Kat Sunlove, TheCostaRicaNews.com

In my last column I touched on the subject of the responsibility residents and visitors have in caring for the magnificent but fragile environment here in Costa Rica. In such a small nation, the importance of safeguarding the country through sustainable agricultural policies, reasonable restrictions on development, strong enforcement of laws against air and water pollution and broad educational efforts to encourage recycling of plastics, glass, aluminum and other household products can hardly be overstated. Such forward-looking approaches to growth and development can protect Costa Rica’s invaluable ecology and natural resources for years to come, allowing today’s children and their children to continue to enjoy the beauty and ecological diversity of their homeland.

Clean beaches attract visitors from around the world

As a former lobbyist and a long-time activist in progressive politics in California, I know from experience that environmentally sound policies face enormous challenges in moving through the legislative arena. The powerful voices of business interests anxious to exploit national assets and the large sums of money those groups dump into the coffers of willing politicians often overwhelm the modest resources of the environmental movement. As the old saying goes, It Ain’t Easy Being Green.

And yet, in a democracy changes in the law and in people’s behaviors often come through the political process.  Grassroots efforts can grow and expand and eventually speak with a voice loud enough for legislators to hear. Starting with just a few concerned people talking together, seeking solutions to problems they see, a movement can build and get the attention of voters. When those voters make their wishes known at the ballot box, in community forums, in letters to the editors of newspapers or in political protests, then policymakers listen.  Such a movement seems to be evolving in Costa Rica with several new initiatives, one expressly political, another type community based and still others with an entrepreneurial approach.

Here in the small town of Atenas, for example, a new recycling effort has been started, which, according to Alfonso Quiros V, the chief of operations, is resulting in tons of materials being saved from landfills. Through his company W. Recicladores, CR, S.A., Señor Guiros has recruited local volunteers to assist his small staff in collecting recyclables once a month at the Central Park. Based in Heredia, the company also picks up recyclables from Grecia two days per month. The rest of the time his company provides recycling services to a number of private companies in Costa Rica, such as DHL and Philip Morris. In business now for three years, Alfonso says he takes his work seriously and hopes soon to service other areas.

“We must educate our children about recycling,” he said with conviction. “It may take some time but it is very important that they learn about keeping our environment clean.”

Wildlife thrives in a clean environment

Another field of business that holds promise for helping clean up the environment is in the development of alternatives to pollution-generating fossil fuels. In Costa Rica, that challenge is being met in part by “green tech” investors in biofuels crops such as Jatropha, an indigenous non-edible feed stock that contains about 40% clean vegetable oil in its seeds. That oil can be used in combination with diesel fuel or jet fuel with little additional processing required. Historically used as fencing because the plant is toxic and unappetizing to animals, in recent years Jatropha oil has been successfully tested by several airlines, including Virgin and Continental, in a 50/50 combination with petroleum based fuel. According to Daniel Yepez, president of United Biofuels of America, a leading Jatropha development company, the plant offers small investors an environmentally friendly cash crop that can grow in marginal land, is actually good for the soil and, unlike other biofuel sources such as corn or sugar, is not a food crop so does not trade food for fuel.

Delicate jungle flowers, part of Costa Rica’s biodiversity

On the community front here in Costa Rica, local groups of neighbors, civic organizations or visiting students often get together to clean up rivers or beaches. Again to use Atenas as an example, my own landlady runs a Spanish language school, which attracts young people from the United States. As part of the program, students spend one morning picking up trash from a local stream. In the Heredia area, a group known as Comité Bandera Azul Ecológica de San Miguel de Santo Domingo conducted a cleanup of the Rio Tibás earlier this year, pulling some 15 bags of plastic and other trash from the river and along the banks. They also noted that two sources of sewage, which they had reported to municipal authorities in previous years, were still discharging polluted water into the river. The organization said they would again report to local officials in hopes that the situation would be corrected. Last fall some 400 volunteers joined another nongovernmental recycling operation, Terra Nostra, in collecting solid waste from waterways around the country, including in Limón on the Caribbean coast, Ciudad Quesada in north central Costa Rica, Playa Hermosa on the northern Pacific Coast and Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. They also picked up trash and recyclables in the city of Liberia in Guanacaste.

Such projects are extremely valuable in the ongoing effort to clean up Costa Rica’s environment as well as to educate the public on the importance of ecological protections. But perhaps the most promising development in recent years is the creation of a political party dedicated to protecting the nation’s biodiversity and determined to bring the fight to the political arena. Formed in 2003 by reporter Carlos Arrieta and retired English teacher Rodrigo Arias, the Green Ecological Party (Partido Verde Ecologista) has set its sights on winning a seat in the National Assembly representing Cartago. Since forming the party, Arrieta has run for office twice, gaining just over 1600 votes in 2006 and winning 2900 votes last year. He and Arias feel that in recent years Ticos’ political awareness has expanded to a greater recognition of the importance of strong environmental policies and they hope that 2014 will be their year to win an election.

Business and volunteers work to keep recyclables from landfills

One of the main political objectives of the Green Ecological Party platform is the banning of plastics in certain Costa Rican industries in favor of biodegradable materials. They also support mandatory environmental education programs in schools as well as the creation of an environmental “police force” to guard against litterers, polluters, illegal loggers and others whose activities degrade the environment.

It’s an ambitious platform and a huge challenge for these two crusaders. But big things start with small efforts and it just may be that the Green Ecological Party represents the long-term salvation of Costa Rica’s pristine flora and fauna, rivers and streams, mountains and beaches. For those of us who love this small but beautiful country, let’s hope so.

Looking for an exciting adventure? How about a Galapagos cruise?!