Costa Rica has always fascinated travellers who come here for adventure. Every year, the country’s biodiversity, its dream landscapes, and the warmth of the Costa Rican people attract more and more visitors.
Various immigrants originating in different countries have helped create the natural parks of Costa Rica. Conservation was never an easy task. Extensive deforestation had been necessary in order to link the country’s two seaports with the capital and considerably expand the area available for agriculture and livestock. Today, however, agriculture has become a subject of controversy because much of it involves the widespread use of agro-chemicals harmful to the environment and public health.
After observing the catastrophic consequences of deforestation, fossil fuel extraction and industrialization in other countries, the Costa Rican government decided to pursue another strategy. Reforestation, the use of renewable energies, modern waste management and recycling are now major areas for government investment. They are also a sustainable way to combat climate change.
In addition to other assets Costa Rica relies on its young university graduates to carry out the innovative ecological projects of tomorrow and turn ecological responsibility into part of the national character.
The Protection and Conservation of Biodiversity, a History of the Costa Rican National Parks
The Cabo Blanco National Reserve was created in 1963 by the German-Danish couple, Olof Wessberg and Karen Morgenssen. Their aim was to conserve the endangered natural forest. This couple persuaded international organizations and national institutions to finance the project. The founding of the Cabo Blanco reserve marks the moment when Costa Rica began its policy of conserving the natural environment. It was the first protected area created for this purpose.
In 1970 Costa Rica officially established its network of national parks. Since 1994 these parks have been administered by a department of the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, SINAC (Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación). SINAC organizes, maintains, and does the strategic planning for all the protected areas.
Today SINAC is responsible for 29 national parks in addition to various biological and forest reserves. The Cordillera de Talamanca has a large number of these protected areas, including La Amistad international park, which extends even into Panama. Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, is unique in the world, due to the large number of species that live there.
Some important dates:
- 1955 creation of the national parks for volcanos Irazú, Tenorio and Turrialba.
- 1963 creation of the national park Cabo Blanco.
- 1970 creation of the national park Cahuita.
- 1971 creation of the national park for volcano Poás.
- 1972 creation of the national parks Manuel Antonio and Santa Rosa.
- 1973 creation of the national park Rincón de la Vieja.
- 1975 creation of the national parks Chirripó, Corcovado and Tortuguero.
- 1978 creation of the national parks Barra Honda, Braulio Carrillo, Carara, Isla del Coco and Palo Verde.
- 1982 creation of the national park Tapantí.
- 1989 creation of the national park Ballena.
- 1990 creation of the national park La Amistad.
- 1991 creation of the national parks for volcanos Arenal, Diriá, Guanacaste, Las Baulas and Piedras Blancas.
- 1992 creation of the national park Juan Castro Blanco.
- 2002 creation of the national park La Cangreja.
- 2006 creation of the national park Los Quetzales.
- 2019 creation of the national park Miravalles Jorge Manuel Dengo.
Costa Rica’s constant efforts to protect the environment have made it possible to reduce its vulnerability to natural dangers such as droughts, wildfires and floods. Although protecting the environment may have involved short-term trade-offs, particularly in the form of increased pressure on land availability, new opportunities have opened up at the same time to promote high value eco-tourism.
The success of Costa Rican agriculture has depended on the nation’s political stability, its robust economic growth, and its effective policies with respect to public health and education. The country exports new crops, such as pineapple and palm oil, as well as traditional crops, such as coffee and bananas. Costa Rica is the world’s leading exporter of pineapples, enjoying more than 50% of the global market.
The import / export trade in agricultural products more than doubled between 1995 and 2015. The total agricultural area is currently 15,893 square kilometres (6,136 square miles), or about 31% of the total land area (47% when the forests located on agricultural land are included).
The rising production of pineapple, sugarcane, and palm oil threatens Costa Rica’s biodiversity, however, by putting increased pressure on natural resources, encroaching on river areas, and leading to violations of the laws protecting forests. The government has responded by developing a program to protect and conserve biodiversity.
