by Les Beletsky
From the archives (first published in 1998)

Costa Rica holds a truly unique position among the world’s tropical nations with regard to conservation. This small country simultaneously is among the nations facing severe environmental threats and the nation that is perhaps most active in conservation efforts. Here I briefly describe some of the major threats to Costa Rica’s ecosystems, as well as the country’s conservation programs and initiatives.

Environmental Threats
Costa Rica is a wonderful country to visit but it is not an eco-paradise. Like any other country, there are problems, both socioeconomic and ecological. Costa Rica’s population, about 3.5 million during the late 1990s, is growing quickly (2.6% per year), and will probably double before it stabilizes; most of the people are concentrated in a single region – in and around the capital, San Jose, and in the surrounding flat part of the Central Valley (the Meseta Central). Most environmental damage in the country is the result of generations of wasteful and polluting agriculture, practices that persist to this day.

The foremost cause for environmental concern is deforestation. Most forest cutting and burning is not to obtain timber but to clear land for cattle pastures, crop farming, and simply as a way to claim “unused” land. The entire country was once forested. Now most of it has been cleared, much of it recently. One-third of Costa Rica’s forest cover was lost between 1950 and 1985, and the country still has one of the highest rates of deforestation in Central America and, in fact, in the world. According to the World Resources Institute, Costa Rica recently ranked 4th among the world’s nations in rate of deforestation, with 3.9% of its forested area being cut each year (about 65,000 hectares, or 160,000 acres). As a result of past and present forest clearing, Costa Rica is among the Central American countries with the smallest percentage of its rainforests still intact. Perhaps only 5% of land outside of protected parks and reserves is still densely-forested. Particulary hard-hit has been the tropical dry forest habitat that occupied Costa Rica’s northwest Pacific lowlands. This habitat type, remants of which are still found in Palo Verde, Santa Rosa, and Guanacaste National Parks, once stretched in a narrow belt along the Pacific from southern Mexico to Panama. Unfortunately, these dry forests lands were easily accessible and able to support several types of agriculture; by now, less than 1% remains of the original dry forests of Central America.

Cattle ranching, aside from large-scale deforestation required to create pastureland, is ecologically harmful in number of other ways. Cattle grazing causes soil erosion, nutrient depletion of grazed lands, and ground compaction that prevents many plants from growing. Other agricultural practices also have led to environmental deterioration and dangers. The main plantation crops, coffee and bananas, are grown largely in monoculture – the entire plantation devoted to a single crop plant. This type of farming generally requires heavy use of pesticides and leads to depletion of soil nutrients. Also, large swaths of land populated by single plant species provide poor habitat for wildlife. The general rule is that the more complex the vegetation, the more animal species that can thrive in it. The species-rich wildlife of tropical forests cannot live in the pastures and monoculture plantations that replace cleared forest. The result of deforestation, therefore, is decreased plant diversity, which leads to decreased animal diversity.

Conservation Programs
Loss of the world’s rainforests and the plant and animal species they contain – their biodiversity – is occuring at an alarming rate. People and governments are beginning to realize the scope of the problem and to take action. But the problems are long-established and severe, the possible solutions new, tentative, and difficult to introduce and enforce. As one conservation researcher recently put it: It is difficult enough to change agricultural practices and implement conservation programs in the USA, a relatively rich, educated, technologically-advanced, democratic country; imagine how much more difficult it must be for environmentalists in smaller, poorer countries to try to change long-standing agricultural and forestry policies, countries in which business concerns usually hold sway.

By most criteria, Costa Rica has a very good recent environmental record. By pursuing a number of conservation policies, by establishing and protecting parks, and by promoting ecotourism, the country is doing much to preserve its environmental heritage. Costa Rica has a long history of interest in biodiversity conservation, having enacted strict wildlife trade laws about 1970 and, in 1975, being the first Central American signer of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Costa Rica’s system of national parks, initiated during the 1970s and added to regularly ever since, is the country’s main effort at conservation. About 25% of the nation’s land is included in parks and reserves that protect a healthy variety of ecosystems in diverse regions of the country. This park system is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest. One national park, La Amistad (meaning friendship), adjoins a park in Panama, and another international park, adjoining a potential Nicaraguan park to Costa Rica’s north, is being considered (the Peace Park).

