An interview with Beate Heycke of Planet Conservation | Wonderful Women interview series
Like so many of us, Planet Conservation Co-Founder Beate Heycke’s life was forever changed after a trip to Costa Rica. For Beate, her six-month stay in 2004 resulted in her semi-permanent return in 2005 when she founded an online resource for eco-tourism. Over ten years later, Planet Conservation is a conservation-focused adventure tourism company that welcomes visitors from around the world. Though we’ve known each other for years, the women on my Wonderful Women 12 trip will finally get to meet Beate and her amazing team in early 2017 during the homestay portion of our trip. Read on to find out more about the work behind this adventure eco-tourism company.
How long ago did you move to Costa Rica?
The first time I came to Costa Rica was in 2004 for 6 months. I returned to Europe, but came back in early 2005 to live and work here.
Why did you start Planet Conservation?
My partner Federico and I started Planet Conservation as an online platform to provide information about environmental and social programs that we had been working on. As time went on, we started receiving donations and people began applying to volunteer. We realized that volunteering was a great way to introduce participants to the local culture and give them an insight to conservation or social work and support the programs at the same time.
What are the goals behind Planet Conservation?
Planet Conservation aims to support social and environmental programs through responsible tourism. The travel industry is one of Costa Rica’s strongest sources of income, and we believe it is imperative that locals benefit and that the industry grows in a sustainable way. Costa Rica attracts travelers interested in responsible and eco-friendly tourism, and many would like to meet locals and support the country’s healthy development.
That’s why we offer itineraries that tick all these boxes, support local initiatives and run an international volunteer program for visitors to work hand in hand with local staff on specific topics like conservation, reforestation, environmental education.
We are currently in the process of becoming an NGO so that we can apply for international funding to support our ongoing projects and launch new projects as well.
How do you and Ann, Founder of Travel With Ann Experiential Adventures, know each other?
Ann and I met on the road in Drake Bay a long time ago. It must have been in 2007 or 2008, I believe. She was visiting the area and working with a friend of mine who introduced us. Ever since, we have stayed in touch. I visited her in Chicago and she visits when she is in Costa Rica. We are working together finally on her upcoming Wonderful Women Adventure 2017 here in San Isidro with a homestay and volunteering opportunity. I think we both hope to start a wonderful collaboration.
Costa Rica is already known for its sustainable tourism focus. What are the challenges to maintaining or even improving the country’s unique position within Central America?
Costa Rica has set a standard with an internationally-approved certification that forces tour operators and hotels to focus on responsible practices. The environmental council has been able to stop illegal deforestation and construction.
What we need now is a government commitment to ending the unsustainable sale of natural resources — e.g. international pineapple plantations or fishing fleets in biologically restricted areas.
Lastly, we need leaders within Costa Rican communities to promote sustainability on a local level: shopping in local markets and cooperatives, implementing bike routes, car-free city centers, recycling centers, reforestation in the cities, banning plastic bags, Styrofoam and straws. In order to truly become a green country, Costa Rica must not only preserve nature, but to instill values that will protect it for years to come.
‘Voluntourism’ has begun to have negative connotations in recent years as some say it doesn’t do enough to make real change in the community, while possibly displacing local workers. What is it, for you, that makes this approach such a positive experience?
I view ‘voluntourism’ positively — a tourist who travels responsibly and supports a specific project while in the country. I know that there is some negativity to the actual value of these types of ‘tourists’ (they do not stay long, help see projects through, etc) but ecotourism in Costa Rica has enabled small local projects and families to participate in an industry that was previously reserved for all-inclusive resorts / chains. This can really be seen in Guanacaste and the Osa Peninsula where previously hotels were owned and managed by foreigners and locals worked as guides, cooks, cleaning staff, boat captains and the like. Now, you see a lot of small businesses run by locals for food, crafts, independent guiding services and accommodation, all thanks, in large part, to this specific type of tourist.
Can you describe a typical tourist who comes to work with you a Planet Conservation?
We have a large variety of participants. Currently we have young Europeans, Americans, singles and seniors supporting the programs. What they all have is common is a desire to learn a new language, experience the culture and immerse themselves in a social or conservation program. We also welcome families that would like to travel in a different manner and would like to support a program and learn about the country, its culture and nature from a different point of view.
We also receive groups with a specific focus: biology, primatology, sustainability or anthropology. We help organize courses with universities where students gain amazing field experience and get credit for their studies.
A few fun, rapid fire questions about living in the land of Pura Vida:
- What is your favorite comida tipica de Costa Rica?
Coconut rice with fresh red snapper and Caribbean style sauce, accompanied with patacones, guacamole and the famous local drink called ‘hiel’ — best eaten right on the beach!
2. What is your favorite escape in Costa Rica?
Drake Bay: spending the day at the Agujitas River with my family and friends, reconnecting with nature.
3. What is something that people don’t know about Costa Rica that you wish they did?
That the southern part of the country holds the greatest biodiversity (monkeys, tapirs, pumas, jaguars, macaws), but is also the poorest region. Everyone should definitely visit this area, discover its beauty and support the people that live here. This way everyone wins: locals can generate an income and keep their land and travelers can return with their kids and grandkids who will get to experience this pristine primary forest.
4. Can you recommend a good resource to learn about Costa Rica?
Watch ‘Cracking the Golden Egg’, a documentary that shows the devastating effects of mass tourism in Guanacaste and why responsible travel is so important.
Our partnership language school, Diversity School, is a great place to learn about language, culture and local diversity.