Interviewed by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“We need to make a revolutionary change by demonstrating that it is possible to conserve the environment without economic or social deterioration, but rather by making improvements to economic and human development. We need to move our consumption and production patterns toward something that is completely sustainable.”
Environmental conservation isn’t immune to the global recession, yet few people view the ecological crisis in the same way they see the economic one, perhaps because they don’t fully comprehend that a meltdown of nature would be worse than the one on Wall Street.
“We have an unsustainable way of life that has already affected the economy and, if we don’t change, will bring an inevitable and complex environmental crisis that nobody will be exempt from,” warns Conservation International’s Carlos Manuel Rodríguez.
Before joining Conservation International — which works around the world to conserve biodiversity and demonstrate that society can live in harmony with nature — Rodríguez was Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment and Energy. In that role, he pioneered the use of environmental services payments to finance conservation programs, a mechanism that has supported a significant amount of environmental progress in the country.
Rodríguez warns that conservationists face the monumental task of securing funding as the global economy retracts, but he believes that environmental service payments offer interesting options for dealing with that challenge. He also speaks of a more important challenge: creating a new global conservation vision and the policies and infrastructure needed to put it into practice.
Question: What challenges has the current economic crisis created for conservationists?
Rodríguez: The crisis has been a blow to conservation; it has put the brakes on many efforts that were underway. In times of crisis, people cut back on spending and concentrate on the basics, and unfortunately, many consider conservation to be a non-essential item. Investment in the field has dropped substantially. As a result, most of the organizations dedicated to conservation — which are nonprofits, dependent on philanthropy, on the disposition of donors and governments — have slashed budgets between 30 percent and 50 percent, and some have had to cut important staff.
We need to analyze the reality that with or without a crisis, biodiversity conservation is possible only when there is growth, economic development, human development, and prosperity. This is clear in countries such as the Scandinavian nations, where there is a greater level of consciousness and a better environmental record, and others such as Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, or Somalia to mention a few, where the theme is very much neglected, if not nonexistent.
Q: How does this lack of support for conservation affect the environment?
Rodríguez: We could say that in 2008, the environment suffered a heart attack. Mother Nature sent us a distress call. The scientific reports confirm the threats of climate change, water shortages, and the exhaustion of resources because our levels of production and consumption are outstripping the capacity of natural resources to regenerate.
We are cutting back the forces of conservation at the very moment that it has become clear that we have an unsustainable way of life that has already affected the economy and, if we don’t change, will bring an inevitable and complex environmental crisis from which nobody will be exempt.
Q: Is the lack of economic resources one of the greatest threats to environmental protection?
Rodríguez: Not necessarily. Many people tend to be simplistic and think that everything is a question of resources, but it isn’t. This way of life, of consumption and production, is one of the principal problems. For example, China has opted for a western model of development in which natural resources are used in an irrational manner. If China were to reach the same level of per capita consumption as the United States, there wouldn’t be enough natural resources in the world. Nothing that we could try would be sufficient to supply such demand.
In this sense, a lack of political will and the excessive influence of economic interests in decision-making on environmental issues work against conservation. For example, consider the energy sector, which could be the key to change. All consumption and production depends on energy and, to date, most of our energy comes from oil. We know that burning fossil fuels is one of the major causes of climate change, which is one of the biggest pressures on the environment. If we were to replace that energy source with renewable ones, we would promote a shift toward clean technologies and lower energy consumption. But the energy and automobile companies, which have vast political influence, aren’t buying into this, nor are the “petro-dictatorships” — governments whose economies are based on maintaining dependence on oil and consequent high prices. Without political will, change isn’t possible.
So we face the great challenge of not only finding more resources, but of making a revolutionary change by demonstrating that it is possible to conserve the environment without economic and social deterioration, but rather by improving economic and human development. We need to shift our production and consumption patterns toward something that is completely sustainable.
Q: Is it possible that the economic contraction and the drop in foreign investment will lead countries like Costa Rica to relax their environmental policies in order to keep, or attract investors?
Rodríguez: It is possible, but it would be based on the most erroneous concept. It is proven that the better a country’s environmental regulations are, the greater its economic competitiveness. Competing with superior environmental standards promotes the use of better technologies, innovation, and the attraction of a greater range of clients or commercial partners. In Costa Rica’s case, the country should compete through technological innovation, taking advantage of the richness of its natural resources and maintaining its quality and human resources, not by lowering labor and environmental standards as India and China are doing. The arrival and continued presence of companies such as Intel in this country demonstrate the success of competing with solid regulations.
Q: What can the countries in this region do from an environmental standpoint to get ahead of the crisis?
Rodríguez: Perhaps the most important thing for countries to do is to build, strengthen, and reform their political and institutional frameworks as they pertain to the environment, with the goal of improving human development, science, and technology. At the same time, they should create an agenda that facilitates the level of political coordination needed to bring together the various sectors of government and all the institutions that compete in that particular area. This factor is key because, even with economic solvency, it is of no value to pour resources into initiatives that don’t operate on a solid platform. Real, successful environmental solutions require a strong infrastructure.
Costa Rica has sold its green image very well, but now more than ever it needs to continue to have a coherent and responsible strategy in order to position itself as a country that strives to fulfill its political commitment to environmental sustainability. The ideal is to opt for a low-impact type of development directed at sectors that can pay more and doesn’t restrict the access of Costa Ricans to their land and resources. To this end, we need to strengthen the institutional structure, which already has great advantages compared to other countries. Here we have the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones (MINAET), a ministry that not only manages the environment, but also the energy and telecommunications sectors. The fact that they aren’t separate makes it easier to have comprehensive management plans. The task ahead is to consolidate the MINAET as a leader and get all other ministries who have environmental responsibilities to comply with a national plan.
