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New Biodiversity Fund to Pay for Habitat Protection

Costa Rica is known for protecting its rainforests, but what about its small poisonous frogs, resplendent quetzals and other colorful little critters?

The country’s biodiversity is just as important as its rainforests, environmentalists say, and a new government initiative seeks to make protecting species like these a bigger priority in the grand scheme of environmental conservation.

The Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), together with the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), World Bank and World Conservation Union (IUCN) on Feb. 10 announced plans to create a biodiversity fund to compensate landowners who guarantee species like these an environment in which to survive and thrive.

Costa Rica’s variety of climates and positioning on the globe makes it a “hotspot” for biodiversity, according to a brochure given out at the inauguration. Though its land takes up only .001% of the planet’s surface, it is home to 6% of the world’s species.

“Historically, we have always focused on forests and not on (species) conservation,” Environment Minister Carlos Rodríguez said.

“With this vision we’re going to close a great abyss. The biodiversity fund is fundamental to continue protecting the environment.”

The idea is to attract national and foreign “donating investors” to create a fund and allow it to grow over the next five years, explained FONAFIFO Manager Alberto García.

Though “investors” will not earn any interest or other economic benefit, they can still think of their contribution as an investment in their public image and a way to fulfill their social responsibility toward the environment, García said.

After the first five years, interest earned by the fund will be used to pay landowners $50 per year per hectare to protect biodiversity by agreeing to certain responsibilities spelled out in a manual, including guaranteeing that their lands are protected, maintaining a certain amount of trees and preventing against forest fires.

During this five-year period, the biodiversity fund hopes to gain $4 million each year in donations, which will hopefully earn 5% interest, Ulate said. The World Bank has promised to contribute $7.5 million if the country raises that amount in five years.

With these earnings, the fund could add 10,000 hectares of protected land per year and reach 120,000 hectares over a 16-year period, according to projections.

Paying private landowners to protect biodiversity is a way to expand the amount of protected national territory while giving landowners a profitable alternative to agricultural practices that could harm the environment, Ulate said.

“There’s always the risk that when we don’t have control over territories and can’t enforce restrictions, we put the land in danger of income-generating practices that are harmful, such as pineapple farming in the Northern zone,” said MINAE advisor Ricardo Ulate.

The biodiversity fund will be administered by its own foundation, but the National Fund for Financing of Forests (FONAFIFO) will help manage it to lessen administrative costs. FONAFIFO is the division of MINAE that manages the payments for environmental services (PSE) program, which compensates landowners who agree to protect forestlands or contribute to reforestation efforts.

The biodiversity fund will be modeled after the PSE program, which has been successful since it was established 10 years ago, Rodriguez said. Through PSE, $110 million were raised from 1997-2004 to protect more than 450,000 hectares of forests, according to a FONAFIFO brochure, and from 1997 to 2000, Costa Rica’s forestlands grew from 42% of the overall territory to 47%.

Grethel Aguilar, Director of IUCN’s regional Mesoamerican office, agreed Costa Rica’s success in protecting forests should carry over to biodiversity.

“What Costa Rica has done with PSE is something to share with the world,” Aguilar said. “And with new demands and initiatives, such as the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), it’s necessary to make sure we take care of other natural resources.”

Protecting species is not only important to the country’s environment, but also to its economy, said Tourism Ministry advisor Flora Ayub.

“Costa Rica is currently one of the most attractive places in the world for tourism, and our variety of nature is one of the main reasons tourists come here,” Ayub said.

Plans to attract foreign and national donors for the biodiversity fund are well under way, Ulate said. MINAE is planning a conference for March 22-23 to invite potential international donors, including foreign governments and nonprofits such as The Nature Conservancy.

Several Costa Rican companies have already expressed interest in providing funds, including Florida Ice & Farm, Holcim and the Barceló hotel chain, Ulate said.



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