; and Mastatal—Portrait of a Changing Community that documents a way of life in rural Costa Rica.
Gioia received a BA from Middlebury College and an MA from the Conway School of Landscape Design. In addition, she has taught math, science, and art at Ecole d’Humanité an international high school, and Printmaking at Green Mountain College.