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Rooting for Costa Rica's megaparks.

OPTIMISTIC THAT THEY would find gold, the Spaniards gave the name Costa Rica (rich coast) to a section of the narrowing isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. They were wrong about the gold, but they did pick an appropriate name for this lush Central American country.

Costa Rica contains an extraordinary range of ecosystems with an abundance of plant and animal species. The country boasts more species of birds than Canada and the United States combined and more types of butterflies than the entire African continent. It is home to 208 species of mammals, 160 species of amphibians, 200 species of reptiles, 130 species of freshwater fish, and over 35,000 different kinds of insects. No wonder, then, that Costa Rica is one of the most popular places in the Americas for nature tourism, or "ecotourism" as it is often called.

The profusion of plant and animal life is due to the unique geological and natural history of the area. Islands massed together over time and formed the long volcanic range, or Cordillera Central, that runs down the middle of the country. As part of the land bridge linking North and South America, Costa Rica has plant and animal life found on both continents, as well as endemic species.. Tremendous variances in altitude and rainfall have been key factors in the formation of the country's 12 distinct ecological zones.

The mountains in the center of the country rise to 12,600 feet. Near the top are cloud forests, often shrounded in a veil of mist, where the most resplendent bird in the Americas, the quetzal, makes its nest. Progressing down the mountain are other habitats; towards the bottom are the well-known tropical rainforests with an average annual rainfall of 200 inches. Beautiful beaches of silky white or shmmering black sands stretch beyond the coastal rainforests and estuaries.

A worldwide leader in the area of conservation, Costa Rica has developed a system of protected areas and national parks unlike any other in existence. By the mid-1900s, most of the land suitable for agriculture in the central valley had been cleared and settlers began to expand up the mountain slopes. Legislation was passed early on to protect wildlife and limit expansion into certain areas. For example, an 1863 law required that a 2,800 foot belt along either side of a highway be left in its natural state, and, in 1913, portions of the summit, the crater and lake at Poas Volcan were protected. Although the term "national parks" was used in legal documents as early as 1945, it wasn't until 1970 that the first national parks were established and began to be formally managed.

By 1990, Costa Rica had established more than 230 different protected areas nationwide. The parks do much more than save wildlife--many preserve watersheds which are vital to Costa Rica's hydroelectric capacity and capture water needed for agriculture and urban areas. Other parks include areas of geological interest, such as volcanoes and thermal springs, and historical and archeological sites. Costa Rica has currently protected over one-quarter of its land area to some degree (the average area protected worldwide is only three percent). National parks and other strictly guarded areas, where activities are limited to scientific research and ecotourism, account for 12 percent of the country's territory. These "core" areas are often surrounded by "buffer zones" which include forest reserves, privately-owned wildlife refuges, and communually held Indian reserves.

Linking People with Parks

Throughout the world, simply declaring areas as parks affords them with little protection. And the situation in Costa Rica is no different. The parks are under serious and ever-increasing threats. In most cases, the challenges are from larage energy development companies, mining schemes, or peasant families who transform sections of the forest each year. Ninety-eight percent of the country was forested when the Spaniards first arrived; today, less than 20 percent remains forested. Each year approximately 148,000 acres are cleared to open up new lands for agriculture. The irony is that many of the trees cut and burned are worth far more than the three to five years worth of income they provide before the land becomes infertile.

Apart from destroying the wildlife inhabiting the forests, such high levels of clearing have other serious consequences. The economic losses to local people and to the country's national economy are the most significant. Cleared land often becomes infertile and soil runs off into rivers' clogging hydroelectric plants. While prices and demand for tropical hardwoods are increasing, Costa Rica, like many other countries, is losing what could amount to a significant source of foreign exchange as a result of land-clearing. Even worse, it is projected that in a matter of years the country will go from being a net wood exporter to get wood importer.

Gold mining posed one of the most dramatic threats to the protected areas. In the early 1980s the closure of a large banana company with extensive operations on Costa Rica's Pacific coast left many workers unemployed. Few of them were farmers and offers of agricultural jobs were unattractive. Dreaming of fast and easy money, several hundred people invaded Corcovado Park on the southwestern peninsula and began panning for gold in its virgin streambeds. For some time, both the National Park Service and the central government were unable to control the park. The conflict continued for five years until the police finally evicted nearly 800 miners and their families and a settlement was reached.

The gold panning process is extremely harmful to biologically sensitive areas. The process causes high levels of sedimentation in rivers. Furthermore, miners use mercury to separate the gold from the soil. Not only does the mercury seriously pollute the water supply, but it is harmful to the miners as well. The Corcovado incident led to a change in the philosophy of park management that has again put Costa Rica at the forefront of international conservation.

With the election of Oscar Arias as president, the administration adopted a new view of what was needed to make conservation "work". Two challenges were identified: slowing the nation-wide deforestation rate and linking parks and protected area management of the parks to the economic needs of local populations. Until then little had been done to develop ties between the 14 percent absolutely protected land and the buffer areas that were in private hands but also protected. The new administration felt that if local people received benefits from the park system, they would have a vested interest in managing and protecting those areas. In short, local people would become the forest guards, rather than being guarded from entering.

