Massive Effort Underway in Costa Rica to Save a Leading Source of Income: the Country’s Famed National Park System

Tourism in Costa Rica is at an all-time high, and surveys show that most visitors want to see the country’s renowned national parks, home to an eye-opening array of colorful plants and rare wildlife. While the tiny Central American country has given nearly 20 percent of its territory some sort of official protected status, conservationists worry that proclamations won’t safeguard biodiversity unless they are backed up by long-term financial commitment. And they wonder that if Costa Rica can’t make an economic case for protecting wildlands, what tropical country can?

Efforts to secure and consolidate Costa Rica’s protected areas have been jeopardized by limited human resources, ineffective regulations, neglect of vital ecosystems that lack protected status, insufficient budgets, and the failure to effectively engage local stakeholders in conservation stewardship.

These significant challenges have led several governmental and non-governmental conservation organizations in the country to develop an imaginative and ambitious solution that would both consolidate and provide long-term financing for Costa Rica’s protected areas. With help from international organizations such as the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the groups’ efforts aim to benefit the national economy through research, ecotourism, and local community participation and will help to secure the future of the country’s impressive biodiversity.

“The protected areas system in Costa Rica needs a radical change,” states Mario Boza, one of the founders of the country’s national park system who served as a technical consultant for the project’s first phase. “This project aims to make the necessary administrative, economic, and ecological adjustments to consolidate the nation’s protected areas.”

Boza, who currently serves as an advisor to the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), points out that one of the greatest challenges is ensuring the park system’s financial self-sufficiency. Although the areas do generate the funds to cover their basic administration and protection costs through entry fees, currently most of these funds are directed into a central government account and are not dedicated to the parklands. “We need to create a mechanism that will make parks more autonomous and provide an incentive to generate as much income as possible,” Boza emphasizes. “This could include allowing parks to apply for bank loans as private businesses do, or converting them into public enterprises.”

He adds that the park’s financial problems are so serious that it is even difficult to pay for the most urgent and least expensive activities such as fire prevention and toilet paper for visitors.

Illegal hunting is another problem as it threatens to transform protected areas into “empty forests”; that is, forests with vegetation but void of wildlife. The lack of forest guards makes it particularly difficult to resolve this problem. “We need to provide the parks with resources to hire guards who are trained to defend our parks and allow the fauna to recover,” Boza emphasizes, adding that parks such as Tortuguero National Park, in northeastern Costa Rica, and Carara Park near the Pacific coast, already show signs of becoming empty forests.

Boza believes that if local residents do not benefit from protected areas, they are unlikely to help protect the wildlands. “Local communities don’t receive many benefits from the parks — opportunities need to be created for them to offer goods and services to visitors,” he says. As an example, he points to Las Baulas Marine Park on the Pacific coast, where local women sell food and crafts to visitors and have become the park’s most supportive allies.

Boza was in charge of the project, “Consolidation of the Protected Areas System of Costa Rica,” which was funded by CEPF and directed by MINAE and the Leatherback Trust. Among the one-year project’s most important achievements were an executive decree to promote the sale of non-essential services in protected areas; a national environmental strategy; a proposed training program for park guards; and a decree that will charge residents for the water that protected areas and privately owned forests provide, which will generate an estimated US $30 million per year.

The project’s second phase, “Overcoming Obstacles that Limit the Sustainability of the Protected Areas System of Costa Rica” was launched in August 2005 with $350,000 from UNDP and GEF. Through this initiative, UNDP’s Small Grants Programme of Costa Rica aims to build on phase one’s results and ensure that the nation’s protected areas system is financially self-sufficient and operates efficiently. National organizations such as the National Biological Institute, the Environmental and National Resources Law Center (CEDARENA, for its name in Spanish), and the National University’s International Center for Political Economy are participating in the effort.

“This project is a great opportunity for the country to reassess what we would like to do with these areas, to determine what model we would like to develop and how we can sustain that model,” states Silvia Chaves of CEDARENA. “One of the main conclusions of CEDARENA and other organizations is that the work must transcend the protected areas to encompass eco-regional planning.”

CEDARENA is identifying the main legal and institutional obstacles for the protected areas’ sustainability and will make recommendations for overcoming them. She believes that while the country has put a great deal of effort into its protected areas, it must also pay attention to wildlands that have no level of protection, particularly in biological corridors, marine-coastal areas, and privately owned forest land. The nonprofit environmental law organization is also studying what kinds of tourism activities might be permitted within the national parks that would provide benefits to local residents.

The last phase of the project, which will attempt to put into place the recommendations made in previous phases, is scheduled to kick in by the end of 2006, thanks to a $9.6 million grant from UNDP-GEF and $16 million loan to Costa Rica by the Inter-American Development Bank. If the loan is approved by the government, it would support ecotourism infrastructure in the country’s most visited national parks.

Mario Boza believes that the project has the potential to become a model for Latin America and developing countries around the world, but only if Costa Rica’s citizens support its ambitious goals. He notes, “Only time and the willingness of the stakeholders will determine whether our protected areas can be transformed into an economic and social force for the country.”

— Katiana Murillo

Contacts in Costa Rica: Mario Boza, tel +506/253-7680, fax +506/253-7683, ecoamericas@amnet.co.cr; Silvia Chaves, CEDARENA, tel +506/283-7080, cedarena@racsa.co.cr, www.cedarena.org.

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