La Fortuna Falls Costa Rica
La Fortuna Falls. Image courtesy of Kyle May.

Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, Costa Rica teams with biodiversity, stunning beauty, and contradictions. With a national motto of “Pura Vida!”, it’s also committed to sustainability.

Costa Rica is striving to become the first nation certified carbon neutral by 2021. Currently it’s within twenty percent of achieving this, but must deal with some large challenges first.

Leading the world in pesticide use, it currently uses 4 pounds (18.2 kilograms) of pesticides per hectare versus the United States using about 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilos) per hectare. It’s interesting to note that Monsanto has no office in Costa Rica.

Another contradiction? Costa Rica encompasses 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Yet deforestation for agriculture and cattle ranching has left only 25 percent of its virgin forests intact.

Regarding carbon neutrality, Ana Baez, who has been involved with sustainable tourism for over 21 years, says many companies in Costa Rica are certified as C-neutral (carbon neutral). But she sees huge challenges ahead. Many companies don’t have enough time or resources to allocate towards being socially responsible, she says. And the government hasn’t allocated enough resources nor given enough priority to environmental issues. But, she says, many non-tourism based companies – such as Toyota and private and public banks – are joining the C-neutral certification program.

A Wild Life

Shark finning and poaching turtle eggs are serious problems in Costa Rica. Randall Arauz, founder of the non-profit conservation group Pretoma, has spearheaded the campaign against shark finning in Costa Rica for over a decade. His work exposed shark finning practices, leading to changes in Costa Rican law – changes he says aren’t being enforced.

Shark species targeted for finning in and around Costa Rica include:

  • Scalloped Hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) — always finned because they have large fins but not valuable for their meat.
  • Blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) — heavily targeted in coastal waters for fins and meat, with high juvenile mortality.
  • Oceanic Whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) — which have large fins but no value for meat.
Hammer from Cocos Island, Costa Rica
Hammerhead shark from Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Image courtesy of Barry Peters.

The International Union of Conservation of Nature reports hammerhead sharks are threatened globally. Arauz says those fished in and around Costa Rica are the most endangered.

In Costa Rica, as of 2011, to import/export shark products requires attaching a certificate of origin. Fins must be separated from sharks bodies in the presence of the fishery inspector, who must then write the number on the form for inspection authorization and landing (FIAD), making the fins legal.

That’s supposed to guarantee traceability. but Arauz’s organization has caught inspections redhanded in violation of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). But fishermen are still catching sharks and finning and the stakes are high. A ton of shark fins is worth $100,000, said Arauz.

Costa Rica’s reputation could be on the line with shark finning.

We need to be more hands-on with the organization that deals with this,” Baez says, “<and> make the fisher community more aware of their responsibility.”

Arauz wants Costa Rica to be a global marine conservation leader, “so foreign policy must be congruent with its domestic policy on finning.”

Baby Sea Turtle - Costa Rica
Baby Sea Turtle – Costa Rica. Image courtesy of Spencer Blake.

Regarding poaching turtle eggs, David Godfrey is Executive Director of Sea Turtle Conservancy, the oldest sea turtle organization in the world. The Conservancy has a long-term monitoring protection program at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Godfrey says the development of eco-tourism and more sustainable methods of profiting from sea turtles offers the community turtle conservation as an alternative to killing them.

It’s been a mulch-pronged approach,” he says, “(through) science, conservation, education and policy.”

Their education outreach coordinator works with kids of all ages, teaching them that wildlife has intrinsic value and that the old traditions aren’t sustainable. “The challenges are complex,” he said.

For example, there’s no progress in providing greater protection for environmentalists who work to protect sea turtles. It’s not a lot different today than a decade ago, he said.

Conflicting Interests Compete for Control

Since 2002, Costa Rica’s Federation for the Conservation of the Environment has recorded 66 crimes and murders against environmentalists in Costa Rica and other Central American countries, many drug trafficking-related. There’s a prominent flow of drugs up the Central American coast, said Godfrey, who has seen the coast guard chasing vessels and illegal activity and drug movement on the beaches at night.

But because Tortuguero is a national park with an armed park guard presence monitoring for turtle poachers, this doesn’t happen there, he said.

“Lack of enforcement, lack of funds to enforce laws, the coastline, the flow of drugs, criminals engaged in those activities in coastal communities – these are a big part of the challenge to conservation in those regions,” Godfrey says.

Tortuguero is the most important green turtle nesting sight in the western hemisphere, said Godfrey. This was made possible by the work of the Conservancy, the government establishing Tortuguero National Park and the community embracing turtle conservation as a more sustainable local economy.

Planting Trees, Planting Hope

Las Delicias Farm in Costa Rica
Las Delicias Farm in Costa Rica. This farm is managed by Reforest the Tropics (RTT). RTT forests are mixed-species designs to reduce the risks from climate change. Photo courtesy of RTT.

Reversing deforestation is vital to conservation. Reforest the Tropics works with Costa Rican farmers to plant new forests and offer carbon offsets to companies, schools, and municipalities.

Since 1995, Dr. Herster Barres, RTT’s founder, has planted trees as part of a United Nations applied research program to improve reforestation efforts on tropical farm pastures.

Last fall, RTT partnered with Woods Hole Research Center, the world’s most influential think tank on global warming, which tracks carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas emissions, and related data. RTT has been working on the practical solution to CO2 sequestration. “They don’t have that knowledge,” said RTT Board of Director Chairman Harry Hintlian.

The “solution” involves RTT establishing 25-year contracts with Costa Rican farmers, who agree to help RTT plant a forest on their land. They primarily plant the klinki pine from Papau, New Guinea. It grows up to 300 feet tall, is long-lived, and stores tremendous amounts of CO2. RTT’s forests also incorporate mahogany, a treasured endangered crop by farmers.

Starting the seventh or eighth year, RTT lets the forest be thinned every three or four years. Farmers get this income.

The farmer can get as much money from culling forest timber as he can from raising cattle on the same land,” said Hintlian. “This has tremendous implications for the rainforest sustainability model,” said Hintlian. And the model is financially workable.”

Most corporations can become carbon neutral at a one-time cost of less than 1 percent of sales, Hintlian said. They spend that money in one year, then they’re carbon balanced for 25 years! Hintlian hopes this will be a model for the world.

A land full of contradictions, Costa Rica has plenty to manage to reach carbon neutrality. But if they reach their goal, it will surely touch the rest of the world.

Feature image courtesy of Dennis Tang

By Debra Atlas

As an environmental journalist, blogger, professional speaker and radio personality, Debra Atlas lights the way to let consumers discover exciting, useful green products that won’t make their checkbooks implode. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, she is a frequent contributor to environmentally focused publications and conferences.