Q: Now, during the recession, and once it is over, in what areas should resources for conservation be concentrated?
Rodríguez: There is a marked tendency towards the areas of water and climate change. The global community understands that if we don’t work on those areas, the impact on people, the economy, and living standards will be dramatic.
Q: Payment for environmental services is an innovative tool that has been used to finance investments in sustainable management in various Latin American countries. Is it an effective option in times of crisis?
Rodríguez: First, we need to understand what payments for environmental services, or PES, are and what they are good for. They are a compensation scheme — usually financial — to preserve ecosystems that provide environmental services for human well-being. The beneficiaries or users of a service make a payment to the providers, or custodians of that service. PES have four components: carbon fixing services, fundamentally for climate stabilization; hydrological services for consumption of water and all the activities that depend on it; and biodiversity and scenic beauty, which are both of great interest to the tourism industry.
In Costa Rica, PES funding sources are guaranteed by law, which permits a minimum income for the Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal — an entity that administers and assigns those resources. So in spite of the crisis, the funds for those instruments are fixed and not at risk — however, the complementary funds are, as is the possibility of adding new sources and support.
Q: Is the income from the fixed funds sufficient?
Rodríguez: In this country, 90 percent of the income comes from fixed sources and 10 percent from complementary ones. The problem is that these funds only satisfy 25 percent of the demand in the conservation sector. The growth of environmental service payments now depends on increasing the complementary sources.
Q: How can that be accomplished if the funding sources are threatened by the crisis?
Rodríguez: As I mentioned before, water and climate change are clearly priorities at the moment. And one of the solutions for climate change is to establish global mechanisms that complement the PES, such as maintaining forests. The benefit of forests in mitigating climate change has been recognized, which will result in many countries collaborating on important funds to invest in forest conservation.
Q: What is Costa Rica’s current situation regarding PES?
Rodríguez: Seven thousand people now benefit from the mechanism. The country is considered a model because we have a solid mechanism that is well-coordinated and supported by legislation. Without a doubt, we have a great advantage over other countries that have to start from zero in developing a similar program.
Costa Rica’s disadvantage is that its contribution to the global environment is very tiny given its small territory. Our protected forests are barely the size of a national park in the Amazon region, which is why most funds and attention to the PES are concentrated in the Amazonian nations and the Asian and African tropics, where deforestation is high and where there is plenty of forest to preserve.
In order to increase its earnings, Costa Rica has to be clear about the fact that we aren’t important in terms of scale, so we need to compete on the level of innovation and conservation successes. We should also create mechanisms, policies, and procedures for charging for the two environmental services that still aren’t paid for on a national level — scenic beauty and biodiversity.
Q: Which of the four services is the most attractive, and which face the greatest challenges?
Rodríguez: According to Costa Rican legislation, mechanisms should be created for each of the potential PES, but the areas that we’ve developed the most are carbon and water. Financial support for carbon sequestration comes from a fuel tax, which is essentially a carbon tax. The water fund has considerable resources because it comes from a fee on water concessions. All enterprises, public, or private, that use water must have and pay for a concession, and when they pay for a concession, they are paying for the environmental service provided by that watershed — the forests that maintain it.
Biodiversity and scenic beauty are the two services that we have just begun to look at, and which we should make progress on in the coming years. It has been complicated to find a way to pay for them. It is clear that people in the tourism industry benefit the most from those services; they make their living thanks to conservation but they don’t necessarily contribute in a financial manner. Many of the people who benefit from biodiversity never even enter the forest; for example, a tourism company that transports tourists from the airport to a park or to a hotel, doesn’t enter the forest or the beach, but their business depends on tourists who come to see the country’s scenic beauty and biodiversity so they should contribute. So too should companies that sell photos of macaws, frogs, or volcanoes, or a hotel owner who has a marvelous view thanks to the beauty of some park or forest reserve. We need to make the environmental service payment scheme clear to the tourism industry so that they understand that their raw materials are biodiversity and scenic beauty, and that the PES can benefit their industry by guaranteeing the raw material that is the source of their earnings.
Q: Can you cite some specific examples of successful PES projects?
Rodríguez: The domestic airlines Nature Air and Sansa have been certified as carbon neutral through a Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal (FONAFIFO) program and they compensate for their carbon emissions by supporting conservation. There have also been some noteworthy accomplishments with watersheds — FONAFIFO has PES agreements with soft drink, electricity, and water companies that benefit the watersheds that they use.
Q: How can PES’s potential be maximized to finance conservation?
Rodríguez: In Costa Rica, by strengthening the MINAET and FONAFIFO so that the PES program has a stable base in order to continue expanding its internal and external support. We also need to educate the public and ensure that they understand the concept. PES is very important in rural areas, but it is a distant, little-known theme for the majority of Costa Ricans, who live in urban areas. There is a need to promote the PES scheme, its conservation success stories, and the fact that the world sees Costa Rica as a leader in the area. The world is moving toward conservation schemes that are similar to PES, so it is logical that we need to educate the public.
Q: What other models and tools could we explore to fund conservation?
Rodríguez: Without a doubt, private reserves. We should also promote the involvement of rural communities in conservation efforts and the management of natural resources, for example, the rural administration of local aqueducts — an interesting option that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. And the most important thing is to make conservation a theme that concerns everyone: the general population, all institutions, businesses, and governments. The more people who become involved and interested in conservation, the more people who benefit from it and the more allies we have. Then we will be able to generate the positive changes that the environment needs.