Photo: Chris Wronski
In a country roughly the size of Denmark, Costa Rica has managed to form one of the most progressive environmental protection programs of any nation on earth. Long before being ´sustainable´ became fashionable Costa Rica has recognized the importance of conserving its habitats. In 2007, Nobel Winner and President Oscar Areas Sanchez declared the country´s goal of being carbon-neutral by the year 2021. By 2012, the Environmental Performance Index had ranked Costa Rica 5th in the world in carbon neutrality, and first in the Americas. Costa Rica now draws 90% of their energy from sustainable sources.
Despite its small size, population, and influence relative to the U.S. and EU nations, its actions are important: Costa Rica may only occupy .03% of the Earth surface, but the country accounts for nearly 5% of the Earth´s biodiversity.
While G4 nations burn rocket fuel to meet and discuss vague notions of sustainability at fruitless conferences, Costa Rica has been quietly engaged in an environmental renaissance.
Here are a few areas where the rest of the world can learn a lot from the Ticos:
1. Alternative energy
Costa Rica has also tapped into its many volcanoes to generate 15% of the nation´s energy through geothermal methods. Geo-thermal energy harvests underground steam from volcanoes, which then cools and moves power turbines. Unlike hydroelectric energy, geothermal isn’t dependent on weather conditions, and still remains largely underused. With plentiful Caribbean and Pacific coastline and topography conducive to gusts, wind turbines also generate 7% of Costa Rica’s energy.
2. Land preservation
With population growth and farming threatening invaluable eco-systems, Costa Rica has deemed nearly 30% of its land officially protected in national parks and reserves. This percentage is particularly impressive when compared to the United States which only officially protects 13.8% of its land.
Outside of this, there are sizable areas of private reserves operated by nonprofits and environmental groups. Protecting this land means it is off limits to owners who could engage in potentially destructive practices such as clear cutting forests for farming. Protected areas include 27 National Parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas, 11 forest reserves, and 8 biological. In combination with the progressive nature of Costa Rica´s vast eco-tourism industry, land preservation has been not only sustainable but also beneficial to the Costa Rican economy.
Most plant-based biofuels include many hidden opportunity costs. These can include requiring acreage, irrigation, pesticides, or leaving soil infertile. But in Costa Rica, the plants being used to produce biofuels require none of these expensive practices. The Costa Rican Jatropha curcas not only thrives in previously degraded areas but also contributes fertility with its high nitrogen content and compostable remains.
Energias Biodegradables de Costa Rica has been producing Jatropha curcas based biodiesel for over a decade and has opened the country’s first biodiesel gas station open 24/7, with plans to power the station with solar panels.
4. Reforestation and preservation
Prior to World War II, 75% of Costa Rica was covered in forest. But by 1980, that figure had dropped to around 20%. In the second half of the twentieth century, deforestation cleared swaths of land to make room for cash crops such as coffee, sugar, and palm oil. Logging operations also did their part in dramatically reducing the tree line.
Since the 1980s, however, huge recovery efforts have been made. In 1996, the country started the Payment for Ecosystem Services program (PES) which grants incentive payments to owners for sustainable forestry practices. The program pays farmers, ranchers, and land owners for leaving pre-existing foresting unharmed, monitoring fuel emissions, protecting watersheds, and also setting aside areas to be reforested. The PES program led to 26% of forest recovery between 1987 and 2000. There’s now a waiting list of farmers and land-owners willing to participate.
In the pursuit of tourist revenue there are constantly choices to make: X acres of tropical forest could be cleared to raise cows for marginal gains, or a bio-dynamic vegetable farm/lodge could be built allowing years of sustainable revenue and promising jobs for Costa Ricans. In regards to tourism, Costa Rica has often made the most sustainable choice. In 1997, Costa Rica introduced the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program in order to rate travel and tourism companies´ actual dedication to sustainable practices. The rating takes into account support of local communities, waste management, resource allocation, and environmental protection. Since 2012, National Parks such as Monteverde and Manuel Antonio have also create daily entrance quotas limited to 200 and 800 people respectively – reducing overuse, and placing the emphasis on preservation instead of simply profit.
Through all these practices, ecotourism has created more support for local Costa Ricans and their natural resources. It has promoted fair interaction between tourists and the resources they use, reduced the tourist footprint and preserved the country’s natural assets. In a 2012 TripAdvisor eco-friendly travel survey, Costa Rica was recognized as the most popular destination in the world for travelers interested in an eco-friendly trip. It’s no wonder tourism now represents one of the largest industries in the country and accounts for 5.5% of the country’s GDP.