Curtis Thomas, ’11, and Caroline O’Rourke, ’11, spent the summer of 2009 in the forests of Central America, researching the effects that projects aimed at combating global warming have had on the local culture and environment. They spent a month traveling with geography professor Mary Finley-Brook, spending two weeks in Costa Rica and two weeks in Panama.

Thomas studied hydroelectric projects in the area that were applying to sell carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. The CDM allows industrialized countries with greenhouse gas reduction commitments to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries as an alternative to participating in more expensive emission reductions in their own countries.

He says the most memorable experience of the trip was visiting Changuinola 1, a hydroelectric project in a national park bordering La Amistad World Heritage Site in the Panamanian rainforest. Thomas found that Changuinola 1, designed to help reduce Panama’s carbon footprint, still impacts the environment and culture.

“Chan 1 is a massive construction project in the middle of the pristine forest with thousands of inhabitants, many of whom will be directly affected by the project,” he said.  “The experience gave me a clear perspective on how far off we may really be from achieving sustainable development. The Chan 1 project not only intrudes on an important natural habitat, but also interferes in the lives of local inhabitants.”

Similarly, one of the most challenging aspects of the trip for O’Rourke was witnessing the environmental and social impact of the hydroelectric dams, while trying to understand and respect the investors’ points of view.

The convergence of economic and environmental incentives was central in her research.  

O’Rourke examined the impact carbon storage forestry plantations have on the environment and the local indigenous people. The non-profit organizations Reforest The Tropics and ForestFinance rely on private individuals, corporations or other organizations to fund tropical reforestation in an effort to reduce the area’s carbon dioxide emissions.

“Both Reforest The Tropics and ForestFinance had the same approach and goal of carbon sequestration,” O’Rourke said. “I analyzed and compared each project's sustainability and quality. The standards and verifications of each project, the types of tree species and the planting techniques used, the types of clients, and the community involvement are among some of characteristics I used.”

Throughout the trip, Dr. Finley-Brook gave her students full control of their projects, allowing them to choose their areas of interest and decide which projects, organizations and institutions to visit.

“I really liked that I was put in a position where I was a major contributor and ultimately had the responsibility of choosing the fate of my research,” O’Rourke said. “Dr. Finley-Brook provided the support and guidance needed while also allowing me the independence to really grow.”  

Thomas also valued the opportunity to experience field-based research for the first time.  

“Actually being able to visit the sites in Costa Rica and Panama, rather than just scan available articles and documents on the hydroelectric projects, definitely made the research feel more like my own, rather than simply reiterating what someone else had already documented,” he said. “Specifically, I think this experience has made me more adept at doing solid research and bringing ideas together in a critical manner.”

O’Rourke and Thomas have continued to work with Finley-Brook, analyzing data on Central American carbon markets and the local impacts of global greenhouse gas emissions policy, both at Richmond and in Argentina, where Thomas studied abroad in the fall.

Finley-Brook and Thomas are composing articles covering the Chan 1, Bonyic and Bayano dams in Panama and will present research results together in Washington, D.C. at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers on April 18. They will continue their research this summer, and plan to visit hydroelectric projects and carbon markets in other Latin American countries.

O’Rourke is currently completing an independent study with Finley-Brook on sustainability in higher education, green power and carbon offsets.

Finley-Brook has two other students completing independent studies on this topic this semester, and has integrated a larger research project into an environmental studies class and an international economic geography class.