It’s been a long time since I’ve been outside the country. In high school I did a school trip to Mexico to see various archaeological sites. Between college and my first round of grad school, I did a six-week visit to Europe. Half of it was spent visiting a friend and traveling in Germany, and the other half on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” trips. It was exhausting but I did see a lot.
For one of my journalism jobs I attended a conference in Windsor, Canada, and later I visited my brother who was working at McGill University in Montreal. I don’t really count Canada as leaving the country, but at least you need a passport.
Now that I’m in a degree-seeking program at Ohio State, I decided to look at study abroad opportunities. Because of my job I needed something short term, and I wanted something related to the environment. So I picked a spring break service learning trip to Costa Rica, to find out more about what makes this country a leader in sustainability.
Here are some points about Costa Rica’s environmental policy:
- Almost 30% of land in Costa Rica is in protected reserves, and the country produces more than 90% of its electricity through renewables such as hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The government has long provided cash incentives for reforestation and sustainable timber projects. As a result, forest cover grew from 21% in 1987 to 52% in 2005. (source pdf)
- In 1997 Costa Rica passed a carbon tax of 3.5% (pdf) on all hydrocarbon fossil fuels. It was one of the first countries to pass such a tax. The revenue goes toward the Payment for Environmental Services program, which offers incentives for property owners to practice sustainable development and conservation.
- In 2009 Costa Rica set a goal of being the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021, though that has now been extended to 2025. The plan is to promote biofuels, hybrid vehicles and clean energy, and to offer a carbon-neutral label through which industry and tourists can pay $10 a ton to offset emissions. The money would be used to fund conservation, reforestation and research in protected areas. I would definitely pay this for my flight there and back and my time in the country.
One interesting thing about Costa Rica is its Biodiversity Law. The country is considered one of the Top 20 in the world for biodiversity. It has more than 500,000 species, or almost 4% of species estimated worldwide. Part of what makes this possible is its array of ecosystems from coasts to rainforests to mountains. The other part is the legal framework.
The Biodiversity Law passed in 1998 set up the National Commission for Biodiversity Management (CONAGEBIO), which works with the National System of 11 Conservation Areas to administer the country’s natural resources. The National Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity was created in 1999 to guide this management through a highly participatory process on the local and national levels.
One issue that has come up repeatedly is intellectual property rights. International pharmaceutical and seed corporations want to come in and collect samples of Costa Rica’s biodiversity to use in drugs or crops that they can patent and sell. Without property rights, they can’t make money, which is what they say allows them to develop and distribute these products.
Costa Rica’s Biodiversity Law, however, gives communities control over this intellectual property. Communities don’t want to give up this knowledge to international corporations because then they feel they have lost control of the resource for very little compensation. They think intellectual property rights don’t need to be granted for commercialization to take place.
However, this runs up against the WTO agreement which Costa Rica signed, which does allow corporations from other countries to take its biological resources. It’s hard to see how this conflict can be resolved to the satisfaction of all.
A final point about Costa Rica: It has no standing army. The military was abolished in 1948. For a country that sits next to some places with pretty high levels of violence (Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala), that seems like an odd choice. But Costa Rica hasn’t had a coup since, and it has spent the “peace dividend” on education and the environment.
The country does have a pretty strong police force, which it needs to deal with a drug trade moving north from South America. It also has an ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua. But its spending on national defense is zero.
Maybe all of this – biodiversity, environment, and education – is why Costa Rica was recently named the happiest place on earth.