Costa Rica: Raising the Bar for Conservation

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 10, 2007

When traveling through Costa Rica it’s best to emulate the sloth. Take it slow, very slow. Costa Rica requires maceration, allowing time for her to soak into your pores. On a recent visit I received sage advice from my guide, Luis Diego Soto: “Close your eyes and listen.” Listen to the voices of the forests, mountains, rivers and the life within. Listen to the voices of the people.  

I listened to what they all were saying about Costa Rica’s stewardship of her natural resources. 

With over 27 percent of land protected and preserved, Costa Rica has raised the bar as a model for conservation. In land the size of West Virginia exist 12 life zones and 5 percent of the earth’s flora and fauna, making Costa Rica one of earth’s most bio-diverse areas. From beautiful rain forests, volcanic mountain ranges, misty cloud forests, jungle rivers to mangrove swamps and vaulting canopy trees, life thrives. 

In Coter Lake’s rain forest, the sounds are those of water, drop by drop, working its way down through tiers of foliage, and the whine of the giant cicada. Here the nutrient-rich soil layer is thin, requiring flora to grab a foothold wherever possible. Every square inch becomes a habitat, nothing is wasted. One guanacaste tree, the national tree of Costa Rica, teems with life—red bromeliads, Sobralia orchids, mosses, ferns, blue sky vines and massive termite nests. 

Another sound is the “capi, capi” of the Maleku, indigenous people who are the guardians of the forest. Through Soto they explain, “Outside we are the same, two eyes, two ears, two arms, two feet. What sets us apart? What we believe in our hearts and think in our minds.” Through their crafts, like the soothing rain cylinder and balsa animal masks, they work to preserve their forest. 

Government regulations have aided conservation. Protected land is surveyed and catalogued, plant by plant. Permission must be granted even for the removal of one tree. Within Costa Rica, one acre of forest traps five tons of carbon dioxide and releases the same in oxygen. As an incentive, the government buys oxygen credits from individuals maintaining forests on private land. Quotas for visitors have also been set in the more popular parks and on trails within the parks. 

Monte Verde Biological Preserve is a primary cloud forest of diverse terrain, under intense humidity. Winds sweep across this land of miradors: in English, passages of windswept uninterrupted green, where there are no signs of human habitation as far as the eye can see. Listening here yields the joyful calls of birds, a symphony of song. Sharp eyes and Soto’s spotting scope reveals the amazing quetzal, emerald toucanet, screech owl and black guan. Ears tuned to the cellular might hear the aerial roots of the strangler fig as it surrounds and embraces an unwary ficus, slowly sapping its life and creating a latticed tree-structure of its own. 

While 50 percent of the population still makes a living from agriculture, over 186 protected areas have made tourism Costa Rica’s number-one industry. This has resulted in thousands of jobs as guides, drivers and in the service industries, as well as a dramatic rise in the value of land. My driver one day, Oscar, related the story of a convert to ecology. “There was a man who didn’t care about conservation; he wanted to cut the trees down in the quetzal forest. Now he saves the trees and leads groups to see the quetzal.” 

Tourism has its down sides, as is often the case when money competes with the environment. Some areas, like Quepos, have been overdeveloped, resulting in wall-to-wall hotels and strains on the water supply. Before quotas were set, Manuel Antonio National Park was overrun with beach enthusiasts whose lack of eco-interest contributed to wildlife like the white-faced capuchin and squirrel monkey becoming habituated to human food. But it’s all a balancing act. As Soto remarked, “The money collected at Manuel Antonio helps support less popular parks.”  

In the mangrove swamp I hear the sound of water lapping against tree roots: trees preventing erosion, helping to transform wet land to dry, trees whose roots create nurseries for crustaceans and fish as they filter salt. As the boat slowly glides, I observe the red, white and black mangrove forests, one of the most productive for removing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. I watch ibis, ringed kingfishers, a northern tree boa and a tiny fur-ball, the silky anteater. Then I hear a plop, a mangrove pod hitting the water, sinking to the bottom, imbedding itself in the silt, ready to grow roots and begin the cycle of life once again. 

Costa Rica’s paradise is not perfect, but it’s a work in progress in the right direction. By abolishing her army in 1948, Costa Rica has been able to channel financial power to her people—30 percent to education and another 30 percent to health care. Literacy is at 93 percent. The government subsidizes education and provides tuition-free technical training; unemployment is very low. 

There are many voices speaking in Costa Rica; their sounds fill the air. The richness of the wildlife fills your eyes. This small country on the path of conservation can easily fill your heart.