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How the world can learn from Costa-Rica’s biodiversity 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. 

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How seaweed farming could help to fix the planet

People are waking up to the powers of seaweed and starting to see it as an option to reverse the damage of climate change. The fast-growing algae utilises energy from the sunlight, nutrients from the water and carbon dioxide from the ocean, too. Sounds pretty brilliant, right? 

The challenge? Getting the word out there and facilitating the process. You see, seaweed has the ability to combat climate change by regenerating marine ecosystems, absorbing carbon emissions, and creating biofuel and renewable plastics. That’s not to mention it’s power as a renewable food source, too, and the regeneration of local infrastructure and jobs – the sustainable social impacts could be huge. 

Given that there are so many concerns over our global consumption of meat and the environmental impact of continuing to eat meat, seaweed could be a significant turning point. It’s a source of protein and packed full of nutrients, so when it comes to eco-friendly, nutrient rich food sources, seaweed could be the one. If seaweed can start being used as and seen to be an everyday and usual food fix, it’ll have hugely positive effects on the outcome of our planet. The seaweed to food movement is massive, and holds giant potential. Not only is it a great protein source and meat substitute, but it’s a way to pioneer the positive effects of eating lower on the food chain. 

In fact, a study by Yale University on how ‘third way’ technologies can help to turn the tide on climate change, highlighted that there is ‘one study [that] suggests that if you cover 9 percent of the world’s oceans in seaweed farms, you could draw down the equivalent of all our current emissions – more than 40 gigatons a year – and grow enough protein to feed a population of 10 billion people. That’s a huge opportunity.’ 

Another study by Yale showed the following: ‘Plants in the ocean, from seagrasses to plankton, add up to just 0.05 percent of the plant biomass on land, but are so pervasive and efficient at sucking up carbon that they cycle through roughly the same amount of carbon every day as all the land-based plants. Yet seagrass ecosystems are being wiped out, thanks to everything from pandemic disease to water pollution and coastal construction projects.’ 

In an article we featured recently about the humble sibling to seaweed, seagrass, Evie Ramirez highlighted that ‘these productive plants work as filtering systems for coastal waters, helping to keep them clean by soaking up nutrients and bacteria. They also provide coastal defence against rising sea levels and erosion by stabilising sediment and reducing wave and tidal energy.’ 

But seaweed holds even more power than seagrass. The key difference between the closely related species is that seaweed is a macroalgae, whereby particles will be exported out to sea where the carbon can be sequestered. Unlike seagrass, seaweed doesn’t have roots, so ​​the carbon from macroalgae is stored away from the shore, it’s less likely to be disturbed and returned to the atmosphere. Researchers at Harvard have found that seaweed is, in fact, the most effective natural way of storing carbon emissions away from the atmosphere. 

Crucially, seaweed farms also allow important resources for the growing demand for change in the fashion industry. Recently, New York designer Charlotte McCurdy created a seaweed raincoat. Concocting the creation of this in a laboratory, before teaming up with the renowned designer Phillip Lim, Charlotte wanted to plant a seed of hope in the fashion industry and show that, although material development is slow, we can all step in and do our part. Her focus now is on forming an innovation, helping people to recognise that we don’t have time on our side, and utilising the resources that will ultimately become available from seaweed farms across the globe. 

But, as this article for Time states, though: ‘For the industry to scale, Druehl says, governing bodies—both national and international—as well as private companies have to make major investments to help the industry get its feet off the ground.’ 

One such company that is making waves is SeaGrown, situated on the Yorkshire Coast. With support from the Coastal Communities Fund, they are establishing a seaweed farm in the clean, cold, open waters of the North Sea. ‘Our pioneering seaweed farm will ethically produce a sustainable crop which British customers and Industry can use in lots of innovative ways – from biodegradable plastics to a new source of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, textiles and biochemicals,’ they say. We also produce our own fantastic range of seaweed food seasonings which are a great way of adding serious flavour to all your food with the nutritional boost of SeaGrown seaweed. Most importantly of all, our super-seaweed crop just needs the sun and the sea – no chemicals, fresh water, power or even land.’  


