Yorkin Microwatershed Pilot Site

Microcuenca del río Yorkín

Description of the pilot site

The Yorkin River is a tributary of the Sixaola River and is located near the left edge of the highest divide of the river basin, where it forms the border between Costa Rica and Panama. Here we find the communities of Yorkin and El Guabo, on either side of the Yorkin River. Both communities are located 200 meters above sea level, and the divide that sets the drainage of the Yorkin River rises to 800 meters in the east and up to 1,400 meters in the south, where this sub-basin begins.

Most of the territory of the Sixaola watershed lies on the indigenous territory of three ethnic groups: Bribri – from Costa Rica and Panama as well as Bribri Keköldi- and two Cabécar (from Talamanca and Telire).
The two flatlands that appear in the model have high vulnerability to floods. These flatlands form the entire Sixaola sub-basin, which is comprised of the confluence zone of the five sub-basins that form the Sixaola River, and the middle and lower Yorkin sub-basin.

At the local level, there is a Bribri indigenous territory authority with its own rules, which is recognized by the State of Costa Rica. The authority’s jurisdiction covers an area larger than the watershed, and it coordinates the Neighborhood Boards of each community. In the case of Lower Yorkin, this includes the communities of Yorkin and Shuabb. On the Panamanian side, the communities of El Guabo and Dacles are also within Bribri territory, but they do not have recognition from the State of Panama. Although this condition makes the Bribri in Panama weaker than in Costa Rica in terms of political clout, the Bribri population does not recognize the political border, and internally there is very strong coordination in joint decision making on both sides of the river.

Land use

The majority of the territory within Yorkin and Guabo influence is secondary forest, and there is a portion of primary forest in the Guabo territory. The land closest to the communities is occupied by organic banana and cocoa production (Figure below). Small areas are also used for the production of beans, corn and some rice. The cultivation of staple grains is almost entirely for subsistence and without the use of harmful agricultural fertilizers and pesticides.

Subsistence farming has an important role if one considers that much of the economic transactions of the Bribri in this sub-basin are not done with cash. Generally, the subsistence staple grains are produced in the lower parts of the sub-basin, which are flood influence zones. In this region, the floods do not occur every year, but during extreme events of flooding total loss can occur. Moreover, these communities do not possess enough appropriate technologies for the conservation of seeds, putting them at risk of genetic erosion of their agrobiodiversity with each extreme climatic event. As for cocoa, there is a tendency to switch plots to higher altitudes which are occupied by forests. However, this is not the preferred option for farmers because the soils are less fertile.


The most unique feature of the area’s hydrography is a broad alluvial valley (up to 10 km wide), which is right at the confluence of the Sixaola River and the mouth of the Yorkin. This river has sudden floods that can reach up to four meters in height. Deforestation of this sub-basin was mentioned as a cause of the landslide that blocked the normal drainage of the basin and caused sudden descents of “waterheads” (large, sudden and very strong discharges of water) in November 2010.

It is important to consider that the populations of El Guabo and Yorkin are located on the Yorkin’s river bank. The last major flood in late 2008 and early 2009 was unprecedented in the memory of the area’s inhabitants. The flooding caused the collapse of the bridge that goes to Dacles and destroyed homes, the high school and the aqueduct.

The community with the largest number of people on this site is Yorkin, with 210 people in 70 families (note the average of 3 members per family). As mentioned above, this site also comprises the communities of El Guabo, Shewab, Dacles and Upper Escui. The population for the entire pilot site can be estimated at around 600.

Social Capital

The inhabitants of this region belong to the Bribri peoples of Talamanca and Panama. These ethnic groups are not closed, meaning they can form families with members of other ethnic groups. In fact, it is possible to find Naso and Ngobe peoples in these communities.

Economic activity

The economy of the communities of Yorkin and El Guabo is beginning to have strong support from ecotourism. However, this activity has taken many years of preparation and is not yet consolidated. This is partially due to the difficulty of access to the communities, which can only be reached by boat or foot (2 to 3 hours hike up the mountain).

The tourist packages that this community offers includes a "chocolate tour", where visitors have the opportunity to make chocolate with cocoa beans collected on the spot. El Guabo, with the continual support of the community of Yorkin, is trying to create an "organic coffee tour", and the advantage of this community’s primary forest is also mentioned as very attractive for ecotourism.

