‘Nature is in our DNA” – and in Costa Rica, forests thrive

Costa Rica won an Earthshot 2021 prize for protecting and restoring nature – one of the five prizes awarded in the first year of a program ”designed to incentivise change and help repair our planet over the next ten years.” By highlighting the ability of human ingenuity to bring about change and thus inspiring collective action, the prize “aims to turn the current pessimism surrounding environmental issues into optimism.”

The five ‘Earthshots’ are “simple but ambitious goals for our planet which if achieved by 2030 will improve life for us all, for generations to come”, and form “a unique set of challenges rooted in science, which aim to generate new ways of thinking, as well as new technologies, systems, policies and solutions”. And it recognizes that these environmental challenges are interconnected and must be tackled together.

As well as protect and restore nature, for which Costa Rica won, the challenges are to clean our air, revive our oceans, build a waste-free world, and fix our climate.

This is how Earthshots describes Costa Rica’s achievement:

“Forests are home to half our plants and animals and three quarters of our birds. They suck carbon from the air and return the oxygen we breathe. Yet in 2020 more trees were felled than ever before, causing 10% of global warming.

“In the 1990s, the vast forests of Costa Rica were devastated, half their former size. But the people of Costa Rica and their Ministry for Environment had a plan to save them. Its programmes paid citizens to protect forests, plant trees, and restore ecosystems.

“The results were extraordinary. Costa Rica’s forests doubled in size. Flora and fauna thrived which led to a boom in ecotourism, contributing $4 billion to the economy.

“The government is now taking the approach to urban areas. It believes 30% of the world’s land and oceans could be protected this way too. Winning The Earthshot Prize would help it share knowledge and practices globally, especially in the Global South. Costa Rica’s motto is “pura vida” or “pure life”. Those words could soon echo across the world.”

Paying for Ecosystem Services

Costa Rica’s government pays the owners of forests and forest plantations for the ecosystem services provided by those forests. This includes protecting water sources and scenic natural beauty, mitigating greenhouse gases, protecting biodiversity “for its conservation and its sustainable, scientific and pharmaceutical use, research and genetic improvement, as well as for the protection of ecosystems and ways of life”.

This system was introduced in 1997, the year after Costa Rica made it illegal to cut forests without approval from the authorities. It was part of a series of steps to reverse the massive deforestation that had occurred. Between 1940 and 1983, it lost half of its original forests, and in the 1990s, it had one of Central America’s worst deforestation rates, losing 45,000 hectares each year.

By Nao Iizuka, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52475789

In 1990, Costa Rica changed its laws to create FONAFIFO, a financial mechanism recognized worldwide, which aimed to mobilize resources to conserve and protect forests and ecosystem services, offer an alternative to the threat of deforestation on private properties, and thus increase the country’s forest resources.

By 2010, forested area was 52.38%, a slight increase from 51.44% in 2005. And today,  almost 60% of the land is once again forest, CNN reported as part of its exploration of how this miraculous recovery took place.

FONAFIFO, which is financed predominantly by a tax on fossil fuels, has paid out $500 million to landowners over the last 20 years, has saved more than 1 million hectares of forest – one-fifth of Costa Rica’s total area – and planted over 7 million trees.

Underscored by economics

“Costa Rica’s success is underscored by economics,” CNN said. “It paired its ban on deforestation with the introduction of PES, which pays farmers to protect watersheds, conserve biodiversity or capture carbon dioxide. “We have learned that the pocket is the quickest way to get to the heart,” says Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s minister for environment and energy, adding that people are more likely to take care of nature if it provides an income.

To illustrate this, CNN told the story of Elicinio Flores, who got a 10-hectare plot of land from government in 1976, when he was 22. He cleared the trees and created fenced open pastures where cattle now graze, but preserved a five-hectare pocket of original forest in the centre of his farm. He has since expanded it, replanting two more hectares of trees with help from the PES scheme, which pays about $64 per hectare per year for basic forest protection. He generates extra income by selectively harvesting timber from the reforested areas, with guidance from Fundecor, a sustainable forestry NGO, which ensures he only fells trees that are not vital to the ecosystem. Timber sales helped pay for his eldest daughter’s university studies in sustainable tourism.

Restoring the forest has also brought tourists. Costa Rica, which has five million citizens, welcomes around 3 million visitors a year, and in 2019, generated almost $4 billion. Tourism accounts, both directly and indirectly, for more than 8% of GDP and employs at least 200,000 people.

By Cephas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57813946

“People in Costa Rica receive a lot of money because of tourism and that changes the incentives of land use,” says Juan Robalino, an expert in environmental economics with the University of Costa Rica. In neighbouring countries, which have far less tourism, communities put less effort into preserving the environment, and with less revenue, funding for conservation drops, which leads to less ecotourism.

Rodríguez, the environment minister, says that while Costa Rica’s basic strategy could be applied anywhere, “principles and values” need to be in place too. These include good governance, strong democracy, a respect for human rights and a solid education system, he says.

The secret to Costa Rica’s success is its people, says Patricia Madrigal-Cordero, former vice-minister for the environment. “We have created peace, pura vida” she says. “Nature is in our DNA.”.


Protect and restore nature. The Earthshot Prize.

This country regrew its lost forest. Can the world learn from it? CNN Travel, Jul. 27, 2020

Other Stories:

A Biodiversity Hotspot Flourishes as Costa Rica Puts Nature on the Payroll. Reasons to be Cheerful, May 15, 2023 (originally published in Ensia).