Costa Rica – Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

MSU / UCR – December 15-29, 2012

Day 5 – Turrialba / Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE) Engineering related to Agronomy

Benjamin Thomas

Agronomy- The science of soil management and crop production, specifically for food, fuel and fiber.

Engineering- The art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences.

Usufruct- The right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.

The group started the day off at CATIE in Turrialba.  CATIE stands for Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza, translated as Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center.  CATIE contains over 1000 hectares dedicated to agricultural research and education.  Their mission is to “Contribute to the reduction of rural poverty and promoting agriculture natural resource management and sustainable competitive through higher education, research and technical cooperation.”  CATIE works with farmers, families and local organizations to reduce rural poverty and promote sustainable agriculture.

The group enjoyed a delicious breakfast from the cafeteria at CATIE and then moved on to the botanical gardens for a tour with Dr. Werner from University of Costa Rica (UCR).  The botanical gardens had a wide variety of plants that have been found to be beneficial for humans.  Costa Rica has a very unique environment that allows for a large biodiversity of plants to thrive.  The temperature is also relatively consistent year round, which allows for these benficial plants to be grown year round.  The group walked around the beautiful garden while Dr. Werner explained the different species of plants.


The students enjoying the interesting vegetation of the gardens.

Robbie enjoying a nice sit in the botanical gardens

Robbie enjoying a nice sit in the botanical gardens


The group taking pictures of the amazing bamboo growth.

The Neem tree is an example of how we can obtain beneficial products directly from plants.  The Neem tree produces a fruit that can be used as an insecticide to help control harmful insect populations on many plants.  The insecticide that can be obtained from the tree is also considered organic, and can therefore be used by organic farmers in replacement of synthetic chemicals.


Katie and Anh in front of the Neem tree

Agronomy can help us study and identify plant species that we can utilize, but engineering is required for the application of these benefits.  We need to develop systems to obtain and utilize the benefits from plants, without harming the system that produces the plants. Usufruct describes obtaining the benefits from something without destroying or harming the essence of the substance itself.  Utilizing these benefits responsibly is very important in making sure that earth systems are not harmfully altered from the application of the benefits.  An example of this could be overproducing the Neem tree for insecticide and creating an unsustainable production that strips the land of nutrients and soil organic matter.


Dr. Werner talking to the group


Hugo in front of some fruits of the legendary Cacao tree!


Robbie and Katie thinking about eating the delicious fruit of the Cacao tree!

Another example of the relation of agronomy and engineering that was seen in the botanical gardens was intercropping coffee plants and Inga trees.  The Inga trees are legumes and therefore provide nitrogen to the soil from the nitrogen fixing bacteria that they utilize.  This nitrogen can then be used by the coffee plants which will decrease the amount of fertilizer needed.  The Ingas also provide shade for the coffee plants, which prevents them from getting too hot from the sun.  The leaves of the Ingas can also be used in animal feed as they are high in nitrogen.  This is a system that has been engineered to be more productive and more sustainable than a system with only coffee plants.  Agronomy was needed to understand the plants and how they function and engineering as required to apply that knowledge to develop a system that can utilize the benefits.


Hugo and Alex in front of the coffee and Inga inter-cropping.


Coffee lover Katie enjoying the close proximity of the coffee plants.


The group listening to Dr. Werner talking about the oil palm trees.

The group then went to a lecture from Sergio Velasquez on watershed management.  Sergio is a consultant and talked more specifically on the watersheds in Turrialba and the Turrialba River.  A watershed is defined as an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas.  Watersheds are very important in relation to any type of agriculture.  Agriculture changes the structure of the land and can have very dramatic effects on the flow of water over the land.  An example of this is a forest that is cut down to plant rice.  The forest system promoted a lot more water retention and less surface runoff.  The rice field is subject to erosion which can cause a lot of the valuable top soil to get washed away.  Knowing where the water is going and if water sources are decreasing is also extremely important.  A common side effect that has been shown as a result of agriculture is the loss of ground water levels.  Water used to irrigate crops is commonly pumped from ground water.  If this water does not return to the aquifer, then the water levels will eventually deplete.  Studying watersheds are extremely important in order to make sure human activities are not dramatically affecting the natural cycles of water.


The students enjoying a great lecture from Sergio Velasquez.


Another picture of the lecture from Sergio Velasquez.

