Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands compose some of the most diverse ecosystems within the United States with tropical forest, neo-tropical bird wintering grounds and habitat for more than 75 federally protected species. But despite its environmental treasures and the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages nine wildlife refuges in the Caribbean, this region was long excluded from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s successful Partners for Wildlife program. That all changed when 28-year-old FWS Biologist and Puerto Rico native Leopoldo Miranda-Castro took it upon himself to bring this program to his home and surrounding islands.
Miranda-Castro, now 33, launched this voluntary program in 1999 in Puerto Rico, and since that time, he has developed more than 60 partnerships with private land-owners, restoring more than 2,000 acres of tropical habitat. The program has been an unqualified success, but getting it off of the ground was not easy, as Miranda-Castro had to sell both the landowners and the Fish and Wildlife Service on the merits of the project in the region.
Through the Partners for Wildlife program, the FWS provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners to help them restore wetlands and other habitats on their land. The key to this program is that it is voluntary, and therein lies a number of the difficulties that Miranda-Castro helped overcome.
It is not uncommon for large land-owners to be leery of government, and even more so in Puerto Rico and Caribbean islands where the language barrier breeds skepticism toward U.S. officials. But Miranda-Castro helped to overcome these doubts and foster trust between the two. At the time that he introduced the program in the Caribbean, all of the FWS’s materials for the Partners for Wildlife program were written in English. Miranda-Castro and his colleagues helped translate all of the materials for Spanish speaking residents. On top of that he was able to use his tremendous people skills to convince land-owners that entering into partnerships would be mutually beneficial.
Once he secured the support of the private landowners, he sought the backing of the FWS regional office in Atlanta to provide funding to pursue the projects. The office supported, and it continues to support the Partners for Wildlife Program. He established a foundation of trust with private landowners, which continues to this day, as all of the partnerships he established remain strong.
In addition to successfully launching the Partners for Wildlife program, Miranda-Castro also introduced innovative techniques to bolster coffee production in the islands. He recognized that traditional “shade” coffee plantations were decaying, giving way to less hospitable sun coffee habitats. This was destroying perhaps the best sustainable agriculture in the tropics.
He established the first shade coffee restoration in the United States, which provides excellent habitat on private lands while enhancing the agricultural production of the same parcel of land. This program is currently being replicated in both Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.
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At the age of 33, Miranda-Castro has already established himself as a leader in the conservation community, and in this field that is premised on thinking about things in a long-term perspective, one cannot help but get excited about what additional things he will be able accomplish in the years to come.