The pineapple plantations extend over huge areas and undergo heavy treatments of often obsolete agrochemical cocktails which represent a real danger for the health of employees, villages, rivers, and biodiversity. Land degradation is a major obstacle to sustainable productivity growth. In 2000, Costa Rica was one of the largest users of agrochemicals among the developing countries. Since then, however, the country has stepped up efforts to cut input use by almost half. The Ministry of Agriculture promotes greener alternatives, but the pineapple industry is an economic giant, and bad habits persist. Currently the official limits for the use of pesticides are still insufficient and are not monitored by any institution.
In the center of the country some coffee plantations and fruit and vegetable growers have shifted to organic agriculture. Costa Rica is a pioneer in this sector having adopted its first law on organic production in 1995.
Organic agriculture, however, only accounts for around 1.6% of the country’s total agricultural production. One reason is the expense of obtaining organic certification which significantly increases the price of harvested products. Thus the market for organic produce is limited by its high price. Of course, some farmers who do not use agrochemical treatments do not seek certification because of the cost. That’s why it’s interesting to talk to farmers in the markets … You may have some nice surprises!
Costa Rica also has less organic production than many other countries in the region due to underdeveloped systems for marketing and distribution. Potential new organic producers are likewise discouraged by this lack of supportive services.
It is interesting to note, however, that Costa Rica is also home to a whole youth movement towards permaculture, agroecology and urban vegetable gardens. Seeds of hope are sown all over the country.
Costa Rica’s biodiversity can serve as a genetic repository for creating better plant varieties with greater resilience to climate change. The country still needs, however, to tighten its enforcement of existing regulations on land usage and water and improve its infrastructure.
Raising the awareness of farmers to their vulnerability to climate change and offering them better solutions can also encourage the adoption of practices more respectful of the environment which will be sustainable in the long term.
By 1986, successive deforestation over the preceding 200 years had left only 21% of Costa Rican territory covered with forests, a trend accelerated by the expansion of agriculture and population growth.
The greatest periods of deforestation occurred between 1960 and 1979, with approximately 350 square kilometers (135 square miles) lost per year, only to worsen between 1979 and 1986, with a decline of about 390 square kilometres (151 square miles) annually.
Unlike other Central American countries and contrary to global trends, Costa Rica has made considerable efforts since 1986 to reforest its entire territory. Forest cover increased from 42% of the total land area in 1997 to 53% in 2013. Compared to other countries in Central and South America, Costa Rica is the only country that has fully recovered its 1990 forest cover level with the exception of Chile, which had a forest cover rate of 23%
The FONAFIFO (National Forestry Financing Fund) program created by Forest Law 7575 in 1996 compensates owners of natural forests for their service to the environment.
Reforestation is also encouraged through training programs.
Producers are trained in forest conservation practices and receive technical assistance to manage silvi-pastoral systems by which trees and grasses or forage species are grown together on the same lands at the same time..
Since the early 2000s, falling international meat prices as well as increased tourism and migration to urban areas have all facilitated the process of forest restoration. Currently about 25% of the country is under some category of SINAC protection, a factor contributing to the successful development of ecotourism.
By the end of 2020 Costa Rica intends to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable energies collected and transformed by numerous hydroelectric dams, geothermal energy, wind turbines, biomass plants and solar energy installations. The national supplier, ICE, is a public electricity and telecommunications corporation which bases its activity on the sustainable use of natural, social, and economic resources.
Water is Costa Rica’s main natural resource.
Thanks to its topography and significant rainfall, as much as 78% of Costa Rica’s energy comes from hydroelectric power stations.
Taking into account the amount of water lost through evaporation, infiltration, and other processes, the net quantity of water available reaches 75 million cubic meters per year (2,650,000,000 cubic feet).
More than 90% of the water concessions by volume are granted to the agro-food sector.
Water scarcity is a major concern in the Guanacaste region, however, which suffers from droughts and experiences cuts and water use restrictions every year.
For a few years now Costa Rica has sought to promote the acquisition of electric vehicles by installing more and more charging stations, but this network is still mainly concentrated around the capital and has not yet been extended to remote destinations.
Hydrogen vehicles are regularly mentioned as an excellent future alternative to gasoline or diesel-fuel vehicles, and the country remains attentive to progress in this area.