A long awaited lunch was then eaten and the group prepared to leave CATIE for Tillaran.  A very long bus ride awaited the group; many hoped to take this opportunity to take a well needed nap.  Mariana left the group in San Jose.  Her vast knowledge on plants and her good humor will be missed by all!  The bus passed by the high school that Hugo went to and Dr.  Werner also departed from the group.


Loading up the bus for a 6 hour ride!


Dr. Reese with Mariana

The long bus ride through the winding roads of beautiful Costa Rica continued as the sun set and the hunger in our stomachs grew.  The group stopped and had a great dinner before arriving at the hotel to end the day.  It is strange how tired one can get from sitting down and napping in a bus for 6 hours. Each day has been an awesome adventure and I am sure that tomorrow will be no different!


The group at CATIE right before departing.


References & Links

CATIE Website:

CATIE Watershed Management:

CATIE Botanical Gardens Virtual Tour:

Neem Tree Research:

Sustainable alternatives using Inga Trees:

Restoring Watershed in Costa Rica:


6 thoughts on “Day 5 – Turrialba / Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE) Engineering related to Agronomy

  1. In the botanical gardens we learned about several plants with special properties, like the Neem tree. Some of these properties can be utilized to reduce the need for pesticides, and other chemical agents. Using these natural remedies, or other techniques like planting coffee under the shade of other plants can help shrink the carbon footprint associated with industrial agriculture. Pretty neat, Ben!

  2. You unequivocally described and related agronomy very well with engineering and the practical purposes of these applications. Can you elaborately describe the relevance of this watershed lecture and how that will impose benefits on your career as an engineer? This lecture suggested the two main bodies of water (pacific and Caribbean) affect the watersheds in Costa Rica due to many factors such as the periods they have a wet and dry season. Do you think this ever affects agronomic practices?

  3. Seeing the large variety of plants that are able to grow in a single location really helped me put intercropping into perspective. The examples of natural pesticides were also really interesting. The plant that smells like garbage was disgusting! It was really cool to be able to see and sample a large variety of fruits that I was unaware of previously. Also, I thought it was weird that you can eat the outside of a coffee bean and the bean its self doesn’t taste like coffee at all. I thought it was really interesting to see the differences in the way that hydrological models are created in Costa Rica verse the United States. I can only imagine how difficult it is to calculate interception in this region. What were some of your take away points from the lecture? Overall a great summary of a great day!

  4. I am glad to see that you guys also enjoyed the gardens as much as I did! I thought that watershed lecture showed how important it is to maintain the health of the water in Costa Rica. Costa Rica uses water as their main source of energy along with irrigation, drinking water, and all the other needs of a developing coutry. therefore is vital to maintain the health of the watersheds so that they can be used for many years to come. after touring one of the hydroelectric plants yesterday, do you guys think that there are any negative side effects on the watershed health from using hydroelectric power?

    • Actually I do think hydroelectric power will impose negative benefits on the watershed. The natural hydrology in an ecosystem will change. For example, the direction of the waterflow may change, causing irregular water levels in the watershed. It may even dry out and this will manipulate habitats for certain animals and change the plant species composition in proximity.

  5. Ben, your paragraph on the Neem tree really caught my attention. Neem has been a big thing in natural health products for the last several years. You inspired me to google it and I spent an hour learning more. What spurred this was your talk of using it as an insecticide. Made me wonder about its safety–it’s in my shampoo and toothpaste.

    It’s sort of expensive here in the states. Is it readily and cheaply for sale there (like vanilla is in Mexico!)? Christmas is coming–just saying!

    I read this little tidbit and thought I would share it: At least 50 patents have been filed on neem, and neem-based products are licensed in the United States for control of insects in food and ornamental crops. However, the Indian government and many nongovernmental organizations have united to overthrow some patents of this type, which they regard as “folk-wisdom piracy.” One fear is that if neem is patented, indigenous people who already use it will lose the right to continue to do so. Another point is the fundamental question: Who owns the genetic diversity of plants: the nations where the plants come from or the transnational corporations that pay for the research into those plants? Although this area of international law is rapidly evolving, a patent on the spice turmeric has already been overturned, and neem may follow soon.

    I am thoroughly enjoying reading these blogs. You all impress me with your knowledge and curiosity–plus you seem like a fun bunch. I’m glad you all chose to pursue careers that add to the quality of all life–understanding the interconnectedness, small and large-scale. Is it okay to say I’m proud of you?

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