The Hot Topic: How can a country be rapidly developing and sustainable? Ask Costa Rica!
Costa Rica has built a sustainable template that even the poorer nations in the world could adopt to be sustainable. The big sweeping changes that took Costa Rica to sustainability is something the rest of the world should look to.
In Costa Rica, instead of hello, they say ‘Pura Vida’, which translates to pure life. Pura Vida when said as a question, is asking if everything is going well, and the answer too can be Pura Vida. Why not? For Costa Rica, a lot is going well.
In discussions about climate change, certain nations tend to stand out for their focus on renewables, recycling, and citizens’ engagement and awareness: Scandinavian nations often come out on top, and Greta Thunberg’s rise as a climate activist has done a lot for people to associate climate activism as an interest of rich and developed countries, who can focus on these issues, now that their other needs have been fulfilled. In the climate narrative, countries like India, China, and Brazil are often advised caution as they seek to develop themselves, to not exploit resources in the same reckless manner that the developed countries did in order to build their economy. In this context, I heard of Costa Rica, and how maybe we need to start looking at countries that are ‘appropriately developed’. The vagueness of this term apart, it’s worth looking at Costa Rica as a country from which the rest of the world can learn.
Costa Rica is a small country in Central America that suffered, much like the rest of the world, from the greed of developed countries. While at one point eighty per cent of Costa Rica was covered in forest land, by the eighties, the number was down to twenty per cent, as much of the area was deforested for the purposes of agriculture and the farming of livestock. The US extended aids to Costa Rica to feed the Americans’ growing appetite for meat. Then, it had one of the highest per unit area deforestation rates in the world. Significantly, Costa Rica faced the same challenges that many recently independent nations of the twentieth century faced: that of developing itself within the forces of the Cold War that gripped the world.
In the last three decades, however, Costa Rica has tripled its GDP. It has a 97.8% literacy rate, with universal public education guaranteed in the constitution. Its healthcare system is ranked higher than that of the United States, and the country enjoys a high life expectancy. The nation records a higher well being than many richer countries, and it has easy access to potable water. The New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index ranks Costa Rica number one - the happiest country in the world, taking into account three variables of how happy its citizens are, how long they live, and their ecological footprint. And there’s the answer: Costa Rica has shown that development in the industrial world is possible without destroying the environment.
In 2019, Costa Rica won the UN’s highest environmental honour, the Champions of the Earth award. ‘Sustainability is not a practice in Costa Rica, it’s a way of life, is how Visit Costa Rica describes itself.’ And it needs to be that way: the country is home to five per cent of the Earth’s biodiversity, surrounded by forests, water bodies, and lush nature that we typically imagine of Central America. How in the world does this tiny nation achieve that? Because, unlike say Finland or Sweden, it doesn’t have the force of the European Union behind it; nor does it have the resources at hand, unlike bigger countries like India and China.
Costa Rica produces 93% of its energy using renewables, and in 2017, the entire country ran 300 straight days solely on renewables. From June 2014 to June 2018, only 1.47% of its energy was derived from fossil fuels. The aim is to achieve 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2030. By 2021, Costa Rica hopes to be the first carbon-neutral country in the world. Thirty per cent of the land in Costa Rica is under protected territory for conservation. The most important thing for Costa Ricans was to first reforest their land, and for that, they developed multiple programs, the most significant one being PES - the Payment for Ecosystem Services. The PES introduces a series of measures that compels people to pay for the natural resources they use as Gas Tax. A fuel tax was imposed, and the revenue was used to kickstart this program. Small landowners were given incentives to help reforest the country, in the sense that they were encouraged to adopt sustainable practices that will enable them to glean benefits, as well as being allowed to sell services that forests provide. Deforestation was banned, and an institution called Fonafifo was created to broker these deals. Hunting was banned as well, and the result was that, in a few years, Costa Rica’s forest cover is back up to 60%.
Sustainable tourism, while still an abstract and scattered idea in most of the world, is a moneymaking commodity in Costa Rica. The CST, which is the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism, is awarded to businesses to motivate them to choose more sustainable practices. Eco lodges, which are accommodations designed in a way to minimize their impact on the environment, are popular across the country - they use solar panels, composting pits, and other such practices to remain at one with nature. Costa Rica will also be banning all single-use plastic by the year 2021.
It is worth considering how Costa Rica was able to build a sustainable template that even the poorer nations in the world could adopt to be sustainable. Symbiotic, strong partnerships between different institutions, and a nationwide strong concern for the environment has helped bring about these big sweeping changes in Costa Rica, which is something the rest of the world would do well to remember as they shift the blame onto each other for the deteriorating state of the climate. For Pura Vida doesn’t always have to have an environmental cost, and when it’s sustainable, it lasts longer and feels sweeter. Just ask Costa Rica.