by Christopher Baker

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In the time it takes you to read this page, some 32 hectares of the world's tropical rainforests will be destroyed. The statistics defy comprehension. One hundred years ago, rainforests covered two billion hectares, 14% of the earth's land surface. Now only half remains, and the rate of destruction is increasing: an area larger than the state of Florida is lost every year. If the destruction continues apace, the world's rainforests will vanish within 40 years.

By anyone's standards, Costa Rica leads the way in moving Central America away from the soil-leaching deforestation that plagues the isthmus. The country has one of the world's best conservation records: about one-quarter of the country is under some form of official protection. In 1992, Costa Rica received the Cantico a Todas Las Criaturas--"Song to all Creatures"--award given by the Franciscan Center for Environmental Studies, based in Rome; was one of three winners of the first environmental award presented by the American Society of Travel Agents; and was named the most environmentally conscious country in the world by the San Francisco-based News Travel Network: in April 1992, the National Biodiversity Institute was also awarded the Peter Scott Award by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Despite Costa Rica's achievements in conservation, almost the entire country has been deforested outside the national parks and reserves, where deforestation continues at an alarming rate.


The Evidence

Along the San Juan River, in the heart of the llanuras of the Atlantic lowlands, along the border with Nicaragua, is some of the wildest, wettest, most densely canopied rainforest in Costa Rica. It is a crown jewel of Central American jungle, as shining and sweet-smelling and innocent as it must have been in the first light of Creation.

The humid llanura is the biggest piece of primeval rainforest left on the Caribbean rim, a tiny enclave of the original carpet that once covered most of lowland Central America. Caimans, manatees, peccaries, and sloths move amid the small sloughs, and deep in the cobalt shadows jaguars and tapirs move unseen. Very wet and isolated, these mist-enshrouded waves of green have been relatively untouched by man until recently. The brief outbreak of peace in Nicaragua created a land rush, and settlers are leapfrogging over the agricultural flatlands and landing in the heart of the forest (see "Megaparks," below). Today, the lowland rainforests resound with the carnivorous buzz of chain saws; in the "dry" season, in isolated patches, they are on fire.

It is a story that's been repeated again and again during the past 400 years. Logging, ranching, and the development of large-scale commercial agriculture have transformed much of Costa Rica's wildest terrain. This is particularly true in the highlands, where the temperate and moist environment is ideal for the production of coffee and tea, and the Pacific lowlands, where beef and cotton have become major export products. Cattle ranching has been particularly wasteful. Large tracts of virgin forest were felled in the 1960s to make way for cattle, stimulated by millions of dollars of loans provided by U.S. banks and businesses promoting the beef industry to feed the North American market. Author Beatrice Blake claims that "Costa Rica loses 2.5 tons of topsoil to erosion for every kilo of meat exported" and that although a "farmer can make 86 times as much money per acre with coffee, and 284 times as much with bananas," cattle ranching takes up over 20 times the amount of land devoted to bananas and coffee.

The Defense

The nation is making a courageous and costly attempt to protect sufficiently large areas of natural habitat and to preserve most of its singularly rich biota. But it is a policy marked by the paradox of good intent and seemingly poor application. Many reserves and refuges are accused of being poorly managed, and the Forestry Directorate, the government office in charge of managing the country's forest
resources, has reportedly never functioned efficiently in more than 20 years of existence. While the administration of Oscar Arias (1986-90) consolidated conservation efforts by creating a new Ministry of Natural Resources, and the current president, Rafael Angel Calderón, has called for a "New Ecological Order," the country continues to suffer the kind of environmental degradation and deforestation that plague most tropical countries. (Many environmentalists claim that the Calderón administration has actually abandoned the ecological principles of preceding administrations.)

It's a daunting battle. Every year Costa Rica's population grows by 2.5%, exacerbating the land-pressure problem and forcing squatters onto virgin land where they continue to deplete the forests that once covered 80% of Costa Rica. Fires set by ranchers today lap at the borders of Santa Rosa National Park. And oil-palm plantations squeeze Manuel Antonio against the Pacific. In the lowlands, fires from slash-and-burn agriculture burn uncontrolled for weeks; in the highlands, cloud forests are logged for timber, roof shingles, and charcoal, while farmers and plantation owners continue to clear mountain slopes to plant coffee, tea, bananas, nuts, and cinchona (for quinine).

