Costa Rica is a developing nation and yet still frequently scores higher on targets such as habitat preservation, conservation and sustainability than richer, western nations. We ask how such a small country has succeeded in growth without the cost of environmental degradation experienced too frequently in other countries.
In 2020 Costa Rica ranked the highest of all Central and South American Nations on the Environmental Protection Index (EPI). Furthermore in New Economics Foundation Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica has topped the list for the past three years. With an area that represents only 0.03% of the land area on the whole planet, Costa Rica alone accounts for no less than 6% of the world’s known biodiversity. And its land cover is 50% forests, with 25% of protected area. Over the past 25 years its GDP has more than tripled and it has achieved a literacy rate of 97.8% whilst providing universal health care. All of this was achieved without deforestation, habitat degradation or depletion of natural resources. This is an outstanding achievement given 21% of the population lives below the poverty line and leads us to question how a country can reach such heights of sustainability whilst still developing economically, and what lessons we can learn from Costa Rica’s example?
Many people attribute Costa Rica’s success to their positive outlook in life, or in their own words ‘Pura Vida’. This spanish phrase directly translates to pure life and refers to the nations empathy and protection of nature; a society connected to the natural world since birth and thus its citizens are more aware and attuned to the environment making them more concerned about protecting it. Monica Araya, who leads two NGOs focused on the clean economy and climate policy expressed her view of pura vida in the future of Costa Rica’s development:
“Pura Vida last century meant protecting nature. This century it is about protecting our quality of life. We don’t need to ‘copy and paste’ what others are doing. We can break the curse of car-cantered cities and petroleum-based transportation. So, this is not simply about ‘saving the environment,’ it’s about protecting our identity.”
Payment for Environmental Services
Another key reason Costa Rica is ahead of larger nations such as the United States in green infrastructure is forward planning. During the 1800s and 1900s the Costa Rican government provided land to residents as a form of welfare. The system allowed citizens to control their own livelihoods and create a foundation system for equal economic growth. Farmers then built commodity networks to sustain business and the average citizen was given a voice in the development process. This birthed the Payment for Environmental Services (PES) initiative in the 1980s where landowners were paid in to protect forests and in return species are conserved, river flows regulated and carbon stored. Since 1997 one million hectares of Costa Rican forests are part of the PES plan and forest cover has doubled.
Furthermore Costa Rica is abundant in natural resources which it uses to its advantage such as hydropower and geothermal power. This coupled with investment in wind and solar power have led to the country almost reaching carbon neutrality. In 2019, 99% of electricity used was generated from renewable resources and residents only produce 6% of the CO2 emissions of the U.S.
Protection of Wildlife
In such a biodiverse landscape, Costa Rica is vital for studying wildlife and conserving rare species. Furthermore its biggest industry is eco-tourism and therefore it was economically necessary to maintain the high diversity and wildlife that drive tourists to the area. As a result in 2012 it became the first Central American nation to ban recreational hunting. This protects key species such as turtles and exotic birds. Violators of the ban face four months in prison or fines of up to $3000.
Protection of the Environment
Costa Rica has many nationwide plans and agreements for environmental regulations such as the Blue Flag Ecological Programme that addresses microbiological quality of coastal waters, supplies environmental education and keeps waterways clean. Beaches need to meet 90% of the requirements to earn the flags. Similarly it recently received certification of its first biosphere reserve in Savegre River; a selected area for sustainable development that adjusts the conservation of biodiversity with proper use of natural resources. As a result of these initiatives 25% of the land area is designated as protected by law.
What does the Future hold?
Looking to the future the largest problem looming in Costa Rica’s horizon is pollution from vehicles. In large urban areas such as San Jose the traffic is tremendous as car-ownership increases with the polluting fumes. The government is hoping to offset this by mass introduction of Plug-in Electrical Vehicles (PEVS) and developing infrastructure and policies as incentives to users. A goal has been set of getting 37,000 PEVs on the road by 2022. It is hoped that creating more pleasant urban areas will draw global businesses to the island and help further grow the economy and bring more residents out of poverty whilst still caring and sharing the beautiful natural environment.
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Author: Holly McElroy