Sustainability in Costa Rica

Sustainability in Costa Rica
By Jack Freeman

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica--A recent week-long siege of intermittent rain and
leaden skies, in what was supposed to be the sunny season in this tropical
vacation paradise, failed to dampen many people's spirits here.

The unseasonable rainfall was seen as a sign that the region's five-year
drought may finally be ending, although it was hardly an unmixed blessing.
The country's president had to declare a national emergency because violent
local storms spawned by the low-pressure system caused $100 million in crop
losses, destroyed 300 homes and claimed as many as eight lives.

A visitor driving through the Costa Rican countryside might question
whether there had ever been a drought here at all. Wherever one looks, the
plant life is green and luxuriant. In the mountains, where coffee
plantations cover hillsides stretching to the horizon, the red coffee beans
gleam like jewels against the bushes' glossy dark green foliage. And in the
lowlands, the trees hang heavy with bananas, oranges and coconuts.

Despite the drought, Costa Rican officials say the country has as much
water as it needs for irrigation and all other uses--except one: generating
hydro-electric power."We are using our reservoirs to the limit," Rene
Castro, Costa Rica's minister for natural resources, told The Earth Times.
"If the drought continues," he added, "we will have blackouts in 1996." He
explained that blackouts are already a problem in nearby Nicaragua and
Honduras.

But even though Costa Rican officials can be proud that their ability to
meet the demand for electricity outstrips that of their neighbours, they
realize that their efforts are still not good enough: Domestic demand for
electricity here has been growing at a rate of 7 to 9 percent per year.

The government, which controls the country's electric utility, ICE,
recently embarked on a program to cut that growth rate to 5 percent, using
a carrot-and-stick approach. The "stick" is a new schedule of higher rates
per kilowatt-hour of electricity; the "carrot" a schedule of cash
incentives to encourage consumers to switch to more efficient appliances
and light bulbs.

This action is part of an all-encompassing government program to make Costa
Rica what the country's president, Jose Maria Figueres, calls "a pilot
project for the attainment of sustainable development," using Agenda 21 as
a blueprint.

As Figueres describes it, the program has four major components: investing
in social programs such as health and education; keeping what he calls
"good macro-economic balances"; constructing "a positive alliance with
nature," and insuring the participation of civil society on decision making
about development.

Figueres, who has been in office for only six months, is especially proud
of an initiative by his government to build low-cost housing for the poor
in a new way that makes the natural environment part of the urban
environment. It's called "bosque urbano," or urban forest, and plans
already on the drawing board call for it to shape the construction of
almost 1,000 new family dwelling units.

Figueres says he believes that the paradigm of development--and yes, he
does use phrases like "paradigm of development"--must be shifted so that it
focuses not on economics but rather on people and families.

With the help of the UN Development Programme, Costa Rica has embarked on a
project to produce an annual "Sustainable Human Development Profile,"
designed to complement the UNDP's Human Development Index.

According to Castro, even though Costa Rica has a long history of investing
in education and health care, its new government (it came into power just
six months ago) has had to cope with a shortfall in investment caused by
structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank. One result of the
SAPs, Castro says, was an increase in the country's rate of infant
mortality.

Another effect, he says, was that many cattle ranchers were forced off
their land and had to turn to fishing to feed their families. That, in
turn, contributed to overfishing of the Gulf of Nicoya serious enough to
threaten its ecosystems.

Costa Rican agriculture--the base of the country's economy--has also had
its problems, even though the land is fertile and the farmers hard-working.
Castro says the country has been unable to sell as many bananas as it would
like, in part because of quotas imposed by the European Community.

Now, though, it is focusing its efforts on what Castro calls the "green
market niche." Among other things, that means promoting coffee grown by a
cooperative that contributes a portion of its sales--$1 per kilogram--to an
environmental fund to protect the tropical forest. It also means exporting
lean beef and leaves harvested from certain trees that are used to make
organic pesticides for control of nematodes.

Other agricultural cooperatives, assisted by Swedish experts, are
pioneering methods of growing a variety of crops that are less harmful to
the environment.

That effort ties in with programs throughout Costa Rica to promote
eco-tourism, to expand nature preserves and conservation areas--which
already account for 25 percent of the country's land area--and to plant new
forests covering 50,000 hectares, or roughly 125,000 acres, of pastureland.

Although Costa Rica is one of the smallest countries in the hemisphere, it
is home to about 5 percent of the world's species of flora and fauna: some
10,000 species of plants, 250 of mammals, 850 of birds and hundreds of
thousands of species of insects--including 15,000 species of butterfly.

As Castro sees it, the country's major environmental challenges are found
in its cities--such as garbage collection--but he says the government is
working on them as well.

"We are on a quest for sustainable development," he said, "and we recognize
that it's a long road. But we are willing to accept advice and involvement
from the international community in the effort, and we're not troubled by
jealousy or questions of sovereignty. We are proud and willing to receive
other people's help," he said.

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