In the 1970s, the Costa Rican government banned export of more than 60 diminishing tree species, and national law proscribes cutting timber without proper permits. It happens anyway, much of it illegally, with logs reportedly trucked into San José and the coastal ports at night. In many places the line of cultivation is already at an elevation of 2,000 meters as lumbermen and squatters move uphill. And wherever new roads are built, the first vehicles in are usually logging trucks, which rumble along the highways loaded high with thick tree trunks. In Costa Rica the remaining tropical forest is disappearing by at least 520 square kilometers a year, and less than 1.5 million hectares of primal forest remain (about 20% of its original habitat). Despite the seemingly sincere efforts of the Costa Rican government, the nation's forests are falling faster than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere and, as a percentage of national land area, reportedly nine times faster than the rainforests of Brazil. By the year 2000, claims biologist Daniel Janzen, all the forest outside protected areas could disappear completely.

Sadly, the Rafael Calderón administration has proved more a friend of agricultural expansionists than environmentalists. In July 1992, for example, the legislature eliminated a key clause in the Forestry Law designed to protect the remaining forests.

The Cost

While many patches of forest will no doubt be saved, many animal and plant species can only survive in large areas of wilderness. Most of the millions of rainforest species are so highly specialized that they are quickly driven to extinction by the disturbance of their forest homes. Isolation of patches of forest is followed by an exponential decline in species; the reduction of original habitat to one-tenth of its original area means an eventual loss of half its species. The decline of a single species has a chain effect on many dependent species, particularly plants, since tropical plants are far more dependent on individual animal and bird species for seed dispersal than in temperate climates. Eventually these biological islands become depauperized communities.

At the current rate of world deforestation, plant and animal species may well be disappearing at the rate of 50,000 a year; by the end of the 20th century, an estimated one million species will have vanished without ever having been identified. Among them will be many species whose chemical compounds might hold the secrets to cures for a host of debilitating and deadly diseases. The bark of the cinchona tree, for example, has long been the prime source of quinine, an important antimalarial drug. Curare, the vine extract used by South American Indians to poison their arrows and darts, is used as a muscle relaxant in modern surgery. And scientists recently discovered a peptide secreted by an Amazonian frog called Phyllomedusa bicolor which may lead to medicines for strokes, seizure, depression, and Alzheimer's disease. In fact, some 40% of all drugs manufactured in the United States are to some degree dependent on natural sources; more than 2,000 tropical rainforest plants have been identified as having some potential to combat cancer.

Nonrenewable Resources

Once the rainforests have been felled, they are gone forever. Despite the rainforests' abundant fecundity, the soils on which they grow are generally very poor, thin, and acidic.

When humanity cuts the forest down, the organic-poor soils are exposed to the elements and are rapidly washed away by the intense rains, and the ground is baked by the blazing sun to leave an infertile wasteland. At lower elevations, humans find their natural water sources diminishing and floods increasing owing to removal of the protective cover, for intact the montane rainforest acts as a giant sponge. Thus, indigenous groups such as the Bribrí and Cábecar Indians who inhabit remote regions close to the Panamanian border are finding their tenuous traditional livelihoods threatened.


Part of the government's answer to deforestation has been to promote reforestation, mostly through a series of tax breaks, which have led to a series of tree farms predominantly planted in nonnative species such as teak. The government, for example, has extended legal residency status to anyone participating in reforestation programs, with a required minimum nontaxable investment of US$50,000. These efforts, however, do little to replace the precious native hardwoods or to restore the complex natural ecosystems, which would take generations to reestablish. Such efforts are being taken up by a handful of dedicated individuals and organizations determined to preserve and even replenish core habitats, such as attempts spearheaded by Daniel Janzen and the Friends of Lomas Barbudal to reestablish the tropical dry forests of Guanacaste.

The most famous of the private reserves is perhaps Rara Avis, 1,200 hectares of prime rainforest 96 km northeast of San José. The reserve, founded by American biologist Amos Bien, was conceived to prove that rainforest can produce more income from such schemes as ecotourism, harvesting ornamental plants, and raising iguanas, pacas, and tepezcuintles (the forest-dwelling rodents that make popular bar snacks!) for food than if cleared for cattle.

International Efforts

Private and foreign agencies are becoming increasingly active in the battle to preserve Costa Rica's natural heritage. The country is now home to a plethora of conservation groups and projects, ranging from private nature reserves and children's reforestation projects to a $22.5 million forest-management project for the Central Volcanic Mountain Range funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Many of these organizations are attempting to bridge the gap between conservation funding and the nation's massive foreign-debt problems by developing "debt for nature" swaps. Swapping land for debt, for example, the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy has helped swell conservation coffers while curbing the outflow of foreign currency from Costa Rica. Using Conservancy money, the National Parks Foundation bought a portion of the nation's debt from a U.S. bank, paying in dollars after the debt was discounted to only 17 cents on the dollar. Costa Rica then paid off the National Parks Foundation with bonds in the local currency, with the agreement that the money would be used on conservation projects. Like the majority of international agencies involved in conservation, the Nature Conservancy relies heavily on donations and public support.

