Environment in Costa Rica Essay

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Costa Rica is home to approximately four million people and covers 19,344 square miles (50,100 square kilometers). Its geographical smallness belies immense physical diversity; Pacific and Atlantic oceanic influences combine with three mountain ranges to support a wide variety of plant and animal life. Within the Costa Rican parks system, an estimated 500,000 to one million species of flora and fauna are protected, and Costa Rica is ranked as one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

Costa Rica is often seen as an anomaly in Central America. Politically, it has a long history of democracy and has enjoyed peace in a region plagued by civil wars, most recently in the 1980s and early 1990s. Following one short civil war in 1948, Costa Rica’s army was disbanded. Socially, Costa Rica has experimented with a welfare state. A social security system, labor code, and universal health care and education were all implemented in the 1940s. Economic restructuring in the 1990s and 2000s has entailed cuts to many social programs and resulted in some social unrest. In spite of these cuts, in 2003 Costa Rica ranked 47th on the United Nations human development index, highest in Central America and outranked only by three countries in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Economics and Environment

Economically, Costa Rica has facilitated economic growth via an export-oriented economy, centered traditionally on coffee and bananas, but dominated by tourism since the early 1990s. While Costa Rica experienced a debt crisis in the early 1980s, it recovered relatively quickly compared to other countries in the region. Low prices for coffee and bananas have continued to hurt the agricultural sector, but this has been offset to some extent by continued growth in tourism and recent and rapid growth in electronics manufacturing. Nevertheless, the government grapples with internal and external deficits and internal debt.

Environmentally, Costa Rica has cultivated a “green” image and it is recognized as a leader in the region for its extensive environmental laws. Twenty-eight environmental laws were passed between 1965-85, predating much of the international attention given to the environment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More recent laws include the 1995 Organic Law of the Environment and the 1998 Biodiversity Law. While such laws undoubtedly contribute to Costa Rica’s green image, the centerpiece is its extensive system of parks and protected areas. Costa Rica protects 23.4 percent of its land in 158 protected areas recognized under the various categories used by the World Conservation Union (IUCN); this is in great contrast to the 8.3 percent of land protected in Central America and the Caribbean and the 10.8 percent protected globally.

Critical Park System

The parks system is critical to the country’s tourism industry. Costa Rica began investing in tourism in the 1950s, when it established the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, declared tourism an industry, and offered incentives for investors. Since then, tourism to Costa Rica has grown consistently. The boom in tourism began in 1986 and international tourist arrivals grew at an average of 14 percent per year until 1994, with peak growth of 27 percent in 1992. In 1999, tourist arrivals surpassed one million for the first time, and growth has continued at an impressive rate (17 percent in 2004).

Political, social, and economic stability have played a role in the development of tourism, as all are attractive to tourist and investors alike. While these factors may have influenced growth rates initially, the global rise in popularity of ecotourism has undoubtedly played a major role since the late 1980s. Costa Rica has been described as the ecotourist destination and as ecotourism’s “poster child.” In the region, perhaps only Belize equals it as a perceived ecotourism hot spot.

The Costa Rican parks system is also used for bioprospecting. The Costa Rican National Institute of Biodiversity was formed in 1989 to manage emerging bioprospecting activities. One of the most publicized deals was made with U.S.-based pharmaceutical firm Merck and Co. in a series of three contracts from 1991-99. With these and other bioprospecting deals, a portion of research budgets and Costa Rica’s share of any royalties are directed to the national parks system. As with tourism, Costa Rica’s parks system combined with its political, social, and economic history to attract bioprospecting deals. For example, Merck acknowledges that, in choosing a partner for biodiversity prospecting, socioeconomic features of Costa Rica were as important in the choice as was the level of biodiversity and the parks system.

While central to both tourism and bioprospecting, Costa Rica’s parks system is not without problems. Environmentally, Costa Rica’s national parks system is juxtaposed with degradation outside of its boundaries, particularly through high levels of deforestation, one of the highest levels in the region. Deforestation has meant that Costa Rica’s protected areas often exist as isolated “islands.” A 1991 restructuring of the protected areas system by joining smaller separate areas together into larger Regional Conservation Units may have partly redressed the “island” problem. Some environmental problems have been caused by ecotourism itself; the parks system is generally recognized as overtaxed by high levels of tourist visitation, especially at some sites, and as understaffed and underfunded overall. Attempts by the national park agency to increase revenues derived from tourism (e.g., by raising entrance fees) have been resisted by the tourism industry, and the park system continues to rely partially on funding from a variety of external donors, including conservation organizations and bilateral and multilateral assistance agencies.

Socially, local support for protected areas has often been lacking. Resistance has been encountered throughout the park system’s history, from the establishment of the first national park in 1971. Four factors are generally identified as contributing to social tensions. First, protected areas have often been created without prior consultation with local people, who lose access to resources through parks creation. Second, compensation for lost land has often been inadequate, delayed, or nonexistent. Third, due to high population growth rates, high population density, and increased levels of private landownership, landless peasants have increasingly been forced to encroach on protected areas. Finally, restrictions on resource use in reserves work against small farmers, while major logging and hydroelectric schemes continue. Rather than attempt to overcome these limitations, the government appears to rely on nonenforcement to avoid or reduce tensions with local communities, and this, combined with financial constraints, means that some protected areas exist only on paper.

Both ecotourism and bioprospecting have the potential to increase local support for parks and protected areas, through providing employment and income opportunities. However, many government policies have promoted large-scale, foreign-owned tourism development, and there is evidence of high levels of leakage and low levels of local ownership at many ecotourism sites. Bioprospecting deals in Costa Rica and elsewhere have been critiqued as inequitable, with the majority of benefits accruing to pharmaceutical companies. Local employment (in positions as “parataxonimists”) is fairly minimal (only 30 people in the early 1990s), and there is the additional complication of how local knowledge is treated and valued; while parataxonimists are paid wages for their services, intellectual property rights to resultant products are ceded to pharmaceutical companies. Thus, as of yet, neither tourism nor bioprospecting appears to have met their full potential vis-a-vis benefiting local communities.


  1. Lisa M. Campbell, “Conservation Narratives in Costa Rica: Conflict and Co-existence,” Development and Change (v.33/1, 2002);
  2. Noel Castree, “Bioprospecting: From Theory to Practice (and Back Again),” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (v.28/1, 2003);
  3. Marc Edelman, Peasants against Globalization (Stanford University Press, 1999);
  4. Sterling Evans, The Green Republic: A Conservation History of Costa Rica (University of Texas Press, 1999);
  5. Luis Fournier, Desarrollo y Perspectivas del Movimiento Conservacionista Costarricense (University of Costa Rica, 1991);
  6. John Schelhas and Max J. Pfeffer, “Forest Values of National Park Neighbors in Costa Rica,” Human Organization (v.64/4), 2005).

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