Las Nubes program benefits students, environment

York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) continues to make strides in teaching, research and community engagement through its Las Nubes program in Costa Rica. The program has been running for over a decade, offering students the chance to learn about sustainable development, tropical ecology, indigenous issues and more.

Students who participate in the program visit multiple locations in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica and spend a week in York’s Eco-Campus, which is part of a biological corridor – the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor (ASBC).

Over the past year, there have been many exciting projects and developments happening as part of the Las Nubes program.


Professor Felipe Montoya with students on the 2014 field course
Professor Felipe Montoya with students on the 2014 field course

During the field courses, students participate in a number of different activities, such as visiting a wind farm, hiking in cloud forests, learning about sustainable coffee farming and meeting with indigenous communities, as well as participating in a community festival. Participants of the field course stay in a mix of homestays and hotels.

The 2016 field courses will run May 12 to 31, 2016, enabling students to complete nine credits of work over a two- to three-week period at the beginning of the summer term: ENVS 4810 6.0 Ecology & Sustainability in Costa Rica (taught by Felipe Montoya) and ENVS 4215 3.0 Globalization & Indigenous Peoples (taught by Ravi de Costa). The course cost is $1,875.

There will be an information session on Wednesday, Nov. 11, from 12:30 to 1:30pm in 142 Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building.

“The Costa Rica field course gave me the opportunity to take my education and knowledge outside of the classroom and experience first-hand real-world problems and solutions in sustainability,” said fourth year BES student Adlar Gross. “It has never been clearer to me the effects of globalization and the importance of global partnerships.”

Beginning in the summer of 2017, FES will expand its Las Nubes program to offer students a semester abroad. This will be a unique opportunity for York students to take York classes overseas.

Everyone on the 2014 field course taken at Manantial Lodge where we stay on the first night of the trip
Everyone on the 2014 field course, taken at Manantial Lodge where they stayed on the first night of the trip

The emphasis of the program will be on experiential education, building on long-standing relationships with diverse communities and groups in southern Costa Rica, including women’s organizations, agricultural producers and cooperatives, environmental protection and social justice groups, and indigenous communities. Courses will usually take a community-based approach, developing collaborative projects that provide learning opportunities.

A wide range of course options will be offered, including tropical ecology, environmental education, community arts, environment and health, and renewable energy.

FES is also building partnerships with the Faculty of Health and others to expand the program further.

Visit the Las Nubes Project website for news and announcements.


Several research initiatives have taken place via the Las Nubes Project, specifically with respect to the ASBC, which has a five-year strategic plan that includes research as one of its pillars. The Last Nubes effort has contributed to moving this pillar forward by supporting graduate student research, as well as research by faculty from York and other universities.

Some recent research highlights include:

  • MES student Wafaa el Osta conducted field research to explore the feasibility of sustainable tourism in the ASBC. Her research produced a map of community-based tourist offerings, as well as strategies to establish linkages along the production chain to launch a sustainable, community-based tourism project in the corridor. This exploratory research supported a successful bid by FES faculty Felipe Montoya (manager of the Las Nubes Project) for research funding from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a “Sustainable Tourism Initiative in a Biological Corridor” that will bring together academics and stakeholders from Canada and Costa Rica to collectively construct this initiative.
  • Montoya, in collaboration with York University PhD candidate Ana María Martínez in the Faculty of Education, brought together results of a past research project on bird monitoring in the corridor and created a bilingual publication, Birds of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corrdior, on 285 birds species. This publication serves as a text for local environmental education, as well as a means of attracting bird-watchers to the area.
  • Research on the biodiversity of the region continues through collaboration with Point Loma University Professor Mike Mooring’s “Mammal Monitoring Project.” MES student Stephanie Butera has worked with Mooring doing field research on community perceptions of mammal species, particularly on the endangered river otter.
  • Las Nubes Project is also supporting German student Janinka Lutze from the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development to carry out a study on the “Permeability of the landscape for amphibians in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor and surrounding areas.”
  • Several recent awards should be noted, including the following: the Howard Daugherty Graduate Award in Neotropical Conservation – won by MES student Mburucuya Marcela Ortiz for research on peasant livelihoods and conservation in the ASBC and MES student Nancy Ghuman for research on renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean; the Lambert Family Graduate Award – won by MES student Brittany Maguire for research on wildlife hunting in the ASBC and Carmen Umaña for research on community perceptions and water management in the ASBC.
  • FES Professor Martin Bunch and Montoya are developing an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research project to determine and monitor socio-environmental sustainability indicators in the ASBC. The project is laying the groundwork necessary for future Canadian-Costa Rican research partnerships in the framework of the Las Nubes Project.

Community Engagement

FES and York University Libraries support La Casita Azul, a library and community resources centre in the community of Santa Elena
FES and York University Libraries support La Casita Azul, a library and community resources centre in the community of Santa Elena

This past July, a collaborative venture between York University Libraries and FES led to the opening of a community resource centre, La Casita Azul (“little blue house”), within the biological corridor.

Part of Las Nubes, the centre was created in support of York’s increasing socio-environmental research, education and community outreach, and was conceived in 2014 by Montoya and FES Librarian Dana Craig.

The centre is situated in the midst of the Santa Elena community in the biological corridor. It enhances York’s Eco-Campus by supporting research intensification, knowledge mobilization, community engagement, citizen science, research dissemination, engagement and outreach.

School students at la Casita Azul
School students at La Casita Azul
Ravi de Costa with a student from Santa Elena
Ravi de Costa with a student from Santa Elena

Working closely with local community members and organizations, La Casita Azul strives to be a focal point where research is informed by the communities, and the communities in turn are informed by the research. The day-to-day operations are managed by a local member of the community, and some locally driven initiatives, such as a computer literacy program, are running at La Casita Azul.

“Seeing so much community involvement makes me realize the need and potential for so much more collaboration between York researchers and the community,” said Craig.

La Casita Azul will continue to grow and develop relevant print and online resources in English, while also continuing to provide equitable access to resources relevant to the communities in the biological corridor as well as to York and other researchers.