With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ takes it back to basics. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s leading sustainable travel experiences, as well as inspiring experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT tourism.
Interview by Rebecca Woolford
An unlikely success story.
Costa Rica is one of the most remarkable ecological turnaround stories on Earth.
Today, Costa Rica is known as a popular ecotourism destination, an Earth shot prize winner, and has been named a world champion by the UN for its pioneering role in the face of climate change…
…but it wasn’t always this way.
What most people don’t know is that Costa Rica once suffered one of the world’s worst deforestation rates.
In the 70s and 80’s almost half of all the forest in Costa Rica was cut down to make room for economic purposes. Forests were lost, soil poisoned and rivers polluted with pesticides and chemicals by international corporations. So, what turned it all around?
Thanks to a government-led initiative that understood both the long-term value of standing forests and the importance of working with local communities, Costa Rica became the first tropical country to have stopped, and subsequently reversed deforestation.
In the midst of all this was Kim’s father, Steven Farrell, founder of Finca Luna Nueva Eco Lodge.
Kim enjoying the rainforest at Finca Luna Nueva on the left AND Kim with her dad, Steven, on the right
Neighbouring the world-famous Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Finca Luna Nueva is not only a rainforest lodge that welcomes visitors to experience transformational travel, but it is also an educational centre.
Kimberly Farrell has dedicated her life and career to continuing her father’s vision. She is not only excelling in continuing his legacy but is elevating the projects with her own creativity and flair.
As one of Costa Rica’s leading sustainable and regenerative travel experiences, I felt pure gratitude to be able to listen to and share this story. I left the conversation with a sense of hope that other destinations could one day follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Yoga and meditation room at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge. Disconnect to reconnect to what matters most
Welcome Kim, thank you for taking the time to be here. As we’ve known each other for quite some time now it’s so nice to finally sit down together to speak about your home country.
I read somewhere that Costa Rica is home to about 7% of the world’s biodiversity, that’s an incredible amount considering it only makes up 0.03% of the world’s landmass. For someone who hasn’t yet visited (including me), what was it like growing up in one of the world’s happiest countries?
“Yes you’re right, Costa Rica is super biodiverse. It’s also very small, very, very small. The country is rich in nature. Our legal constitution is all about preserving nature in the country. Even at school, we had a class and subject dedicated to learning about nature and preserving it, which is unheard of in other countries. It’s ingrained in our education from the age of 6 or 7, and this approach shapes how we live and see the world.
We studied agriculture at school and we had our own garden that we took care of. From a very young we grew up watching our parents doing the same. I think that it’s vital for the younger generations to learn about agriculture, growing food, and working with nature.”
At such a pivotal point in Costa Rica’s history, with high deforestation rates and chemicals choking the rivers, your dad arrived with a dream of a farm. But he didn’t follow the crowd, he decided to go in a different direction. Is it fair to say Steven, your dad, was ahead of his time?
“Absolutely. In the late 80s, my dad came to Costa Rica to start his own farm. The main products in Costa Rica back then were coffee, cattle, and sugar cane. To make space for the cattle as well as these rows and rows of sugar cane, many of the forests were torn down.
So, for my dad, when he first arrived in Costa Rica he saw not only intensive agriculture practices, that harmed nature, but spraying chemicals on the soil was seen as the ‘norm’.
And back then there were no scientific reports or internet facts about how chemicals and non-organic farming can impact both our health and nature. But my dad was convinced that his farm would not only cut down on these chemicals but prove that you didn’t need them.
He wanted to show and teach others that it can be possible to grow produce organically, without chemicals. It was the beginning of a revolution.
My dad arrived as a foreigner, with a big beard, and no one really had beards so he looked different. But because of his kind nature and ideas, the local community accepted and followed him over time.
When he first started talking about organic farming with the local farmers, some people in the community called him crazy. People called him the Crazy Gringo, and said ‘he’s not going to make it.’ They had been led to believe that without chemical fertilisers it was impossible to grow food.
Some farmers said it was too hard to move away from the chemicals, others followed my dad. The rainforest is completely different from any other place that my dad had seen before so it wasn’t easy. My dad was growing macadamia and ginger, and his small farm was doing so well that it started to export to the U.S.A. People then started to notice.
