Sustainability Plus

Communications > Sustainability Plus > Posts > “Counterintuitive” Costa Rica Setting a Forestry Benchmark for the World

Treated tap water. We in the developed world tend to take this luxury entirely for granted, even though it remains one of humanity's most notable achievements.

As it turns out, though, one nation is taking a different — and by developed world standards, entirely counterintuitive — approach to water treatment. This tiny, prosperous tropical nation, known throughout the world as the Switzerland of Central America, treats little of its tap water.

Costa Rica has opted instead to undertake a wholesale effort to protect its water supplies at their point of origin — small wonder why forestry generation has become a major preoccupation of the Central American nation in recent decades.

[Extension Regional Agent Beau Brodbeck pictured at one of many irrigation structures built by the Costa Rican Government and supported by user fees.]

Lush green forests in this tropical nation not only enhance biodiversity and sequester carbon — pressing concern in this rapidly developing country —but also safeguard rivers, streams and lakes from soil depletion and contaminants stemming from badly eroded cropland and other types of intensive human use.

More than ever before, Costa Ricans are taking note of this fact.

For many years, deforestation was an unusually serious environmental issue in this Central American country and others in the region as more land was tied up in production agriculture and timber harvesting.

In fact, only a few decades ago, Costa Rica dealt with one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, says Beau Brodbeck, an Alabama Extension System forestry, wildlife and natural resource management agent who recently completed an extensive tour of the nation.

Then, in the 1970s, the nation got serious about reversing this alarming trend. Initially, the government offered incentives, mainly tax rebates, to large timber companies to replant after harvesting.

These efforts were stepped up in 1996 when the government enacted Forest Law No. 7575, which explicitly recognized environmental benefits of reforestation not only to water quality but also to biodiversity, the reduction of greenhouse gases and energy consumption.

The law also established a National Fund for Forest Financing, a system of incentive payments for encouraging reforestation and forestland management. Part of the money for the program is secured through a carbon tax on gasoline. A percentage of each Costa Rican's water bill is also earmarked to support the program.

The program enabled Costa Rica to achieve negative net deforestation in the first few years of the 21st century.

Preserving water quality is a major focus of these efforts, especially as the nation's economy diversifies — a fact not lost on the nation's private sector.

"Costa Rica has several domestic beer and juice bottling plants that understand the value of securing consistent supplies of high-quality water and that have been at the forefront of national efforts to safeguard freshwater supplies," Brodbeck says.

Today, the Central American nation sets the standards for deforestation and forestland management for much of the rest of the developing world.

"It's definitely an achievement," says Dr. Wayde Morris, an Auburn University assistant professor of forestry who accompanied Brodbeck during this recent tour. "They developed a living program, one that has adapted and improved with time.

In addition to preserving a critical resource, Morris says one of the remarkable effects of the program is how it has instilled ordinary Costa Ricans, especially landowners, with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for stewardship.

"In my own research interviewing Costa Rican landowners, I never imagined how many would use the term "biodiversity" routinely in their everyday language," he observes.

"They're conscious of the multiple benefits of forestry that this program has secured."

Brodbeck, who is completing his doctorate in forestry, says the Costa Rican trip has afforded him a deeper appreciation for the variety of ways landowners can be enlisted in stewardship efforts.

"It was just very interesting to see this model and to draw parallels to other countries, including our own," Brodbeck says. "This program does a very good job not only of enlisting landowners but also helping them understand how their individual efforts contribute toward safeguarding this critical natural resource."

"Costa Rica really is on the cutting edge of these efforts."