(FINAL) Striving for Conservation: Natural Resource Management in Costa Rica

This topic submitted by Doug Mazeffa ( mazeffdp@miamioh.edu) at 4:54 PM on 5/13/04.

Our group prepares to leave Lighthouse Cave, San Salvador, Bahamas.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

I choose to look at the conservation practices of Costa Rica. This was not originally intended to be a critical piece, but after finding my sources, I was shocked to learn how many people have a problem with Costa Rica and its conservation methods. An outline of the talk will be as follows:

1. Introduction
A. Numerics about Costa Rica (possible comparison versus U.S.)
2. Chronology of environmental movement
3. First Criticism (Debt Erasure)
4. Second Criticism (Private Protected Areas and Small Size)
5. Third Criticsm (Island Biogeography)
6. Things that could change.
7. Things that can be learned from Costa Rica and its policies.
8. Conclusion

Striving for Conservation: Natural Resource Management in Costa Rica

In order to survive as a species, we must consume and alter parts of our environment to suit our needs. As our population increases, our consumption too must increase. Unfortunately the assets we need for survival are scarce (i.e. having a finite amount). Because our supplies are limited, we must carefully allocate and use what is available. Failure to manage resources can lead to economic and social ruin. Costa Rica is a paragon for conservation and natural resource regulation, but it also has many problems with its policies that need to be addressed.
Costa Rica is a relatively small country (19,730 mi2) with approximately three and a half million people. This breaks down to about one hundred and seventy three people per square mile. Compared to the United States’ seventy people per square mile, this is crowded. But the population density of Costa Rica is also somewhat misleading, since over twenty-five percent of its land is some sort of protected area. The land that is left is often more crowded than the statistic I have listed would lead one to believe. Costa Rica is also characterized by over fifty years of political stability and is a democracy. People in Costa Rica also enjoy a higher quality of life than in any other country in Central America. Costa Rica is not characterized as a third-world country and is succeeding economically while having environmental policies in place that Americans can only dream of. But in spite of being the poster child for environmentalism, Costa Rica and its policies have some problems.
The true environmental movement in Costa Rica started in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when Government intervention led to new conservation guidelines (Stonich). Implementing such policies required the help of other countries, including the United States. These other countries offered incentives such as erasing of debt, and trade agreements that would benefit Costa Rica. This is strangely ironic that the most polluting and environmentally unfriendly countries try to stiff-arm smaller more economically fragile countries into conservation. While the small countries do have a choice, it is certainly lucrative to them to take the offer. But why do the industrial nations of the world take such an interest in preserving nature in a far-off setting? The answer lies in economics.
For example, according to economics, all decisions made must be economically rational. Rational simply means that the action is in the decision-maker’s best interest (Smith). Essentially this means we never make a choice that hurts ourselves (this also assumes that we also have perfect information and know every outcome). The optimistic answer would be that the U.S. gives money because it cares about the environment and countries that are less fortunate than us. The good exchanged for the money would be the happy-feeling from giving. Economically, this would mean that the only reward for donating money would be the warm feeling inside when we go to sleep at night. I (and others) do not think this is the motivation for the U.S. (and the other countries). Instead, by giving money, the U.S. can pollute more (because we do care about the environment, just not here) and also utilize the resources in Costa Rica. When others question our conservation policy we can turn and say “yes, but look at all the money we gave other countries to help preserve their wilderness”. The money loaner can also make requests because of their generosity. For example, the two main exports of Costa Rica are coffee and bananas (Stonich). Most of these exports go to the larger countries that help support Costa Rica in their fight for nature. What people do not know is that these two crops are some of the more environmentally degrading crops produced. Any area that produces these crops is going to degrade soil and eventually not be able to sustain plant-life. This is one topic where Costa Rica has come under fire in recent years. For better sustainability, these crops cannot be produced, both in quantity and quality, in the ways they are today. Costa Rica is still being degraded too. In the last decade, Costa Rica has lost 5.2% of its woodland (Allen, 115). Over the same time period, the U.S. has lost only 2% of its woodland. Both of these numbers are unacceptable, but the ones in Costa Rica should be surprising. Also there has been an