The image we have of Costa Rica today is that of a natural paradise full of national parks and protected areas. But it was not always like this. 50 years ago “Tico” (Costa Rican) forests disappeared at a rate of 50,000 hectares a year. The impulse of agriculture and livestock was devastating everything. The ecological conscience began, however, to appear in documentaries such as Agony of the Mountain (1973) in which they asked “Can we stop the massacre of our forests?”
Experience has shown that it could. Since the 1980s, Costa Rica has doubled its number of forests and today more than half of its territory is covered by a green blanket: forest area.
It was thanks to the expansion of national parks (there are more than 30 and dozens of protected areas) and the creation of innovative programs to also involve the private sector in conservation, in a country where most of the forests are private. All this occurred in parallel to a change in the production model, which went from being monopolized by livestock and agriculture to turning, among other sectors, for tourism.
One of the tools that was implemented in the 90s was the Environmental Payment for Service (PSA). Its name says it all. It basically consists of rewarding the owner of a farm for planting trees or for conserving them. Within these two large categories there are various modalities.
Harvest trees to save the forest
Rodolfo Salazar, for example, inherited from his father a farm in which 70 percent of the land was forest. The older generation would not have had any doubts about what to do: “Cut down the trees and plant crops.” However, planted in front of a Ceiba tree with an immeasurable diameter and 30 meters high, he admits that he could not cut down such a specimen.
The solution came to him with a forest management plan, one of the options offered by the Costa Rican government. Based on the principle that what the forest grows can be cut down, they studied their regenerative capacity, counted all the specimens over 50 centimeters in diameter and concluded that they could cut down 5 trees per hectare. After 15 years, a new assessment of the forest would be made and a certain number of trees could be “harvested” again. In the meantime, he receives money to conserve the rest, for the environmental services rendered.
“Not only does the owner win, the whole planet also wins”
“Not only the owner wins, the whole planet also wins” summarizes Gilber Solano, who acts as a forestry agent, supervising on behalf of the state a hundred of these projects in the department of San Carlos, in the north of the country.
Looking at the dense vegetation of the Salazar family’s forest, which barely allows the sun’s rays to enter, no one would say that ten years ago they cut down dozens of large trees. “The day after the felling, there were large clearings, but in a matter of months everything began to be covered with vegetation and the trees that were smaller began to grow more quickly” says Rodolfo.
Gilber also explains it. “The dynamics of the forest starts from a clearing. Controlled logging reactivates it and makes it more efficient in terms of oxygen release and carbon sequestration.”
New business opportunities
The extracted wood also opened up new business opportunities for the Salazars. They started with a sawmill, then they used the sawdust to grow ornamental plants and now they are starting to make furniture.
Something similar happened with José Luis Rodríguez, a former rancher turned into an enthusiastic reforester. Where his cows used to graze, he has planted various species of timber trees. The last ones, made of teak. He had to let them grow for 15 or 20 years and in return received his payment for environmental services. The deadline has already passed, you could cut them down and extract the wood because no one is going to pay you to keep them. But it will not do. He cut off a part and didn’t like the result. “It generates a lot of destruction, look how this has been” he says in front of a completely bare piece of land. And he adds: “There was a family of congos (monkeys) and they left with the noise of the logging and that saddens me.”
Instead of taking economic advantage of the wood, he has decided to take advantage of the shade of the trees to put vanilla and cocoa. “Does the program work? – he wonders – I say. In my case, yes. I see trees everywhere, I see biodiversity everywhere. And the change, that I no longer like to cut down.”
Preserve, state policy
Conservation is a state policy in Costa Rica and the Payment for Environmental Services has been maintained throughout the last decades, no matter who governs.
Recently, the country received the Earthshot Prize, awarded by the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, and which is endowed with 1.3 million dollars, for this reforestation program that Costa Rica now wants to transfer to the sea. Over the years, the PSA has enjoyed fairly stable funding, which comes in part from a tax on hydrocarbons.
“At first people were reluctant to join the program, they continued to see the forest as a potential land for crops, but over the years the demand has increased and today we can only meet 20 percent of the requests we receive” says Arnulfo Sánchez responsible for the Costa Rican Forest Financing Fund (Fonafifo) in San Carlos.
Financial difficulties have also worsened in recent years. The country is going through a serious fiscal crisis that has forced funds to be diverted to other items and with the pandemic, fuel tax collection has collapsed. Arnulfo assumes that next year will also be difficult for the budget. “Right now we can only maintain current contracts. We are not incorporating any new ones, or renewing those that have expired.”
It is urgent, according to Arnulfo, to find new ways of financing that guarantee the sustainability of the program. There are owners who are already telling them that if they are not paid to conserve it, they will have to go back to looking for other uses for the forest. There is a serious risk of pushback. In the last 30 years, Costa Rica doubled its number of forests. In the previous 30 he was on the verge of ending them. “How?” That 1970s documentary wondered: Will Costa Rica once again stop the massacre of its forests?