When my dad first started his farm, organic agriculture wasn’t a popular idea. Today there is a growing demand for organic farming and produce, which is great. He tried and failed so many times. But these failures are how we learn.
My dad is the happiest he’s ever been. It’s been such a long and sometimes difficult journey but he can now see the change he’s made. His farm is influencing people around the world.
At Finca Luna Nueva Lodge we help educate people who visit our farm about the health of the plants, which is connected to the health of the people, the environment, and the soils.”
With more than 90 species of tropical fruit trees at Finca Luna Nueva, you’ll be dining in paradise
When we hear about Costa Rica, many people immediately associate the destination with ‘ecotourism’. I believe this perception leads people to believe that every lodge and hotel in Costa Rica is by default eco-friendly and sustainable. Do you think this makes greenwashing even more rife?
“Now that Costa Rica is the epicenter of ecotourism, everybody calls themselves ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’.
In Costa Rica, it is really hard to find authentic, ethical, sustainable experiences because it’s so easy to greenwash and make people believe you’re responsible ‘just because’.
The moment you set foot in the country, everything’s green and visitors can be led to believe everything is good, but that’s why you need to do your research and look to platforms just like Kiwano.
Living in Costa Rica I’d love to recommend friends and guests to other sustainable places I trust. But it’s a very hard thing to do because it’s really rare to find authenticity in Costa Rica. It doesn’t mean that some of these places aren’t doing some good, it just means that in order to find the real deal you must do your research and find travel agents whom you can trust.
Last year I travelled around Costa Rica in search of more places where I’d feel comfortable recommending guests and friends. I found some companies in Costa Rica and even governmental initiatives with certifications for sustainability which seemed very superficial because it was only the surface that they were looking at.
There was a contentious case nearby here. A huge 5-star, luxury hotel that called itself ‘sustainable’ and part of ‘eco-tourism’. They were powered by clean energy and had an impressive page on their website with clever copywriting, and it seems legit to travelers and travel agents. After just a few months, there was local press revealing the dark truths behind the clever marketing.
This so-called ‘luxury, eco hotel’ in Costa Rica was throwing all their untreated waste into the local river. Their black water, grey water, it was all going directly into our rivers.
So, the community came together, and we signed a petition. We went to the government and demanded it to be fixed. But this large hotel was so powerful and had a lot of money, so there were zero consequences and they still operate to this day presenting themselves as sustainable.
So, that’s just one example of how severe greenwashing can be in Costa Rica.
I can share another example, not a hotel, but a tour operator.
The adorable sloth has become one of Costa Rica’s most popular must-see’s and I understand why because they are amazing creatures. Guests sometimes ask us, will you have a sloth in the surrounding trees when we arrive? And we respond, it’s nature, we cannot say. A sloth might be passing through or they might be somewhere else. If you get a response with a guarantee of a sighting, this is a warning sign.
A company in town offers sloth tours with guaranteed sightings for unsuspecting tourists. What we found was this unethical company was physically taking sloths from the rainforest and putting them all in one place. Which has a negative impact on the wildlife and is dangerous for the animals.
One thing that people visiting Costa Rica should know, in a natural encounter you don’t see many sloths in a small area because they’re very territorial, and prefer their own space.
This tour company makes a lot of money, but at the same time, they are impacting the wildlife. If you love wildlife and want to do the right thing you need to do your research first.”
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From family bungalows to a luxurious dome suite each of the 15 rooms is unique and comfortable
It’s scary and shocking that people and companies who are presenting themselves as ‘green’ are dumping waste in rivers and hurting wildlife. I’m so glad I know this about sloths, so when I do visit Costa Rica I’ll be better informed on what a natural encounter is.
Something I’m really passionate about, beyond wildlife, is that dark brown stuff underneath our feet. Finca Luna Nueva Lodge is not only one of Costa Rica’s most sustainable travel experiences, you guys are also soil experts. What will guests learn when they stay with you?
“Soil health is our number one mission at the rainforest lodge. Many years ago we might have been able to approach our soils by sustaining its health but right now we’re in a very critical position on the planet. We need to reverse climate change and fast. A great way to reverse climate change is by putting excess carbon from our atmosphere back into our soils.