increase of farmland by 3.5% over the past decade. This means more land is being cleared for agriculture, one of the worst things that can happen for the environment. You cannot conserve biodiversity on a farm. Agriculture certainly has its importance to humanity (we need it to survive), but we have to realize each farm we put up, completely wipes out the previous area’s ecosystem. The tropical rainforest cannot be re-planted like a pine in the backyard. Also no other ecosystem can come close to housing as much diversity of life as the rain forest. This is why they should be protected and not turned into farms. If the industrial nations really cared, they would provide the crops and have Costa Rica protect the natural areas that still remain. At its current rate, it will not be long until Costa Rica is in as bad of shape as the U.S. and other industrial nations.
Another criticism of the policies in Costa Rica is the allowance of private protected areas. This means that anyone (with the proper funding) can turn their land into a nature preserve. This does not sound like a bad idea at all, but giving the Government no control leads to some issues. First of all, for a preserve, size does matter. In IES 431 we were taught that the smallest a preserve can be is one hundred square hectares (this data was for a temperate forest, so the number may be even larger for someplace as volatile as a rainforest). Any smaller size and the land does not offer enough in the way of resources to accommodate any significant number of species. This is certainly not a diminutive area and unfortunately many of the protected areas in Costa Rica are much smaller than this. So in theory, private protected areas are good, but in practice they are flawed. The focus should be instead on larger conservation regions rather than small scattered ones. This leads to the final criticism of Costa Rican policy, island biogeography.
As I stated earlier, larger protected areas are ideal. But, it also helps if they are connected in someway to each other. If they are separated by environmentally devastated land (as they are in Costa Rica), there is no conversion between nature and urbanized land. Many species require some sort of transitional land (i.e. deer needing plains and forest) as well as their normal habitat. Costa Rica does a great job of having protected land, but the maintenance and practicality of these plots is rather poor. Costa Rica is the home of twenty-six threatened animals and four hundred and fifty-six threatened plants (Allen, 92-96), so it is important that the preservation that takes place there is effective. There may be some solutions that could help Costa Rica and the rest of the world battle environmental problems.
The first solution is to preserve more land. This is easier said than done, but the more protected land, the better the health of the ecosystem. It may be too late in some places to conserve more land, but we have to protect what little is left. Another solution is to keep politics out. Countries should rely on themselves to conserve. Requiring handouts and then having to repay favors is no way to protect the environment. It may work in the short-run, but no long term stability can come from this. The most valuable solution may be to not get into these messes. We should not do things we will regret later. Hindsight is always twenty/twenty but foresight is more valuable. Action should not be taken until the risks are understood. We can also learn from our history and cultures.
While I have outlined many of the shortcomings of the Costa Rican environmental processes, I mean no disrespect. If all countries were as eco-friendly as Costa Rica, the world would be a better, healthier, and cleaner place. Costa Rica is still one of the most environmentally caring nations. Almost everyone can learn something from their policies. But, the point I am trying to get across is that they are by no means perfect. They still have their share of serious problems, many of which are escalating. Having room to improve is nothing to be ashamed of, and some changes can be good. I was shocked to learn that Costa Rica has some problems with their strategy for conservation, but they are facing in the right direction. I was always told that they were perfect conservationalists and we should strive to be like them. We should, but we cannot stop looking for the solution then. With a little hard work and some luck, we may be able to start moving forward in the battle to preserve.

Works Cited:

Allen, John. Student Atlas of Environmental Issues. Connecticut. McGraw Hill. 1997.

Campbell H, and Reece J. Biology. San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings. 2002.

Diamond, Jared. The Third Chimpanzee: the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York: Haper Perennial. 1992.

Hunt, E.K. History of Economic thought: A Critical Perspective. (This is all that is listed on this economic handout).

Smith, Adam. Economic Handout. Adam Smith and his ideas on Capitalism. From economic class.

Stonich, Susan. Journals of Political Ecology: Case Studies of History and Society (Vol. 6). University of California. 1999.

Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal, Why We are the Way We are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Vintage Books. 1994.

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