Costa Ricans elected their first female President, Laura Chinchilla, last week. This appointment can be added to the long list of Costa Rica’s accolades; the abolition of its standing army, free health care and education for all, its status as the happiest country on earth, and of course, its much lauded progressive environmental policies.
Costa Rica’s Constitution establishes that “Every person has the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment,” and reserves the right to denounce any infringing acts and collect monetary compensation. For a country rich in natural resources, Costa Rica has made good on this pledge to its citizens: The Pachero administration, citing reasons of environmental protection, opted to not exploit the rich oil deposits off its Atlantic Coast; the Constitutional Court upheld the cancellation of a multi-million gold mining permit with Canadian Vannessa Ventures on the basis of environmental degradation; and in 1999 a Costa Rican prosecutor sought damages against transnational corporation Geest Carribean for illegally logging more than 700 hectares of forest surrounding Tortuguero National Park – making it Costa Rica’s first formal attempt at quantifying the value of lost biodiversity.
Rather than relying on mineral extraction and timber trade, Costa Rica has since pursued tourism as its primary source of foreign investment. While large hotel chains do exist throughout the country, Costa Rica has become a forerunner in the ecotourism movement. I just returned to New York from a week’s stay in one such venture: a solar powered (more than 90% of Costa Rica’s energy is from renewables) bamboo bungalow, that used at most 55 watts of energy each night to run an energy efficient fridge, a couple of CFL bulbs, and a ceiling fan.
As impressive as these ventures are, there are always improvements to be made. Our bungalow for instance was equipped with two flush toilets, despite repeated requests to conserve water and reminders that we were visiting during the dry season. When asked why dry compost toilets weren’t installed, the resort’s owner promptly replied: “We’re Americans, and we flush our toilets.” I spent the majority of the trip floating in the crystal clear, perfectly warm ocean, receiving many warnings about the “live” nature (read: heightened bacteria levels) of the water and the ear infections that would surely ensue from all the monkeys and birds in the area. I couldn’t help but wonder if all the flush toilets, and the cattle pasture-lined coast had anything to do with this bacteria.
Though I could only speculate about the source of water pollution, one thing became abundantly clear as we started the seven hour drive back to San Jose along the coast: another important source of Costa Rica’s foreign capital is the selling of vast amounts of its land to foreigners. From gated monstrosities to more modest plots, For Sale signs in English followed us all the way back to San Jose. Though Costa Rica was the first country to develop payments for environmental services, providing monetary compensation to landowners for preserving forests or even reforesting, the fact remains that the compensation available for clearing and selling land is significantly higher. Under the current system of PSA or pagos por servicios ambientales, Costa Ricans receive $210 per hectare over a five year period to keep the trees on their land standing. The typical market price however, for a cleared plot of land is $15 800 per hectare. As demand for their spectacular land grows, Costa Ricans will continue to assess the value of their country’s rich biodiversity. In this country that is perhaps closest to an environmental utopia, it’s sobering to see that money still often, ultimately talks.