The organic coffee production is not very representative, since only small amounts are produced in El Guabo. The strongest products on this site are bananas and cocoa. These products are placed on the market by APPTA (Association of Small Producers of Talamanca), whose office and cocoa nursery is located in the lowlands of the watershed. One of the major threats to the production of organic cocoa is the fungus Monilia, which has caused an 80% drop in cocoa production.

In ecological terms, the greatest threats are from ranching practices in the higher elevations, and some agricultural activities on of the steep slopes of the lowlands. The development of these practices involves deforestation of ecosystems that provide water protection services. The community perception is that when deforestation increases in the highlands, large discharges of water in the river are more frequent.

Social organization

Communities are well organized, although in general there is a disconnect with decision making at the official local authority level. There is institutional weakness on the Panamanian side that undermines the consolidation of a binational structure of local governance. However, grassroots organizations in both countries are considered strong.

Impact of climate scenarios on livelihoods

The communities are likely to have low physical vulnerability in years of normal rainfall, but very high vulnerability for years that record extreme rainfall. This vulnerability can be attributed to the physiographic characteristics of the watershed, as well as the effects of the most likely climate scenarios projected for the area. The same applies to the vulnerability associated with agricultural production, which varies in terms of agro-biodiversity, as these communities depend on production of staple grains for self consumption and have very high losses in rainy years. The most affected aspect of these communities´ livelihoods is the cultivation of cocoa for commerce. This crop has already lost 80% of production because of the fungus Monilia.

Climate change scenarios developed by the CRRH (Regional Committee of Water Resources) in 2011 for this crop lead to the conclusion that the optimum conditions for yeast infection and Monilia will widen. However, there are possibilities to diminish this potential threat, through proper management of shade and organic matter on the floor, and with the use of resistant varieties that are now available.

Adaptation measures and implementation strategy

The adaptation strategy in the Yorkin River watershed is made with results of the application of CRiSTAL tool, analysis of local water governance, and the results of the analysis of climate change scenarios and determining their impact on livelihoods.

The strategy has three components:

  • Adaptation measure 1. Strengthening of local governance structure
  • Adaptation measure 2. Recovery of degraded areas with steep slopes by mans of soil conservation and reforestation practices
  • Adaptation measure 3. Sustainable management of cocoa farms and diversification in the production of staple grains

Strengthening of local governance structure

The severity of the effects of extreme hydro-meteorological events in the Yorkin sub-basin creates environmental vulnerability in the population and their productive activities, mainly in staple grains, organic bananas and cacao.

In the Sixaola watershed there are no permanent binational management structures. Only recently (July 2010) was a binational commission to manage the basin Sixaola created, which formalized its rules in December 2010 and approved its first working plan in February 2011. Locally, the communities on both banks of the river in Lower Yorkin belong to the Bribri indigenous peoples. However, on the Panamanian side the State does not recognize their territory, which causes weakness in the policy decisions of its inhabitants. Although, this condition causes the Bribri region of Panama to have a weaker political muscle, in Costa Rica the population recognize no such border, and internally within the Bribri territory there is strong coordination in joint decision making on both sides. On the Costa Rican side, the Bribri indigenous authority (ADITIBRI) is recognized by the State and has legal basis as a Development Association. In fact, it is one of the strongest of its kind in the country.

Action: Establishment of a working group for the Lower Yorkin sub-basin, with representatives from the communities of Shuabb, Yorkin (Costa Rica), El Guabo and Dacles (Panama).
Finally, all efforts of the local communities of El Guabo, Dacles (Panama), Yorkin and Shuabb (Costa Rica), will be accompanied by a strengthening of the link with the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Watershed. The creation of these structures would bring together management needs in a figure that can be linked from the local to the binational contexts, and vice versa.

