Costa Rica: a green paradise with budgets in red | Climate and Environment

Botos lagoon surrounded by vegetation next to the Poas volcano, in Costa Rica.
Botos lagoon surrounded by vegetation next to the Poas volcano, in Costa Rica.DEA / G. COZZI (De Agostini via Getty Images)

Domingo Agüero went in the middle of the 20th century to “conquer the mountains” on the southern edge of the Central Valley of Costa Rica, in virgin forests that connected with the Pacific coast of the Central American country. Settled on these lands, he managed to title them in his name and there he cut a piece to develop livestock and small-scale agriculture with which to raise his large family, but long before he died (2018) he understood that the value of those 52 hectares was older with his forest, says his daughter Mercedes.

Their children inherited the conservationist spirit, planted timber species that were never exploited and saw how nature knew how to unite the secondary forest with a portion of virgin forest. They recently managed to film dozens of wild animals in areas where previously only cows or horses passed. That is why they want to maintain the forest and for this they have received a subsidy from the State since 2012 that does not reach 1,500 dollars a year, an almost symbolic amount that, at least, recognizes the environmental value of territories of a biological corridor called El paso de las lapas.

The problem is that they do not know what will happen in 2022, when the contracts expire, because they know that the State has serious financial difficulties to maintain the subsidies and a part of the family believes it is fair to exploit the farm to get some profit. They are the dilemmas they talk about when they meet at the family’s house, in Las Esperanza de Carara, Turrubares municipality, two hours from San José, where a Carara National park of special value begins because it is a transition between dry and humid forests. .

The Agüero family’s concern is not unfounded. It is the reality that hundreds of owners are already living, who until last year were beneficiaries of a state program called Payment for Environmental Services (PSA) developed in the 90s to stimulate conservation or the generation of sustainable agricultural production in farmers and indigenous communities. Those resources of the National Forest Financing Fund (Fonafifo) have been reduced due to the effects of the financial crisis in Costa Rica aggravated by the pandemic and due to the fall in income from a fuel tax, given the decrease in the circulation of vehicles during 2020.

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The government has stuck to a spending cap to meet financial goals, and nature has paid part of the bill. The priorities in the opposition groups that dominate the Legislative Assembly do not seem to be aligned with green policies either, and rather cut part of the spending plan proposed by the Executive for the year 2022, the last of the four-year term of President Carlos Alvarado. With the equivalent of 90 million dollars in the next annual budget, the acclaimed Central American nation faces the continuity of its conservationist task, without being the one that dedicates the most to it. Comparative data from 2018 from the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) indicate that the Costa Rican state dedicates 0.11% of its GDP to environmental spending, below Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama.

The budgetary limits for environmental management now reflect a trend that was already seen as worrying, and the effects are being felt on the ground. A report by the State of the Nation research center indicated that in 2020, 15,240 fewer hectares were contracted with the PSA program than in 2019, a reduction of 30%. This year many were left out, according to Michael Antonio Porras, regional head of Fonafifo in the Caribbean region, who said that there were 218 applications and only 30 were approved, 14%. “You can’t like this without money,” he lamented.

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One of the farmers who were left out, Juan Bautista Chaves, has 124 hectares in the Sarapiquí municipality with precious wood trees in the middle of the humid forest of the area. “If that continues, we will have to think about buying a good saw, although I don’t want that either. Let’s wait, ”he said after noting that he received just over $ 5,500 per year and almost everything goes to paying a caregiver.

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By 2022, the Ministry of the Environment (Minae) foresees a new 25% decrease, although circumstances have forced the Government to pass its hat around the world and managed to raise money to create a similar program and multiply by three the area covered by mechanisms payment of emission mitigation services.

“We have insisted that this is a global service and some avenues of access to international funds have been found, but with our money there is little that can be done. We are in a super complex situation and we have to reinvent ourselves, ”Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment, Andrea Meza, told EL PAÍS about the solutions still pending.

In the year of the pandemic, one of the lowest coverage figures recorded since 1997 in the PES was achieved, when the program was created that helped lower the logging rate from 7,000 hectares per year to 1,000, and that two decades later it has been recognized internationally as an example in the design of conservation policies.

The last award was given in October by the British Royal Foundation, awarding the Eartshot Prize to Costa Rica for that same program that is now in decline. The endowment, of almost 1.2 million euros, will be used by Costa Rica to promote the conservation of marine areas, while seeking more international financial formats to support the preservation of forests and ensure that the country maintains 52% of forest coverage in its territory, although almost half is protected and only one in 10 hectares is included in the PES.

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“In the field of environmental management, there is evidence of erosion in institutional capacities, which threatens to undermine the achievements in conservation and biodiversity and increase the problems to properly and sustainably manage ecosystems”, indicates the independent report State of the Nación 2021, after noting that the specific budget for protected areas fell 36% in 2021 and that the Ministry of the Environment received 24% less than in 2020.

Minister Meza acknowledged that there is a tension over funds, since the country’s social needs have increased and a dilemma seems to be brewing between serving the needy population or sustaining environmental programs. “What we are saying is that we must align policies in an intelligent way towards a green economy, because they are not exclusive tasks, but complementary,” said Meza. The clearest example is tourism, an iconic activity that, with nature as a magnet, represented almost 8% of the Gross Domestic Product before the pandemic and generated 10% of jobs.

The problem is that in 2020 the tourism industry fell almost 70% and has been slow to recover in 2021, which affects the income from entering National Parks and adds to the fall in the collection of the “dirty tax” (on the petroleum-derived fuels) that finances PES. The pandemic lessons have made the authorities rethink the tourism model and also the sustainability of conservation programs, given the high dependence on the consumption tax on polluting fuels.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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