New Approaches

The Costa Rican government's own conservation efforts have been undermined by the International Monetary Fund's structural-adjustment program, which requires government departments to cut their budgets and staffs. Particularly worrisome is the fact that much of

the land currently incorporated into the national park system has not yet been paid for and, hence, could revert back to private use.

Partly in response to this pressure, but also in an attempt to improve the efficiency of its conservation programs, Costa Rica is reorganizing management of its protected areas (see "National Parks," below); one of the main components of the reorganization is that each conservation unit will be able to procure international funding and manage its own budget apart from the federal government's coffers. Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute recently signed an avant-garde contract with the world's largest pharmaceutical company, the New Jersey-based Merck Co., which calls for the Institute to provide Merck with samples of plant and insect species in exchange for royalties from any marketable products. The objective is to finance the conservation of biodiversity and to ensure that Costa Rica receives a small percentage of the massive profits derived from pharmaceutical extracts. (The U.S. company Lilly, for example, earns some $100 million a year from periwinkle extract used in treating leukemia; Madagascar, where the plant was first collected, receives none of the profits.)

Another concept of land protection evolving in Costa Rica places the needs of local communities in the equation by attempting to integrate their livelihoods into the philosophy and day-to-day operation of the national park system. The intent is to give local inhabitants a vested interest by teaching them that they can earn a living by preserving natural resources rather than by destroying them. Governmental agencies have recently placed an emphasis on such efforts along the Nicaraguan border, where the Si-a-Paz cross-border preserve poses a new challenge, and in so-called buffer zones surrounding existing parks and reserves. And the Monteverde Conservation League is one of several private organizations formed to promote environmentally responsible use of primal land by assisting farmers to increase productivity and promote reforestation.


Although contradictions abound, Costa Rica is blessed with a conscientious leadership which appreciates the value of the nation's natural heritage. The current president, Rafael Calderón, has pledged to make the same kind of efforts on behalf of the environment that his predecessor, Nobel winner Oscar Arias, made on behalf of peace. "By destroying species and nature," says Calderón, "man is destroying himself."

While much of Costa Rica has been stripped of its forests, the country has managed to protect a larger proportion of its land than any other country in the world. In 1970 there came a growing acknowledgment that something unique and lovely was vanishing, and a systematic effort was begun to save what was left of the wilderness. In that year, the progressive Costa Ricans formed a national park system that has won worldwide admiration. Costa Rican law declared inviolate 10.27% of a land once compared to Eden; an additional 17% is legally set aside as forest reserves, "buffer zones," wildlife refuges, and Indian reserves. Throughout the country representative portions of all the major habitats and ecosystems are now protected for tomorrow's generations. Currently, the National Parks Service is in charge of managing 20 national parks, eight biological reserves, and a national monument. The Forestry Department and National Wildlife Directorate are responsible for 26 protected zones, nine forest reserves, and seven fauna sanctuaries.

Besides providing Costa Ricans and foreign travelers with the privilege of admiring and studying the wonders of nature, the national parks and reserves protect the soil and watersheds and harbor an estimated 75% of all Costa Rica's species of flora and fauna, including species that have all but disappeared in neighboring countries. They contain active volcanoes and hot springs, high-reaching mountains and mysterious caves, historic battlefields, inviting beaches, and pre-Columbian settlements, and provide last, vital reservoirs of rainforests whose chemical secrets may one day reveal the cures for AIDS and other diseases.

The Yellowstones and Yosemites of Costa Rica--the lure for 90% of all visitors to the park system--are Manuel Antonio, with its beautiful beaches; Braulio Carrillo, with its rainforest beside a highway; Irazú, where on a clear day you can see both the Caribbean and the Pacific; and Poás, where you can peer into a steaming crater and see the earth's crust being rearranged.

While deforestation continues unabated throughout the country, wildlife preservation in Costa Rica--at least in theory--is only a matter of due process . . . and cash. Money is still needed to purchase private landholdings within the parks (accounting for approximately 20% of park areas). And the government's budgetary constraints prohibit the severely understaffed Parks Service from hiring more people. It's a dilemma that is forcing Costa Rica to rely more heavily on foreign donations--the Scandinavians and Germans have been particularly supportive--to bolster local conservation efforts.

