On a recent trip to Costa Rica, a local tour guide gave us an overview of the country’s history, culture and industry. During his presentation, a major themed appeared: Costa Rica’s culture and economy is inextricably linked to the health of its natural environment.

Seems pretty obvious, right? After all, it’s top industries – tourism and agriculture – rely on thriving natural ecosystems. However, according to an United Nations University article, between 1940 and 1983, Costa Rica’s forests went from covering 75% of the country to 26%, due in part to ranchers clearing land to sell beef to the United States. At its peak, deforestation was claiming 50,000 hectares per year.

The turn around

In the 1980’s, Costa Rica had a “come to Jesus” moment. The government enacted a “combination of ethics, environmentalism and effective policy-making.” First, it began by restructuring its debt and so it could bolster existing environmental conservation efforts. Between 1989 and 1994, deforestation decreased from 22,000 hectares per year to 4,000. In 1994, Costa Rica amended its constitution to include right of every person “to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment.”

In the 1990’s, Costa Rica implement Forestry Law 7575, payments for environmental services (PES), and the National Forestry Fund to establish policies and incentives to protect its forests. From 1996-2011, the National Forestry Fund payed US$230 to land-owning entities – including indigenous communities and individuals – and directly created 18,000 jobs.

It also established Maritime Zones: a 200 meter wide strip from the high-tide along all coasts. The first 50 meters from the ocean is public property and can’t be owned or built upon. The next 150 meters is concession property that can be leased from the Costa Rican government upon approval. What does this mean? It means Costa Rica’s coastal ecosystems aren’t sold out for miles of resorts and beach houses.

Sandy beach in costa rica
Costa Rica’s Maritime Zone protects the first 200 meters of coastline from private construction, allowing native flora and fauna to flourish. Photo by the author.

Ambassador to Japan, Cedeño Molinari, summed up the country’s environmental mindset like this:

“One hundred percent of all the inputs and all the raw materials for all industrial and economic processes to produce all the products and services that we use come from the environment. One hundred percent. It’s not a fraction; it’s all of them.”

Ambassador Cedeño Molinari

Costa Rica’s forest cover is above 50% and the country generates up to 99.99% of its energy from renewable sources. In fact, it actually exports renewable energy to neighboring countries.

Impacts on life

Costa Rica’s reforestation efforts benefited its ecosystems, turning it into a top eco-tourism destination and sanctuary for many species. It’s also impacted its human residents.

Recently, Costa Rica surpassed the United States in life expectancy despite its per capita GDP being a fraction of ours. Our tour guide credited the country’s abundance of fresh fruit and clean air. This ARS Technica article points to Costa Rica’s singular health insurance system and America’s higher smoking and obesity rates.

Graph of life expectancy for Costa Rica and USA
Screenshot source.

Using Costa Rica as an example

When will the United States have its “come to Jesus”moment? Will we ever stop giving oil and beef so much purchase, and the environment so little? When will American citizens be guaranteed the right “to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment?”

If there’s one thing to learn from Costa Rica, it’s that strong policy change can lead to economic and cultural change. Is the country perfect? No, not by a long shot. But, in the 1980’s, while American oil companies were burying studies that predicted climate change, Costa Rica made a call to prioritize the environment and is now reaping the benefits of a culture and economy centered on green policy.

With just under 5 million people, Costa Rica is logistically a better parallel for individual states than the United States as a whole. Coastal states might benefit from a Maritime Zone, while interior states might consider a payments for environmental services model to reward those keeping natural ecosystems intact. We could also follow their lead in using geothermal energy. If only there was an active super volcano smack-dab in the middle of the United States…

As a whole, Costa Rica can be seen as an example of form following function. Since taking an abrupt turn toward environmentalism 30 years ago, it proved that rejecting carbon costly industries like cattle ranching and fossil fuels doesn’t necessarily lead to an economic catastrophe. In fact, it led to innovation and investments in environmentally-friendly energy sources and industries. Meanwhile, it’s GDP per capita and life expectancy have steadily increased, and it’s ecosystems are returning to their dominant state.

Feature photo by the author.