One of the best allies we have for this is trees but beyond this how do we manage our cows? How do we manage pigs and chickens? Everything counts. And the way we do it is by focusing on biodiversity.
Moving away from monoculture farming with one single crop, to mimicking nature with all its biodiversity. We have the cacao plant next to the banana and corn crops, this approach enhances the healthy soil. We look at the surrounding rainforest and see which trees sequester more carbon into the soils, then we use this knowledge in our agricultural practices. We also create compost from the cows and any leftovers in the restaurant.
Coming back to carbon sequestration, drawing down excess carbon and locking it away into the soils, one question that kept coming up was how do we know how much carbon we are drawing down? And with the help of technology and research, there are ways to measure carbon sequestration. Imagine if we could have governmental parties implementing this on a larger scale in the future. These are exciting solutions for the climate crisis, which are much more meaningful and impactful than recycling.
At our farm in Finca Luna Nueva, we have a 360 view of how we can regenerate our soils. The nice part about the farm is that we get to experiment, try new ideas, and find the best results.
Our guests get to experience the farm tour, which is about 1.5 hours. It goes beyond looking at the produce that is grown, it is storytelling, and it is a living classroom. The tour is an adventure for your senses. You’ll be tasting, smelling, learning, and listening to the nature around you. This is not just another farm tour but a transformative experience. Most people have a complete disconnection between nature, their health, and the food they eat every day.
And it’s really scary to witness what is happening in our modern world because we need to be close and be better informed about the one thing that WE ALL DO every single day, which is eat.
It doesn’t matter if someone goes back home and continues what they were doing before, at least for us, they now have the knowledge and understanding about the importance of organic agriculture.”
Costa Rica’s incredible birdlife Photos by Alberto CR Nature at Finca Luna Nueva
A couple of years ago I read a book called: When the Rivers Run Dry. It talked about water wars and how climate change is bringing increased drought. I think it’s really important to talk more about water in sustainable travel and raise awareness around it.
In many destinations, water usage by tourists far exceeds that of locals, which impacts communities. Costa Rica is not perceived as a water-stressed environment, what’s the truth?
“An excellent point to talk about because water is always on our radar. Last year there were a few months when we expected rain and it never appeared. It was really dry here. Can you imagine? Dry in a rainforest.
We only have 15 rooms at the lodge which is not that big but we still need water for everything, including our farm. We know that we must have a plan B for water, and capturing rainwater with a large tank is the best solution. In the rainy season in the rainforest, you can fill your tank in two or three days. But in other places, let’s say the beach, it’s much harder to do this.
These days we either get too much rain, or we get no rain, and I think that’s happening everywhere in the world. Climate change brings extremes.
In come these resorts, and big corporations and they create thirsty golf courses and then you have the community right next to it. And the local people are struggling to source water in the dry periods. On the other side of the fence, all these golf courses have sprinklers, it is so very unfair. It’s the abuse of power, big corporations who have the money, put the water wherever they want and as much as they want with no consideration for the locals.
If you’re a conscious traveller or travel agent, avoid spending money with these big resorts, instead support locally owned, smaller places. These luxury, five-star resorts are often hurting the community. We need to boycott this system and you can do this by voting with your wallet.”
Finca Luna Nueva’s transformative Chocolate making tour
At the end of every Behind the Green interview, I ask 2 questions Kim. The first is, Finca Luna Nueva Lodge aside, can you tell us about an authentic hotel or lodge that you’ve visited that moved or inspired you? Another example of travel as a force for good.
“It would have to be Playa Viva in Mexico. It’s a beautiful place right on the beach. I learned so much from them when I visited back in 2017. They are an example of an authentic, sustainable stay. They do what they say. I left feeling inspired.”
What’s next for Finca Luna Nueva Lodge in Costa Rica?
“We’re lucky because we’ve experienced amazing growth that we’re not accustomed to. After the pandemic, things changed, the demand for places like ours went up. Next year we’re investing in improvements in the farm and reception area. For the first time in many many years, we have the resources to reinvest. Our loyal farmers who have been working with my dad for over 30 years are super excited as we’re finally able to bring ideas to life, which has been a long time coming.”