A host of private conservation organizations based in Costa Rica or elsewhere have active biodiversity research or conservation programs in the country. I will mention just a few. The Neotropica Foundation (Fundacion Neotropica) is Costa Rica’s main nongovernmental, nonprofit conservation group. It buys ecologically important parcels of forested land to save them from imminent development and cooperates with international organizations. For instance, it collaborates with the World Wildlife Fund’s Tropical Forestry Program on a forestry project on the Osa Peninsula. The project, named BOSCOSA, works to maintain the natural forests that surround Corcovado National Park by developing forest management and agricultural practices that are both ecologically and culturally suited to the region, and then teaching the practices to the local communities. The Neotropica Foundation is also collaborating on plans to establish a protected greenway wildlife corridor that will extend from Mexico to Colombia.

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), established almost 40 years ago to protect sea turtles, is also involved in other conservation efforts, such as protecting the forests that surround Tortuguero National Park. INBio, the privately-funded biodiversity organization whose purpose is to collect, catalog, and disseminate information on Costa Rica’s plant and animal species, has an important role to play in conservation because before conservation plans are made, it is always a good idea to know which species are in a country, and where they occur.

The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), in addition to fostering basic biological research at its three field stations, is also engaged in research into sustainable agricultural practices. (Sustainable means using plants and animals in ways that are economically profitable for the local economy yet not ecologically harmful; the use, in other words, will not lead to significant ecosystem damage or to decline in biodiversity.) At its La Selva research station, OTS carries out a project known as TRIALS that has attracted worldwide notice from governments and conservation organizations. The project’s purpose is to identify rapidly-growing native tree species that might be used for sustainable forestry. Previously, no one really knew which native trees grew fastest and also provided high-quality wood. Researchers at La Selva, by planting and monitoring large plots of land with almost 100 different tree species, eventually will be able to tell local tree producers which species are best to plant for tree farms (for eventual cutting and marketing) and also for reforesting old abandoned pastures. Already, near La Selva, applications of this research are being put into practice.

The TRIALS project brings up the subject of sustainable agriculture. For effective, country-wide conservation, more than a large system of protected parks is necessary. What goes on outside of the parks, how nonprotected lands are treated, also matters a great deal. For example, consider two of Costa Rica’s main export crops, coffee and bananas. These crops can be grown on plantations in environment-damaging or environment-enhancing (green) ways. The traditional coffee crop on Costa Rica’s family farms had low coffee plants growing beneath a canopy of trees (often Erythrina), which provided shade as well as protective ground mulch. When large corporations went into the coffee business, they increased yields by switching to sun coffee, growing coffee plants alone on large plantations, using fertilizers and pesticides extensively to do for their crop what shade trees used to. Many other growers also produce sun coffee. Unfortunately, monotonous rows of low coffee plants are a poor habitat for animal life, especially birds. The drive to get large companies to produce only shade-grown coffee is concerned with having them add canopy trees to their plantations, thus improving the coffee’s taste (as some insist), decreasing the amounts of chemicals needed, and, not incidentally, greating enhancing the habitat for wildlife use. You might not think that simply planting shade trees above coffee plants would make much of a difference, but it does! It turns out that plantations with trees and understory crop plants provide habitats sufficiently complex to attract abundant wildlife, particularly migratory birds. The incentive for companies to produce shade-grown coffee is that they can advertise it as such and, hence, charge more for it. Many surveys have demonstrated that consumers, both in Costa Rica and in export countries, are willing to pay more for green products such as shade-grown coffee.

Costa Rica’s banana industry, as well, is turning increasingly toward green production. Much of the new forest clearing in the country goes to establish new banana plantations, the result of a boom in international demand for Costa Rica’s bananas. The ECO-O.K. Banana Project allows producers who comply with a wide range of green requirements to place ECO-O.K. stickers on their fruit and to use the term when advertising. To earn this green seal of approval, growers must not clear new forest for more plantations, must maintain greenbelts of natural vegetation along rivers and roads on their properties, and must store and manage pesticides and agricultural wastes in approved ways.

In addition to coffee and bananas, a broad range of Costa Rica’s agricultural products can be grown in green ways, and marketed as green, or organic – fruits such as papaya, pineapple, oranges, and blackberries; spices and herbs such as cinnamon, vanilla, and pepper; and vegetables such as lettuce and radishes. Forest products likewise can be harvested in compliance with a green philosophy. One Costa Rican company that emphasizes strict sustainable forestry practices (harvesting specific trees without destroying the forests in which they grow) successfully markets wood products internationally under the trade name Royal Mahogany (actually a tree species in the mahogany family which is very abundant over Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean lowlands). Buyers pay a premium price for the wood because they know it was harvested in an environmentally-friendly way.

