In December, the advocacy group Environmental Network Alliance hoped to bring green issues to the forefront of Costa Rica’s presidential debates by scheduling an environmental forum for candidates. Only two of 13 candidates – Luis Guillermo Solís and José María Villalta – showed up.
With a month to go for Costa Rica’s presidential runoff election between ruling National Liberation Party candidate Johnny Araya and Solís, of the Citizen Action Party, little seems to have changed.
“The fact that a country that claims to be an environmental leader has an election and the environment, climate change and conservation are not part of the debate is very troubling,” said Mónica Araya, director of Costa Rica Limpia, a new organization that hopes to raise environmental awareness in the political realm.
Alarmed by what the group describes as a lack of discussion on environmental issues, Costa Rica Limpia launched in January with a video calling for a president who would support a “clean” Costa Rica. The organization quickly gained momentum, pulling in more than 25,000 followers on Facebook.
Mónica Araya, who was a vice presidential candidate for Social Christian Unity Party candidate Rodolfo Hernández before he dropped out of the race, began by analyzing the candidates’ platforms. Then, focusing on 13 different areas, the Costa Rica Limpia team began publishing proposals by each of the top five candidates. In many cases, those candidates had not addressed the issues publicly or in their government proposals.
“One interaction that took us by surprise was Twitter,” Mónica Araya said. “We would post that a candidate did not have a public stance on an issue and then their campaign would respond with the party’s plan.”
Though Costa Rica Limpia has captured the attention of voters interested in the environment, with a few exceptions, the candidates still do not view the environment as a core campaigning issue, the group says. According to Jaime Ordoñez, director of the Central American Institute for Governance, this is similar to past elections.
“Costa Rican political parties are so traditional,” he said. “Fiscal issues, social security, infrastructure; these are things the parties know how to talk about and that have large constituencies. The environment is a new issue.”
According to Ordoñez, time and training are required to change the old model. While Costa Rica has no shortage of environmental groups, Costa Rica Limpia is one of few organizations geared towards politicizing green issues.
“I don’t see the environment becoming a topic of discussion in the next month,” Ordoñez said. “To change election themes you need frameworks and groups trained to create that narrative.”
While Solís and Johnny Araya continue to hammer on issues like corruption, social security and infrastructure, their plans on hot-button environmental issues like the looming 2021 carbon neutrality deadline remain nebulous.
“It is frustrating to watch as plans for carbon neutrality are failed to put into action,” said Leiner Vargas, from the National University’s International Center for Economic Policy for Sustainable Development. “I don’t see enough force behind this issue from the candidates. It isn’t an emphasis.”
Vargas led the transport carbon-reduction research team for Laura Chinchilla’s administration in 2012, and also works on candidate Johnny Araya’s economic team. He says that large parts of the plan have yet to be implemented, and he doubts it will be a priority with a new administration.
“Where are the journalists and groups asking the candidates these questions?” Vargas asked. “People are asking about whether the future president will pay to have cookies in their meetings instead of whether or not they plan to preserve the oceans.”
Vargas isn’t alone in pointing a finger at the media. Mónica Araya also says traditional media has failed to bring up the environment in debates and at press conferences. To counter this, Costa Rica Limpia is developing a media analysis project to look at 10 topics and to count the number of stories published about them in each of the main news outlets.
Costa Rica Limpia hopes that through these projects candidates not only will start to think about the importance of environmental campaigning, but also will begin to see links between the environment and the economy.
“In Costa Rica more than anywhere you can see the economic advantages conservation has with tourism and green jobs, so why are we talking about unemployment without also bringing up the environment?” Vargas asked. “This is just allowing politicians to kick the ball to the next administration.”
This week, PAC’s Solís did address the issue in a Facebook post, saying, “We have a beautiful country! Full of ecological, continental and marine wealth. For us, development should be founded on conservation, and the protection and sustainable management of natural resources.”
The post generated more than 1,500 likes in a few hours.
Still, green groups already are looking ahead to 2016 municipal elections, when they plan to bring up issues like recycling and trash management.
“I would say that the candidates lost a massive opportunity to make Costa Ricans fall in love with a vision focused on development, help and sustainability,” Mónica Araya said. “We do hope this is the last election that will be silent on these issues.”