There’s still a way to go to make seaweed the norm, but the tide is pushing in the right direction. Let’s take a look at some of the brands pioneering the way in which the humble sea algae can be utilised, from packaging to homewares… 
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What the New Cotton Project means for the fashion industry

When we consider how to combat a sustainable way forward in fashion, it’s not often the nitty gritty details that spring to mind at first. Fast fashion and throwaway style culture is something that we’re all becoming more aware of (thankfully), and often when you talk to people about being more sustainable with fashion, it’s clear that globally we are focusing on being more conscious and investing in pieces that will last and that are ethically made. 

But what does ethically made actually mean? Where are the parameters? And how often do you hear people looking into the specifics of certain everyday, common materials such as cotton? Probably not very often, but that’s where we can certainly direct some more focused attention in the fashion industry. 

After all, the textile industry’s environmental problems do mostly relate to the raw materials used in creation: cotton, fossil-based fibres such as polyester, and viscose (the most common man-made cellulosic fibre), and they are all associated with serious environmental concerns. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular report: ‘If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.’ 

Statistics on cotton are particularly damning, with the World Wildlife Organisation stating that although the global reach of cotton is one of the widest material reaches, ‘current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable—ultimately undermining the industry’s ability to maintain future production.’ 

In fact, the Better Cotton initiative shows us that ‘less than 25% of cotton is grown in a way that actively protects people and the environment.’ According to the Sustainable Cotton Ranking analysis too, ‘uptake of more sustainable cotton remains relatively low with most of the heavy lifting done by a growing number of leaders.’ Ultimately, in terms of engaging brands and companies on a bigger level in directing consumer attention to ethically produced cotton, although there has been some significant improvement in recent years, there’s still a lot of work to do. 
Step in the New Cotton Project, a circular fashion initiative involving 12 pioneering players in the fashion industry. As a world-first, the consortium of brands, manufacturers, suppliers, innovators and research institutes participating in the European Union-funded project will prove that circular, sustainable fashion is not only an ambition, but that it can be achieved today.

The fashion industry produces nearly twice as many clothes today as it did two decades ago and, despite awareness of single-use and throwaway culture rising, demand for clothing is only growing. According to research by the project, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned every second. 

Designed as a means to directly combat this, over a three-year period, the New Cotton Project will ensure that textile waste is collected, sorted and regenerated into Finnish biotechnology group Infinited Fiber Company’s unique, cellulose-based textile fibres. From here, the fibres will be used to create different types of fabrics for clothing. 

Crucially, and in a move not seen before, the clothing will be designed, manufactured and sold by global brand Adidas, as well as companies within the H&M Group. At the end-of-use, apparel take-back programmes will collect the clothing to determine the next phase in their lifecycle. Infinited Fibre’s patented technology can regenerate cellulose-rich textile waste into unique fibres that look and feel like cotton. It’s this regeneration and recycling element that is central – and a blueprint for larger brands with huge emphasis to join the movement. 

‘We are very excited and proud to lead this project, which is breaking new ground when it comes to making circularity in the textile industry a reality,’ says Infinited Fiber Company’s Co-founder and CEO Petri Alava. ‘The enthusiasm and commitment with which the entire consortium has come together to work towards a cleaner, more sustainable future for fashion is truly inspiring.’

The project is recapturing the valuable, raw materials in discarded clothing and regenerating them back into high-quality fibres that can be spun into new yarn, woven into new fabric, and designed into new clothes – again and again. Perhaps one of the most exciting elements of the movement, the project also aims to act as an inspiration and steppingstone for further, even bigger circular initiatives in the industry going forward. Not to mention make us, as consumers, consider the finer detail in our sustainable treatment of fashion. 

Not only can we then focus on purchasing organic and sustainable cotton products, but brands can and will start to get more involved in this also – once they’ve seen the way paved by influential brands. Watch this space.