Some of our happy group at Lighthouse Cave, San Salvador, Bahamas.
Costa Rica is widely known as the Switzerland of Latin America, with her relative political stability, high literacy rate, and lack of military emphasis. Costa Rica’s democratically elected presidential families have always generally supported conservation efforts, building up a global reputation for active protection of biodiversity. As a result of these efforts, 11% of the country’s total land area has been protected under National Park status, and another 16% is protected as forest reserves and buffer zones . Protected area categories include National Parks, National Reserves, Biological Reserves, Natural Refuges, Wildlife Refuges, Marine Sanctuaries, and Conservation Areas. This push for conservation started as early as 1775, when the Spanish governor restricted controlled burning to protect the forests and soil fertility. Similar declarations for forest preservation and sustainable hunting came in the mid-1800’s . Laws were passed in 1969 and 1977 to control deforestation and promote reforestation, but these measures failed to adequately control the problem, and a state of emergency was declared in the 1980’s . Land continued to be cleared for banana plantations and operations, as well as to support the major rise in cattle production. Deforestation persisted, scarring the Costa Rican landscape, and getting individual attention in the government and internationally.
Wildlands, wildlife and forestry were managed by three separate agencies under the Ministry of the Environment, which hindered effective decision-making and implementation with excess bureaucracy. In 1995 the three areas were combined under the Costa Rican National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), a technical organization designed to streamline decision-making and eliminate destructive inter-jurisdictional conflict. SINAC was a separate entity from the Ministry of the Environment so was able to avoid getting caught up in outdated policy approaches; its objectives and projects more closely resemble community-based conservation than those the government agencies did.
Indigenous populations have been viewed as both the cause and the victim with regards to deforestation and other environmental problems, depending on perspective of the observer. Their practices have been blamed for environmental degradation by some, and held up as models for sustainable living by others. Both are accurate depictions of the widely varying farming and ranching practices in Costa Rica, which further complicates any conservation approach undertaken. While the indigenous farming practices are usually more sustainable the any conventional techniques, other forms of subsistence found their way into indigenous culture over the years. Today, indigenous peoples in Costa Rica are sabaneros (cattle ranchers), peasant farmers, loggers, hunters, merchants, wage laborers, miners, and many times squatters on government land .
Conventional conservation is really an ancient concept. The first wildlife reserves date back thousands of years to the times of the Pharaohs, when hunting game populations became endangered. Modern conservation has evolved into a parks and recreation-focused endeavor, particularly in the United States; in the 19th and 20th century, wildlife and habitats were considered best protected by placing them under National Park or Wildlife Refuge status. While this worked rather well in parts of the U.S., there continue to be problems with conventional conservation even today. International application of these methods has proven to be even more problematic in nations with sizeable indigenous populations. Using conventional conservation, Costa Rica has successfully protected over 14,500 km2 of land from serious alteration by placing them under the control of the National Park System (created in 1970) and other conservation agencies. Yet deforestation has continued at an unprecedented rate in Costa Rica.
Though conventional conservation is a positive movement conceptually, and has had significant success protecting many natural areas, it has several serious flaws that have limited success in other areas. Under conventional conservation local populations are often restricted from practicing their community rituals on newly designated parkland, or even forced to completely relocate. This can be devastating to families that survived for generations on the land in question. An explanation of the importance of biodiversity and contiguous, undisturbed habitat for a flower or avian species is easily and understandably lost on someone who is being put off of land they depend on for survival. This explanation is soured further if it originates from a foreign, wealthy environmentalist, as is often the case with conventional conservation in lesser developed countries. Areas protected under conventional conservation in Costa Rica are also particularly susceptible to poachers. The local people that are restricted from the land without their involvement in the decision to ‘protect’ those lands often do not recognize the protected status as legitimate. They often continue to log for firewood, and farm and hunt for subsistence, and there have not been enough resources to adequately guard against this inevitable reality. Lastly, the lands protected are often small and disconnected, which drastically reduces the overall effectiveness of the conservation effort.
Community-based conservation first and foremost recognizes and respects the local population’s connection to the land. In some cases this connection is a dependency, as is the case for agricultural or ranching-based communities, and in other cases it is a cultural connection (land-based rituals and spiritual sites). This connection also presents unique challenges to effective conservation because governments, under international pressure to protect their natural systems for the good of the global population, seldom recognize indigenous rights (i.e. connection) to land and wildlife use. The community-based conservation approach requires striking a careful balance between human needs and natural system needs, or one or the other will be compromised. Community-based conservation in Costa Rica has taken the form of hiring local people to staff the national park offices and research centers, which includes enforcing poaching laws, maintaining the land, putting out fires, conducting controlled burns, and assisting with biological surveys. Community members also serve as liaisons between the predominantly foreign investors funding the conservation projects and the local communities, governments, and bureaucracies. By involving the local populations in the decisions to conserve ecosystems and empowering them to conduct and sustain the protective measures, the major opposition to conservation is softened and the risk of poaching is drastically reduced (since many of those who previously perpetrated much of the poaching are now the ones guarding against it). There are currently several community-based projects underway in Costa Rica, where community members are the target audience for outreach and education efforts, recruited for environmental employment opportunities, and approached about transitioning to more sustainable agricultural techniques.
Community-based conservation has not always been readily accepted throughout Costa Rican bureaucracy. Some agencies (usually based in urban areas) view employment and empowerment of local community members as base and ill-advised. Change is not accomplished quickly or easily in Costa Rican government, and sharing control over park land represents a significant shift in Park Service procedures . There is also a strong international agri-business presence in Costa Rica (mainly bananas and beef) that usually conflicts with conservation efforts that restrict land use.
Despite its challenges, community-based conservation makes sense for much of Costa Rica, with her previously (and perhaps still) substantial population of ‘precaristas’, or squatters. Conventional methods have failed to control much of the deforestation taking place in the country, while community-based efforts have proven effective at harnessing the knowledge and skills of local populations that depend on healthy ecosystems in order to protect those same systems. Community-based conservation has begun to take hold in Costa Rica with the establishment of SINAC, whose goal is to eventually transfer much of the operations and decision-making to local community members, reducing the government’s role to assisting with facilitation and providing funding opportunities. The government and international conservation agencies are starting to realize that outsider-run, top-down approaches to conservation in Costa Rica are inadequate and poorly-received; and that involving and empowering the community immediately affected by conservation efforts is the only way to truly protect ecosystem health in Costa Rica.
Allen, William. Green Phoenix: Restoring the Tropical Forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. 2001.
Cruz, Miguel Soto. Washing Hands with Soil. Chapter 8 of Forests for the Future: Local Strategies for Forest Protection, Economic Welfare, and Social Justice. 1999.
Evans, Sterling. The Green Republic: a Conservation History of Costa Rica. 1999.
Robinson, John and Redford, Kent. Community-based Approaches to Wildlife Conservation in Neotropical Forests. Chapter 13 of Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation. 1994
Vaughan, Christopher. Managing Beyond the Borders: the Costa Rican National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC). Available at http://www.ramsar.org/about_costa_rica_sinac.htm. 1996.
Western, David and Wright, R. Michael. Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation. 1994.
1 Costa RicaLink. Parks / Zoos / Reserves. Available at http://www.costaricalink.com/eng/web/parks-eng.htm.
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