Ecotourism and Conservation
Ecotourism can contribute to sustainable development. In Chapter 1, I discussed ecotourism’s economic and ecological advantages to Costa Rica and other destinations. But does ecotourism always help local economies and significantly preserve visited habitats and wildlife? This question is important because increasingly, the fostering of ecotourism is suggested by indigenous people in developing nations, by the nations themselves, and by international conservation organizations, as one of the best methods to preserve natural resources and biodiversity almost anywhere that they are threatened. Certainly it works to a degree – witness success stories in places such as Kenya and, especially, Costa Rica. However, as with any popular program that undergoes rapid growth, there are problems. Many people who monitor tourism – researchers and government officials – believe that in the rush to make money from ecotourism, benefits are often overstated and problems ignored.

Many private companies purporting to be “ecotour” operators are “eco-” in name only; they are interested solely in profits, and are not concerned about local economies or the wild areas into which they take tourists. There is increasing concern about monetary “leakage”: despite attempts to keep most of the ecotourist revenues in local destination economies, many of those dollars, more than 50% by recent estimates, leak back to large urban areas of destination countries and even to developed nations; relatively little actually is spent on conservation. In some countries, ecotourism is an unstable source of local employment and economic well-being. Tour bookings are heavily dependent on seasonal trends, on the weather, on a country’s political situation, and on worldwide currency fluctuations. Finally, popularity as an ecotourism site may inevitably lead to its failing. As ecotourism expands dramatically, sites that are over-used and under-managed will be damaged. Trails in forests gradually enlarge and deepen, erosion occurs, crowds of people are incompatible with natural animal behavior. Also, ecotourism’s success harms itself in another way: when any area becomes too popular, many travellers wanting to experience truly wild areas and quiet solitude no longer want to go there; that is, with increasing popularity, there is an inexorable deterioration of the experience.

Thus, ecotourism is not a miracle cure-all for conservation; these days it is understood to be a double-edged sword. Clearly, large numbers of people visiting sites cannot help but have adverse impacts on those sites. But as long as operators of the facilities are aware of negative impacts, careful management practices can reduce damage. Leakage of ecotourist revenue away from the habitats the money was meant to conserve is difficult to control, but some proportion of the money does go for what it is intended and, with increased awareness of the problem, perhaps that proportion can be made to grow. Environmentally-sensitive travellers can take steps to ensure that their trips help rather than hurt visited sites.

Costa Rica’s Special Role
In one respect, Costa Rica holds an enviable position for a small country with some serious environmental problems: Many international organizations consider it to be the country of choice in which to begin conservation projects. Literally hundreds of environmental projects take place in the country, both those oriented toward research and actual conservation practice. In some years, more conservation programs are funded by foreign organizations in tiny Costa Rica than in relatively huge Brazil. Recently, the USA government alone sponsored 114 individual projects in Costa Rica; additionally, other countries sponsor programs in Costa Rica, as do many of the world’s private international conservation orgranizations. The reasons for all the attention to Costa Rica are well-known: As the realization grows that the world’s tropical forests are endangered, and money is increasingly available to try to preserve some of the forests, decisions need to be made about where to begin. Logically, the international community chooses to start in a place where they can operate in safety and security, preferably in a stable democratic country with good infrastructure and educated people, where there are a variety of species-rich ecosystems in need of conservation – a description that superbly fits Costa Rica.

A consequence of all the conservation attention is that Costa Rica has become a training and proving ground for tropical biologists and conservation research and programs. Conservation projects are often tried here first, under what most program managers would consider almost ideal conditions. If a project works in Costa Rica, it can then be tried elsewhere, in countries where conditions are more difficult and, perhaps, less friendly toward conservation.

Costa Rica’s special role in the world conservation community sometimes bring criticism. Some conservationists and researchers have begun to question whether all the conservation work in Costa Rica has really made significant progress in conserving the country’s natural resources. Certainly some progress has been made, and some programs will not show appreciable benefits for years. On balance, however, most agree that Costa Rica has a fine conservation record. But a crucial question being asked is: If Costa Rica, with its system of national parks and abundance of conservation programs, cannot stem the loss of its biodiversity, then what country can?

This is an excerpt from the author’s  Costa Rica: The Ecotravellers’ Wildlife Guide, (Academic Press, 1998). Les also wrote the article on Tropical Toucans.

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