Work strategy:

The strengthening of the binational governance structures will occur at various levels:

  • Binational: Approach the authorities of the Binational Cooperation Agreement and the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Watershed.
  • National: The link between the Bribri district and the State of Panama will strengthened. This linkage will be made through the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), an organization that currently has a strong interest in the organization of micro-management in this region.
  • The structure of the linkage will be strengthened with a focus on the micro-watershed, which integrates the well established ADITIBRI structure in Costa Rica with the Panamanian communities through the current Watershed Law. The legal recognition of this micro-watershed governance structure would be the first to settle in Panama.
  • Local: Interaction with the municipalities of Talamanca and Changuinola on technical issues of land zoning.
  • Community: Strengthened governance will be achieved through the creation of a binational working group for the watershed of the Lower Yorkin with the El Guabo and Yorkin communities, and implementation of participatory action plans for micro-watershed management. The latter will be coordinated with associations and neighborhood communities that make up the Yorkin working group. Special emphasis will be placed on capacity building for planning, project management, and promotion of social organization and awareness of the watershed using an ecosystem-based approach. To strengthen this group, experiences will be disseminated from two representatives from Lower Yorkin working groups already organized in San Marcos, Guatemala. Additionally, a field trip will be taken by twenty people, from the Lower Yorkin to the Reventazon watershed (or another of choice) in Costa Rica to learn about the management of this basin, which already has a solid trajectory. This activity is currently organized with the Binational Project. This working group will be responsible for providing continuity in the management of the Lower Yorkin, with a focus on ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change impacts.

Ecosystem-based adaptation:

Adaptation through capacity building for seed conservation techniques and diversification of staple grain production with varying resilience capacity to changes in temperature and humidity would maintain the current agriculture sites without generating colonization pressure on pristine areas. On the other hand, the diversified production scheme includes the introduction of fruit and forest trees in areas that are traditionally devoid of woody vegetation.

Opportunities for scaling up adaptation and IWRM issues

Through the exchange of local seeds with other Bribri communities, recovery of agricultural biodiversity in the entire indigenous region can occur. The invitation to participate in the seed exchange fair will be extended to ADITICA, the development association that brings together Cabecar communities in the mid and upper Sixaola watershed. This means of approaching other indigenous communities will be utilized to encourage other measures of diversification, such as the implementation of agro-forestry systems.

Recovery of degraded areas with steep slopes by mans of soil conservation and reforestation practices

Before the climate change scenarios projected in the area occur, the increase in diseases and extreme climatic events that decrease productivity will exert pressure to find new land for crops on higher ground. In the context of the Yorkin sub-basin, taking the production to higher altitudinal floors will result in forest deforestation. Moreover, the increase of strong rainfall expected in this basin would increase the physical contamination of the water entering the lower Sixaola River. This is because degraded soils have greater sedimentation in rivers, and a greater amount of solutes in suspension increases the sediment’s ability to carry pathogenic associated bacteria. Finally, sedimentation and silting in the lower part of the basin reduces the depth of the river, resulting in an increased frequency of overflows and floods affecting crops and residential areas in the lower lands.
Action: Recovery of degraded areas with steep slopes to maintain soil fertility and reduce erosion and sedimentation in streams of the Lower Yorkin sub-basin as an adaptation measure to the effects of climate variability and change in the communities of Shuabb and El Guabo.

Work strategy:
The first step is the identification of degraded areas with steep slopes exposed to erosion processes, and assessing their potential for recovery. This will be done through participatory mapping, in which the inhabitants of Lower Yorkin will evaluate high-resolution satellite images with the accompaniment of a technical team. In addition, training in soil conservation and erosion reduction will be provided to producers in these degraded areas. Once joint coordination of the working group and IUCN achieves these first two objectives, restoration of tree cover in the degraded areas will be accomplished through identification of suitable species for live fences (shrubs and grass) and dead barriers (stones, wood, reeds), which will reduce the power of erosion’s laminar flow of water over the surface during heavy rains. For the reforestation of these areas, the capacity of the forest nursery seedlings belonging to the Talamanca Caribbean Biological Corridor will be strengthened, and small scale sapling production in the communities of Lower Yorkin will be promoted.

Ecosystem-based adaptation
The recovery of degraded areas which have been exposed to erosion has two positive consequences in the watershed’s management. On the one hand, it reduces the amount of sediment that reaches the Yorkin and Sixaola Rivers, which implies an improvement in the quality of water resources and reduces the clogging of sediment on the bottom of the channel that is responsible for increasing the frequency of flooding during heavy rainfall. Moreover, recovering these areas and reducing erosion helps maintain the fertility and productivity of the soils that are already in use. Otherwise, the soils lose fertility and producers would seek new areas to grow, generally through deforestation of primary forests found on the buffer zone of La Amistad International Park (PILA).

