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Costa Rica’s Legacy of Caring for its Forests

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Costa Rica hasn’t always been the poster child for protecting its forests.  But all of this changed in 1996, when the Costa Rican government created the Payment for Environmental Services (PSA) Program, which distributes financial rewards to farmers who work to preserve and restore forests on their land.  The government realized that it would have to partner with civilians in order to restore the environment after a post-WWII economic boom that resulted in massive deforestation and degradation of Costa Rica’s land.

Thanks to this government initiative developed nearly three decades ago, private landowners of large terrains are incentivized to restore heavily degraded and eroded soil.  By joining the National Forest Finance Fund (FONAFIFO), farmers in the mid-1990s began to restore land by replanting in areas that had been cleared for the 30 years prior.  Still today, this fund is in charge of rewarding landowners for their efforts in protecting Costa Rica’s forests. Costa Rica’s reforestation efforts are seen as a global success story, moving Costa Rica from 26 percent forest cover in the 1980s to more than 50 percent today.

A much different past

Costa Rica used to lead this region of the world in deforestation.  The PSA program “derived from the ecological catastrophe the country lived in the 60s and 80s, when forests were cut to open space for cattle ranching and monoculture,” said Jorge Mario Rodriguez, who has been the general director of the FONAFIFO since 1993.

The country’s deforestation rates used to be around 50,000 and 70,000 hectares from the 1960s through to the end of the 1980s.  These figures corresponded to 1.7 percent of the national territory being devastated every year. The Forest Act of 1996 established that the state should compensate properties that would help to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, protect biodiversity, or preserve the natural landscape and water resources.

Through this act, Costa Rica became the first country to apply a specific tax to the consumption of fossil fuels, for the purpose of benefiting local ecology.  Currently, 3.5 percent of the tax on gasoline is allocated to the PSA Program, which is then used to offset the environmental services provided to 50,000 hectares every year.  Overall, the PSA has paid $500 million to protect 1,250,000 hectares, about one-fourth of Costa Rica’s territory. Every year, FONAFIFO collects proposals for the sponsorship of around 180,000 hectares.  Typically, the organization is only able to finance around one-third of the project requests.

“The PSA program has been enhanced and fostered every year,” Rodriquez said during the First Latin American Congress on Sustainability, Ecology and Evolution (SEE) held in October 2018 in Parque Viva, Alajuela. “It has outlived six governments of different political parties. The resources have been transferred directly to the beneficiaries who have been in charge of protecting the forests.”

New urban initiatives

Those who live in Costa Rica’s busiest cities may associate reforestation and biological connectivity with the country’s rural areas or natural parks – but the flora and fauna of the ecosystems in the Greater Metropolitan Area also hold tremendous ecological potential and need help to thrive.

Big city projects, like the Santa Ana Country Club, plan to create new sources of food and reproduction sites for birds, squirrels, bats and sloths.  Since he majority of Costa Rica’s population live in urban areas, the contribution of companies is important.

The future of restoring tropical forests should not be exclusively in the hands of governments, according to Rebecca Cole, director of three biological stations in Costa Rica run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS).  The OTS works on expanding biological corridors and promoting sustainable agriculture, as well as environmental education and outreach.

Forests in the economy

The World Bank and the Central Bank of Costa Rica both show that forests accounted for 2.1 percent of the country’s GDP between 2011 and 2013. These estimates include economic activities generated by forest products, not just timber extraction. Additional studies are underway to examine the hidden economic value in a forest’s “ecosystem services,” like water filtration and carbon capture.

The completion of the forest accounting report is part of Costa Rica’s participation in the World Bank’s Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) partnership. The program looks at how natural resources contribute to the economy and how the economy affects natural resources.

Communities in close ties with nature

Indigenous communities may play a crucial role in the preservation of Central America’s forests, according to a new map produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The map, called “Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Natural Ecosystems in Central America,” shows that approximately 51 percent of Central America’s current forest cover is either inside or adjacent to indigenous territory.  The most extensive tract of original forest in Costa Rica lies within the indigenous territory of the Bribri and Cabécar, in the southern region of the country. The map also indicates a disturbingly high rate of deforestation in other areas.

Student actions for the forests

Costa Ricans — especially the youth — continue to grow in vigilance when it comes to caring about forests.  An October 2018 ruling ordered PINDECO, a local subsidiary of Del Monte that grows pineapples in Costa Rica— to suspend any actions that  affect grasslands, forests, rice fields or trees, as well as the construction of any type of infrastructure. This ruling came in the wake of student protests in front of the Ministry of Agriculture in San Jose, prior to the ruling.  In recent years, farming companies in Costa Rica have also been taken to court for alleged abusive labor practices and land ownership disputes.

Costa Rica is a country that cares about their forests.  From the top down, the government and the people are working to protect the top industries in the country, all of which are dependent on a sound ecological state of the nation.  And to have a healthy environment, forests must be preserved.