HOW WE CAN LEARN FROM COSTA-RICA’S BIODIVERSITY EFFORTS

As a country that has managed to replenish 60% of its rainforests, Costa Rica is paving the way for realistic, yet also ambitious, restoration commitments and there’s something we can all learn from the country’s efforts.

Deforestation rates in the tropics are soaring. According to a report by Frontiers in Environmental Science, ‘the world’s forests, particularly those in tropical areas and climates, are being degraded at an alarming rate. Tropical rainforests contain half of all biodiversity, regulate global climate, purify air and water, and serve as a source of resources for local communities, therefore are incredibly crucial to the health of the planet.’ The loss of biodiversity and species diversity is catastrophic, leading to lowered ecosystem productivity, extinction of species and threat to human life.  

But efforts to replant trees and encourage forest recovery are starting to turn the tide. Particularly in certain countries – take Costa Rica as a case study and it should make you realise that with the right ambitions and intentions, we can all, as individuals even, take steps toward a better future. 

After suffering some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, Costa Rica has regrown large areas of its tropical rainforest. Between 1940 and 1983, Costa Rica, lost approximately, 50% of its original forests. It’s now the only tropical country to actively stop, and reverse, deforestation. The small country really has set the bar when it comes to climate action and protecting biodiversity. 

As an incredibly environmentally progressive country, since 2014, Costa Rica sourced 98% of its energy from renewable sources, has reforested large amounts of degraded land and utilises strong constitutional rights such as the human right to a healthy environment to increase sustainability. Costa Rica also has one of the greatest percentages (26%) of protected land in the world. It’s no surprise then that, in 2019, the country was named Champion of the Earth by the United Nations for its contributions to fighting climate change and protecting nature. 

Perhaps most impressive, though, is this way in which it has regenerated lost forests and habitats. As the report by Frontiers continues, ‘Costa Rica successfully reversed deforestation by restoring forest cover from 24.4% in 1985 to >50% by 2011 through implementation of national environmental protection policies in the 1990s that included a portfolio of Pas (Protected Areas), PES (Payments for Ecosystems Services Programs), and ecotourism.’

So, how exactly did they achieve this increase in forestation? In recognising that the situation in Costa Rica was pretty unique, the tourism ministers knew that they could and should target ecotourism as a means to improve and protect their biodiversity.

Although small, the popular tourism destination houses more than 6% of the world’s biodiversity, drawing people in from all corners of the globe to see such a natural phenomenon. Using the four pillars of sustainable tourism (sustainable management, socioeconomic impacts, cultural impacts, and environmental impacts), the government ensure that Costa Rica’s tourist attractions are centered on respecting the environment. Travellers are therefore offered opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to sustainable tourism and volunteering programmes – most often directly supporting reforestation. Earlier this year, the Costa Rica National Forest Financing Fund launched a carbon-footprint calculator for tourists to understand the impact of their travels and offset in a way they see fit. Donations and contributions to this program are used to strengthen forest conservation efforts in Costa Rica.

With nearly 50% of Costa Rica’s biodiversity found in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, it’s a fine example of the aforementioned ecotourism focus coming in to play. Established in 1972 by a coalition of scientists from the Tropical Science Centre (TSC) and Quakers from the local community to protect one of the last tracts of pristine Cloud Forest in Central America, the Preserve is a pioneer and progressive conservation and ecotourism model based in biodiversity research and education. 

As a feature by Treehugger quite rightly drew attention to also, ‘an example of sustainable management in the community [is] locally owned Arenal Observatory Lodge [which] maintains 270 acres of natural forest and 400 acres of reforestation areas.’ Many hotels and resorts across the country, like Arenal Observatory Lodge, focus an incredible amount of their attention on reforestation, and have access to a brilliant support system from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) and the Certification for Sustainable Tourism, which provides tourism companies with guidelines to manage their business sustainably. 

But it isn’t all down to ecotourism, and direct sources of income for locals and farmers have been a large part of the solution. Known as FONAFIFO, a financial mechanism for the recovery and conservation of forest cover, locals are encouraged to restore forests. Although this doesn’t often lead to them making profit, they can then utilise ecotourism (many will charge a fee to guide biologists, ecologists and sustainable tourists around their land) and PES from the government. 

As well as the government scheme, non-profits such as Reforest the Tropics has planted 356 hectares of forest since it’s founding on the ground of Costa Rica in 1996 and creates a direct source of income for many struggling farmers. According to Borgen Magazine, they ‘create the equivalent of one full-time position for every 15 hectares planted but also require many more short-term workers during the initial stages of planting. Most of these workers come from the local community.’ 

Clearly, innovation, pioneering attitudes to economic solutions and moving quickly on sustainability initiatives are central to the success and progression seen in Costa Rica. It’s about experimenting, working together as a community and recognising the need for urgency.  

A recent National Geographic article shone a spotlight on how researchers are experimenting and have tested whether coffee pulp could also contribute to bringing Costa Rica’s rainforests back to life. The findings were published in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence and showed a dramatic improvement from the coffee over the course of two years. This is a prime example of how experimenting and ploughing resources into sustainability campaigns can yield incredible results over short periods of time. Agricultural by-products are a great place to start when it comes to biodiversity and reforestation, and seemingly Costa Rica is, again, leading the way in its acceptance and enthusiasm to keep trying new things. 

Taking that attitude alone is something we could all do in our everyday lives. That is, if we all experimented more with ways to live sustainably and all looked for ways to improve on a daily basis, the world would slowly start looking like a much better place. The Costa Rican philosophy of Pura Vida, meaning Pure Life, is embedded in their culture and manifests in a strong connection between people and nature. As a nation, they are hyper-aware of the effects humans have on the environment and work together to preserve it. Sound like something we could all adopt?   

With Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado Quesada at the helm, who recently announced his plans to decarbonise the country by 2050 and called on several world leader’s to join him, few countries can rival the efforts of the small country. Costa Rica continues to be committed to changing the course of our planet, and recently announced their updated, more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). This commits the country to taking actions that would help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also promises a further reduction in emissions, aiming for a maximum of 9.11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030.

So, when it comes to trying to live more sustainably, could we all benefit from following in Costa Rica’s footsteps? Keep their enthusiasm, efforts and President Carlos Alvarado Quesada’s progressive attitude in mind, and commit to taking small, yet ambitious, steps everyday.