Biking paths are rare in Costa Rica, but non-profit associations strive to convince local authorities to create more and integrate such paths into the urbanization plans of the San José and its suburbs.
Waste Management, Recycling and Zero Waste
In Costa Rica most households have a waste collection service.
Currently, of the 4,000 tons of solid waste produced daily in the country, only 3,000 are recycled, exported, or arrive at landfills. Unfortunately in the absence of collection service or a proper incineration facility, some households openly burn, bury, or throw their waste into the rivers.
Recycling is central to the main concerns of the country. Information campaigns are regularly organized in schools, in downtown centers, and also in rural areas. Used car tires are sometimes collected, painted, and then transformed into decorative items.
The global zero waste movement is taking its time to develop in Costa Rica. As everywhere it affects mainly the educated part of the population. Shops offering products in bulk are making a small breakthrough in the country, since the prices remain prohibitively high for a large part of the population. In Costa Rica, as elsewhere, the challenge remains: How to involve the population in reducing its environmental footprint when it is cheaper for individuals not to worry about it?
The University of Costa Rica as well as CATIE (Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza) and Earth University offer higher education leading to employment in a wide range of professions related to the study of biodiversity, agriculture, renewable energy, etc.
Students are encouraged to acquire the skills necessary for entering various professions related to the environment. They voluntarily provide help to veterinarians, analysis laboratories, research firms, and others to put what they have learned into practice and sharpen their qualifications for future employment.
Native or endangered trees are reproduced at the UCR FESA experimental farm in Santa Ana and sold to the public for a nominal price. The people who buy the trees really have to be committed to planting and caring for them, however, because collecting seeds and reproducing them involves a great deal of work, effort, and investment.
People who find seeds of different endangered tree species or who receive a tree they cannot plant can bring them to FESA.
CATIE has a charming botanical park enchanted by the song of birds and the whispers of the gigantic Guanacaste tree and the imposing Ceiba tree. It is a laboratory for students and specialists alike who study conserved species. It is also an educational site to raise awareness of how to conserve, use sustainably and protect natural resources.
You will also find there tiny parasitic plants, orchids, bromeliads, cannonball tree, bougainvillea, heliconias and giant bamboos.
At Earth University, which is located in Limón Province, bananas are grown on campus using innovative, eco-friendly practices for tasty fruit. The banana plantation is divided into small sections surrounded by forest, promoting biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. No herbicide is used, but microorganisms, a biological fungicide, and a non-chemical repellent based on garlic and chilli are applied in moderation. Production waste is converted to paper and compost. An innovative drainage system helps reduce soil erosion and prevent water contamination. These bananas are Rainforest Alliance certified and have carbon neutral growth.
In exchange for an authentic experience, Costa Rican animal shelters, agroecological farms and some natural parks welcome volunteers to help them in their mission.
Volunteering is a one-off exchange agreement. A few hours of work per day brings you a real-life experience and a chance to acquire new skills. Accommodations and sometimes meals are included.
Ever since the emergence of volunteering sites such as Workaway or Helpx, however, Costa Rica has sought to tighten the laws that regulate these opportunities and protect volunteers from falling victim to deceptive and abusive practices. In fact, when you sign on as a volunteer, you may have no guarantee that your host is seriously committed to the conditions of your agreement, and the Workaway or Helpx sites will not intervene to assist you if you have a problem. Volunteering is often confused by Costa Rican hosts with free labor, and thus you may be asked to pay if you desire for more comfort and/or a more varied diet. Also beware of offers to volunteer at hotel receptionist posts, for example. Your tourist visa does not allow you to be professionally employed. By doing illegal work you risk expulsion and a ban on entering the country again.
We recommend, therefore, that you approach volunteering with caution as well as enthusiasm. Read carefully the comments left by other volunteers and contact the host in advance to ask any questions you may have related to your stay.
SINAC recommends that you opt for one of its own volunteering offers which are supervised by a team and follow a program in harmony with nature. To submit your application you will be asked to provide a set of documents and personal information. You will also be officially subject to a decree regulating the conditions of volunteering and your civil responsibilities.