Opportunities for scaling up adaptation and IWRM issues
Coordinated actions with the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Watershed will promote the recovery of degraded areas, primarily through the MINAET (Ministry of Environment, Electricity and Telecommunications, Costa Rica) and ANAM (National Environmental Authority of Panama), which are the implementing counterparts of the Binational Project. The Higher Yorkin sub-basin is inhabited by Ngobe Bugle and Chiricanos ethnic groups, who in the last few years have begun a process of land colonization for farming practices that has resulted in the deforestation of the upper forests. The inhabitants of Lower Yorkin will organize exchanges with the inhabitants of Higher Yorkin in order to show support to the Binational Commission, organizations such as IUCN, and the governments of Costa Rica and Panama for the aid they are willing to provide. In particular, support for these bodies revolves around their willingness to provide aid to communities that are organized to manage their territory with an ecosystem-based approach, resulting in reduced erosion of productivity in areas with steep slopes.
Sustainable management of cocoa farms and diversification in the production of staple grains
According to projected climate change scenarios for this basin, climatic conditions will increase the vulnerability of cocoa crops to attack by the fungus Monilia. Since cocoa in the Lower Yorkin sub-basin is produced organically and without sophisticated technology, the current losses caused due to Monilia can reach about 80% of the yields. The remaining 20% keeps cocoa marketing a source of financial capital for this community, along with ecotourism. The increased incidence of Monilia forces producers to colonize higher, less fertile grounds in cooler conditions that inhibit the proliferation of spores. This, however, would be at the expense of primary forests that surround the basin.

Action: The sustainable management of cocoa plantations, as well as the diversification of staple grains, is proposed as an adaptation measure for the livelihoods of the communities facing the effects of climate variability and change in the Lower Yorkin sub-basin.

Work strategy:

The cultural management of cocoa to reduce the incidence of the fungus Monilia could be developed through the implementation of better management techniques, such as sanitary pruning, shade management, thinning, replacement of old plants and resistant varieties. Additionally, training for the integrated pest management of cocoa, as is the case of Monilia, will be carried out.

1. Cocoa cultural management

  • Sanitary pruning: This involves harvesting and burying cacao fruits affected by Monilia, so as to reduce the source of spore dispersal. Sanitary pruning requires a commitment of many hours of work, and all cocoa trees in close proximity to the diseased plantations are affected, thereby promoting the organization of work crews composed of neighbors with cocoa plots for collaborative work.
  • Shade management and thinning: This aims to reduce the moisture that forms in the understory level in cocoa plantations, since increases in light and wind reduce optimal conditions for fungal growth. The replacement of old plants has two objectives. On one hand, older plants have lower resistance to the fungus attack, and it is necessary to renew the plants. Moreover, the Association of Small Producers of Talamanca (APPTA), with technical support from the Tropical Agriculture Research and Education Center (CATIE) has been producing cocoa plant varieties with improved resistance to Monilia, and the older cocoa farms would be replaced with these varieties.

2. Diversification of staple grains

  • Exchange and recovery of seeds. A regional fair for the exchange and retrieval of native seeds with indigenous communities in the Bribri region will be organized. This will be accompanied by building capacities for seed drying and storage, as the grain handling after harvest is not efficient in these communities and lasts only until the next planting season. Therefore, in any given year where production is lost due to climatic reasons, there can be no seeds to plant for the next year. Efficient management of stored grains improves the stock of seeds and fewer varieties are lost each year.  Implementation of agro-forestry systems in staple grains fields. The trees that will be incorporated into the production system are fruit and valuable timber species, both for their economic value and usefulness. For this aim, the capacity of the forest nursery production
  • Talamanca Caribbean Biological Corridor (CBTC) will be strengthened, while at the same time the production of seedlings of fruit trees in the communities of Lower Yorkin will be promoted.

Ecosystem-based adaptation:
Adaptation through training in seed conservation and diversification techniques for the production of staple grains with different resilience capacity before changes in temperature and humidity occur would allow the current culture sites to be maintained without generating pressure to colonize pristine areas.

Opportunities for scaling up adaptation and IWRM issues:
Through the exchange of native seeds to other communities, the Bribri will make a joint effort for the recovery of agricultural biodiversity in the entire area. The invitation to participate in the seed fair exchange will be extended to ADITICA, a development association that brings together Cabécar communities in the mid and higher Sixaola basin. This means linkages with other indigenous communities will be utilized to encourage other measures of diversification, such as the implementation of agro-forestry systems.