In 1987, the government proposed the creation of a "National System of Conservation Areas," known as SINAC. All of the core protected areas were merged with the buffer areas surrounding them into entities identified as ARCs--regional conservation areas. Nine of these areas, sometimes called "megaparks," were created throughout the country: Guanacaste, Arenal, Bajo Tempisque, Si-A-Paz, Cordillera Volcanica Central, Pacifico Central, La Amistad/Talamanca, Peninsula de Osa, and Parques Marinos. Each ARC is headed by a director who is responsible for both park management and community outreach. Together with local communities the ARCs work to define how ecologically and economically sustainable activities can be implemented.

The economic crisis of the 1980s left little money to improve the management of the vast protected area system. The conflict with the gold miners increased the need to protect other areas from potential invasions and drained scarce economic resources. The structural adjustment loan agreements which Costa Rica had negotiated with the International Monetary Fund lead to staff cutbacks. In short, there were fewer people and less money to slow deforestation and save the parks.

The most viable plan put forth for supporting the SINAC system was a debt for natrue swap. This innovative approach, originally conceived by Thomas Lovejoy, then executive director of the World Wildlife Fund, proposed that a country's debt could be purchased at a discounted value and redeemed for local currency which could be used for conservation programs. In 1987, a trust fund was created in Costa Rica by government and conservation group representatives to receive the local currency that would be generated through the swap. Later that year, the World Wildlife Fund agreed to require $3 million of debt, and the first debt for nature swap in Costa Rica was completed. Since then, nearly $14 million in grants and donations has been used to purchase over $90 million in debt titles and obtain close to $45 million in local currency. All of this money has gone directly into improving conservation throughout the country.

A reforestation fund has been set up with funds swapped by the Dutch, providing jobs to about 500 people. In some ARCs, land purchases have been made to expand parks and endowment funds set up to conduct environmental education programs and provide jobs to people living in the buffer zones.

Making Parks Pay

Tourism is the third most important source of foreign exchange for Costa Rica. It provides thousands of jobs not only in San Jose, but throughout the country. Virtually all tourists to the country visit at least one national park, and neary 40 percent visit primarily because of the wildlife. On an annual basis, the parks clearly have a payoff.

In addition to attracting tourists, the parks generate direct revenue as a magnet for scientists. One scientific research and tropical educational center, the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), represents a consortium of over 40 universities in the United States and Costa Rica. Each year, OTS brings over 30,000 person-days per year of visiting researchers and students. In one sense, it is one of the largest tourist agencies in the country.

Both Costa Rican and vising scholars generate a wealth of scientific information. However, until 1989, when the National Biodiversity Institute (INBIO) was created, no one had analyzed the information in terms of its usefulness for park management. INBIO is now collecting hundreds of species and studying their distribution and habitats with the aim of identifying and cataloguing all of the different life forms in Costa Rica. The organization hopes to train nearly 200 people in the process of collecting and providing preliminary identification of species. Beyond that, INBIO will investigate how these plans and animals can help society. Costa Rica's small size may make this task possible, although no other country has ever undertaken such an ambitious project.

The important of identifying new species, especially in the plant kingdom, cannot be underestimated. The rosy periwinkle, found about 30 years ago in Madagascar, has provided drugs that have helped four times as many children with leukemia survive. It has also supplied another important drug used to fight Hodgkin's disease. Sales of these drugs exceed $100 million annually. Currently interntional drug companies are working with INBIO to identify potential medicinal plants. If just one pharmaceutical company were to find a plant similar to the rosy periwinkle, a small annual percentage of gross sales would be enough to support the entire Costa Rican park system.

The Future Outlook

In a very real sense, Costa Rica is engaged in a race against time. While the conservation message is known throughout the country, the reality is that many poor people survive by clearing the forest and planting subsistence crops. Although the government is making an effort to grant titles, the bureaucracy is notoriously slow in most cases. This means that farmers have to "improve," or clear, their land in order to prove ownership and protect their plots against squatters. Other government policies have promoted cattle ranching, even though it is a poor use of large tracts of land that could be more intensively farmed.

Much of the discussion of linking local people to the parks through the ARC system is still rhetoric. Participation is often limited and decision-making still takes place in San Jose much of the time. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the deforestation rate has actually been slowed. But the vision set forth by the government and a cross section of leaders in document entitled the National Conservation Strategy makes it clear that Costa Rica is truly committed to linking the conservation of its natural resources to social and economic development for its citizenry.

Katrina Brandon, Ph.D., is a consultant to the Environment Department of the World Bank and Senior Fellow at the World Wildlife Fund. Alvaro Umana, Ph.D., is the former Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines in Costa Rica.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:system of protected areas and national parks
Author:Brandon, Katrina; Umana, Alvaro
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:2080
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