The SFS Center for

Sustainable Development Studies

Costa Rica


Costa Rica

The Center for Sustainable Development Studies takes inspiration from Costa Rica’s successes in conservation and sustainability, fusing a world-class research center with a small Rainforest Alliance Certified™ mango and orange farm to create a stimulating learning environment where students discover what it really means to live sustainably. The Center cultivates strong relationships with local communities, NGOs, and universities, cementing our place among the ranks of stakeholders working to promote a sustainable future for Costa Rica. The Center overlooks the fertile Central Valley and sits just an hour from the capital city of San José. Tropical forests, beaches, mountains, and volcanoes are all within a day’s travel.

Issues we focus on


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Semester Program

Sustainable Development Studies

Experience a semester of sustainability in Costa Rica: Live on an organic farm, examine sustainable development strategies in rural communities, and dive into conservation research in one of the most biodiverse locations on our planet. Learn More
Spring 2018

In The Field

January 29 - May 9

Fall 2018


August 27 - December 5

Spring 2019


January 28 - May 8

Combine sessions and spend the summer with SFS!
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Summer Session I

Sustaining Tropical Ecosystems: Biodiversity, Conservation, and Development

Immerse yourself in tropical ecosystems, learning about conservation, tourism, and carbon sequestration. Learn More
Summer 2018


June 4 - July 4

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Summer Session II

Applied Research Techniques & Strategies Toward Sustainability

Learn a suite of field research techniques and help promote environmentally-friendly approaches to development. Learn More
Summer 2018


July 9 - August 8

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Who We Are

The Center is led by research scientist and faculty member Dr. Gerardo Avalos. Dr. Avalos is from Costa Rica and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He became Center Director in 2007, and has conducted research on a variety of topics including palm allometry and biomechanics, tropical plant ecology, functional ecology of hummingbirds, and carbon sequestration. The Center’s faculty includes J. Edgardo Arévalo-Hernández, Ph.D. (Tropical Ecology), Achim Häger, Dr. forest (Natural Resource Management) and Mary Little, LL.M. (Environmental Ethics and Development).

Featured Alumna

Anna Menke

Princeton University, Fellow—Environmental Defense Fund, SFS Costa Rica, Summer '14

SFS definitely affirmed my passion for environmental sustainability and inspired me to pursue a career in the environmental world.

I chose the SFS Costa Rica program because it was a perfect marriage of my interests in international development, environmental sustainability, and Latin American culture. I gained tangible field research skills that helped me build my resume for the internship I would apply to the following summer. I also gained a deep passion for Latin American culture and an affirmed sense that sustainability and…

Read More

Our Research

Costa Rica is undergoing a period of rapid economic and social change. As this biodiversity-rich country develops and its economy shifts focus from agriculture to services, it is approaching a critical juncture where keeping pace with competitive global markets heavily influences resource management decisions. At the local scale, the livelihoods of many in rural communities depend on access to Costa Rica’s natural resources.

Research at the Center for Sustainable Development Studies focuses on Costa Rica’s response to local and global challenges, and the complex links between conservation, economic development, and ecosystem function. Students and faculty at the Center engage with local communities, small NGOs, and farmers to learn about their perspectives and needs. In turn, research projects provide essential data and contribute to the sustainable development of Costa Rica.

Key Research Examples
  • Ecological and socioeconomic drivers and impacts of land-use/land-cover change
  • Valuation of ecosystem services
  • Assessment of tourism impacts
  • Opportunities for sustainable development in and around protected areas
  • Strategies for climate change adaptation
Select Publications

Häger, A. & G. Avalos. (2017). Do functional diversity and trait dominance determine carbon storage in an altered tropical landscape? Oecologia, 184(2).

Avalos, G. & E. Bermúdez. 2016. Effect of a major highway on the spatial and temporal variation in the structure and diversity of the avifauna of a tropical premontane rain forest. Revista de Biologia Tropical, 64(4): 1383-1399.

Arévalo, J. E., & Ladle, R. J. (2016). Challenges to Forest Conservation. In S. Molina & C. Rojas (Eds.), The Paradigm of Forests and the Survival of the Fittest (pp. 172-195): CRC Press.

Goldstein, G., Santiago, L. S., Campanello, P. I., Avalos, G., Zhang, Y.-J., & Villagra, M. (2016). Facing Shortage or Excessive Light: How Tropical and Subtropical Trees Adjust Their Photosynthetic Behavior and Life History Traits to a Dynamic Forest Environment. In G. Goldstein & L. S. Santiago (Eds.), Tropical Tree Physiology: Adaptations and Responses in a Changing Environment (pp. 319-336): Springer International.

Häger, A., & Schwendenmann, L. (2016). Forest Carbon Sequestration and Global Change. In S. Molina & C. Rojas (Eds.), The Paradigm of Forests and the Survival of the Fittest (pp. 39-86). Florida, USA.

Costa Rica (research 1)Costa Rica (research 3)Costa Rica (research 2)

It is the out-of-classroom experiences that make SFS unique.

Experiencing the environmental problems we learn about in the context of the world around us makes them feel pertinent and tangible, while allowing us to feel like we have the power to be part of the solution.

Carrie Gotwals
Kenyon College, SFS Costa Rica Fall '16
Costa Rica SFS Web (Community 3)Costa Rica SFS Web (Community 1)

Community Collaboration

Since the Center’s inception in 1993, community service and engagement in the surrounding communities has been a cornerstone of the student experience. We work with local organizations on forest restoration and reforestation, as well as conservation efforts with local NGOs and national parks.

At the Center, students designed and continue to maintain a local recycling program, and family visits in Atenas are often reciprocated through SFS-hosted community dinners. Students teach environmental education and English classes at local schools, present their research to government officials and other stakeholders, and get to know members of the community by engaging in soccer games, festivals, and cultural performances.

Local Community Partners

  • National Technical University
  • Tirimbina Biological Reserve
  • Carara and Manuel Antonio National Parks
  • El Progreso integrated farm
  • National System of Conservation Areas

Contributing to the Community

  • Production of seedlings of native trees to distribute among conservation organizations
  • Generation of scientific data to support national parks in improving visitor services
  • Matching the human capital profile of communities surrounding national parks with park services
  • Assessing the impacts of increased tourism visitation on rural communities in order to establish new business opportunities congruent with biodiversity conservation
  • Assessing the impacts of traffic noise on susceptible wildlife groups such as understory birds

Life at the Center


The SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies maintains a 6-hectare Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farm that produces mangoes and oranges. Practicing sustainability is part of the student learning and living experience. The Center overlooks the lush Central Valley, providing access to tropical forests, beaches, mountains, and volcanoes within a day’s travel.

  • Open-air lounge with hammocks
  • Quick 3-mile ride from the town of Atenas
Field Station

  • Students live in a dormitory with shared, 4-person bunkrooms
  • Kitchen and dining room
  • Organic garden and greenhouse
  • In-ground pool
  • Surrounded by forested area with trails


Field Station

  • Indoor and outdoor classrooms
  • Computer room and lab
  • Soccer field and basketball court