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Former environment minister looks back (and ahead) at Costa Rica’s green road

October 2, 2019

Even with Costa Rica receiving the United Nations garland of the “Champion of the Earth” last week, the single person most responsible for the policies and the titanic effort that led to the honor acknowledges the country still has a way to go to fully live up to its reputation as a green leader.

Alvaro Umaña, 67, was the country’s first Minister of Environment under the first administration of former President Oscar Arias (1986-1990) during a tumultuous time as Costa Rica struggled to keep itself out of regional warfare.

Even though Arias’ priority was the peace plan for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, his government had the time and the resourcefulness to launch environmental policies which led to the consolidation of land conservation system that now serves as the engine of the county’s eco-tourism industry, which has become a pillar of Costa Rica’s national economy.

“I feel pretty good about what we did, but we have a long way to go; plastics, pesticide use, wastewater treatment, solid waste management to name a few,” Umaña told The Tico Times. “We did start the beach cleanup program 40 years ago, and I was happy to see that it has become a worldwide event yesterday (Sept. 22) for the first time.”

When Arias took office, Costa Rica, despite its having a lot of its land protected in national parks (an effort that began under the third presidency of José Figueres (1972 -1976)), had one of the highest deforestation rates in the Americas — including inside the parks, many of which only existed on paper and were riddled with private “inholdings.”

The fate of Costa Rica’s national parks was very much up in the air. Conservation leaders said the country would be lucky to have national parks as islands of green in a sea of deforestation.

Homesteaders were encouraged through land-use changes to “improve” land by cutting down trees in the agricultural frontier.

The Arias government put into place a land-use change prohibition and began fomenting reforestation.

“A standing tree had very little value; you couldn’t use it as a guarantee for a loan like a cattle or a tractor,” said Umaña, who currently serves as senior fellow at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE).

So the government gave the tree value by providing credit for tree cuttings to use in reforestation, which later evolved into a program for Payment for Environmental Services in which landowners receive payments for leaving watersheds and wildlife-rich forests untouched — a program funded by a gas tax and international donations.

“We were trying to stop the deforestation and rebuild forests,” Umaña said.

Before Umaña took over as Minister of Environment and Energy — which replaced the Ministry of Energy and Mines — the reforestation system, such as it was, was limited to a thinly veiled tax evasion scheme which allowed companies and wealthy individuals to write off taxes by planting trees (any kind of trees) in denuded areas. The result was wide expanses of monocultural “forests” made up largely of rapidly growing and non-endemic eucalyptus trees.

“When you really look at it, it was a racket. Big companies could cut down trees and replace them with monocultures and collect the tax write off,” said Umaña, who holds a Ph.D in Environmental Engineering from Stanford.

A milestone in the conservation effort came in February of 1988, when Costa Rica hosted the International Union of the Conservation of Nature General Assembly and Great Britain’s Prince Phillip visited Costa Rica for two weeks, Umaña said.

In the wake of the meeting, Sweden and the Netherlands bought a total of $100 million of the face value of Costa Rica’s debt in a debt-for-nature swap.

Along with the $56 million in debt-for-nature swaps later awarded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Tropical Forestry Conservation Fund, Costa Rica has been able to fund its efforts to buy in-holdings in National Parks and in Payment for Environmental Services.

Now, not only have the parks thrived, but they have become part of a conservation system that includes public and private reserves that contain around a quarter of the country’s territory. And 51% of the country is covered with rain forest, up from a low of 21% in 1981.

And whereas before the parks were seen as luxury, Costa Ricans have grown to value them.

“Any taxi driver will tell you the connection with the parks and tourism,” Umaña said.

Costa Rica staked out a spot for itself in the global decarbonization effort with the Peace with Nature initiative under President Arias in his second administration.

In 2009, Umaña represented Central America in the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

“The (conference) was a disaster, but it was good for us,” because Costa Rica saw that it could promote Christiana Figueres (daughter of the former president) as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Umaña said.

“Christiana did an outstanding job crafting the (U.N. Convention on Climate Change, or the Paris Agreement),” Umaña said.

Also going for Costa Rica is the fact that it is virtually carbon-neutral in its energy generation system thanks to its many hydroelectric projects, its geothermal capacity and other renewable energy projects. But Costa Rica is falling far short in other areas, Umaña said.

“Transportation is a disaster. It’s almost all completely fossil fuels,” he said. “That’s about 50% of carbon emissions, and the agriculture sector leaves a very heavy carbon footprint, about 40% of carbon emissions.”

And despite the many plaudits earned by the country for its environmental record, Umaña acknowledges that transportation is not the only area which makes the country’s green reputation, as well deserved though it may it be, in some ways aspirational.

“We have one of the highest rates of pesticide use in the world still,” he said. Costa Rica also continues to have large growth in palm and pineapple plantations, which Umaña noted “are very environmentally destructive.”

“We really need to focus on our substantially reduced carbon footprint in agriculture,” he said. “Carbon-neutral coffee, for example.”

“Wastewater treatment is a complete disaster,” Umaña said. “We have two major watersheds, the Rio Grande de Tarcoles and the Reventazon River, which are basically open waste disposal sites.”

The country was the beneficiary of a 2% loan from Japan with which the country was able to give primary wastewater treatment to 30% of the central valley residents. Many Costa Rican homes are still served by septic tanks, and high-density construction, especially to the west of San José, will present challenges.

Umaña noted that solid waste disposal remains another area in which Costa Rica has work to do.

“We don’t have a national recycling program, it’s all voluntary,” he said.

Also, many forest reserves still have “in-holders” whom the government cannot pay and who cannot be kicked off their land.

The former minister said Costa Rica has a lot to be proud of but also a ways to go to live up to its green aspiration.

“We have a lot of green but we have a lot of brown blotches,” Umaña said. “Prizes are fine, but they shouldn’t distract us from the task at hand.”

But Umaña notes that despite the difficulties of the road ahead, few would have predicted tiny Costa Rica would be held out as a global environmental leader a generation ago.

“Central America was at war, and we were selling tourism,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the correct percentage of central valley residents with access to primary wastewater treatment. 

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