The parks are currently in the midst of an important series of changes in which the focus is on increasing the degree of protection--turning poorly managed forest reserves and wildlife refuges into national parks, for example, and integrating adjacent national parks, reserves, and national forests into regional conservation units (RCUs) to create corridors in which wildlife might be able to move with greater freedom over much larger areas (see "Megaparks," below). Since farming, logging and other activities are allowed within buffer zones on the edge of the parks, the intent is to more carefully manage this land. "We used to manage the parks from their borders inwards, but now we're working from the borders outwards, to avoid isolation," says National Parks Director Alvaro Ugalde. Responsibility for their management is being shifted from central offices in San José to regional offices and, in some cases, to nongovernmental organizations.

To accomplish this, in 1989 the country began reorganizing its parks system. Following the model of the recently created Guanacaste Regional Conservation Unit, big and small parks are being amalgamated to form eight more RCUs based on the premise that larger parks--being more complete ecosystems--are more easily preserved than smaller ones. The units are each characterized by their own unique ecology: Amistad, Arenal, Cordillera Volcánica Central, Isla del Coco, Osa, Pacífico Central, Tempisque, and Tortuguero. The government is also merging the Parks Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Reserves and Protected Zones into a new body: the Directorate of Conservation Units, responsible to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mines.

Costa Rican tourism is booming so quickly that some parks are beginning to show wear and tear from too much visitation (park visitation quadrupled to over 250,000 annually in the years 1988-1992). A visitor management policy is being developed to control the adverse effects on all the parks.

No legislation currently exists, however, to make those who benefit from tourism contribute to upkeep of the parks, despite the fact that the park system is so short of funds that it cannot afford uniforms or vehicles for many park rangers. The Ecotourism Society, an organization of travel professionals and conservationists, has therefore begun a campaign to raise park fees to that the country can afford to maintain the parks (many member tour companies now collect a fee from clients which they donate to the Park Service; Costa Rica Expeditions and Horizontes Nature Tours also jointly donated $25,000 to open the Tourism For Conservation Park Ranger Fund, to be administered by Fundación Neotrópica). The ICT also plans to introduce a national park pass for a set fee--probably $25.


For information on the national parks, contact the Parks System information office in the Parque Bolivar Zoo at Calle 7, Avenida 11 in San José (tel. 233-5673 or 233-5284); open Tues.-Fri. 8-11:30 a.m. and 12:30-3:30 p.m. (the zoo gatekeeper will let you in on Mondays if you tell him you're visiting the park office). The information office is rather run-down but has maps and a limited stock of brochures. It helps if you speak Spanish. If you need specialized information on scientific aspects of the parks, contact the Conservation Data Center, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (tel. 236-4269), located in Santo Domingo de Heredia. Detailed topographical maps of the parks and reserves are available at Librería Lehmann (Calle 3, Avenida Central) and the Instituto Geografico Nacional (Avenida 20, Calle 5/7), both in San José.

Fees And Facilities

No permits are required for most national parks; you'll need permits for a few of the biological reserves. These can be obtained in advance from the public information office, or write the Servicio de Parques Nacionales (National Parks Service, Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganaderia, Apdo. 10094, San José 1000; tel. 233-5055), located at Calle 25, Avenidas 8/10. The entrance fee to most parks is US$1.20.

Most national parks and reserves have camping facilities (US$0.60 fee for camping), although a few of the more remote wildlife refuges lack even the most rudimentary accommodations. You may be able to stay in park ranger housing or at biological research stations if space permits. Call 233-4070 or fax 223-6369 for information on accommodations at specific parks and reserves. Don't expect hotel service! You'll usually need to provide your own towels and bedding; there are no restaurants or snack bars, so bring enough food and drink for your anticipated stay.

The national wildlife refuges are administered by the National Wildlife Directorate, Calle 25 and Avenidas 8/10, San José (tel. 233-8112 or 221-9533).


Wildlife doesn't distinguish political borders. Birds migrate. Plants grow on either side. "It's not enough to draw lines on a map and call it a park," says Alvaro Ugalde, the National Parks director. "These days, park management is tied into economic issues, war and peace, agriculture, forestry, and helping people find a way to live." With peace breaking out all over Central America, park management increasingly requires international cooperation through the creation of a transnational park network. In this rare interlude of calm and fresh governments, there is an opportunity for neighboring countries to forget ancient border disagreements and see the rivers and rainforests along their borders not as dividing lines but as rich tropical ecosystems which they share.

Paseo Pantera

The idea is currently fruiting as the Paseo Pantera, a five-year, $4 million project dedicated to preserving biodiversity through the creation of a chain of conservation areas from Belize to Panama. This cooperative effort of Wildlife Conservation International and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation takes its name from the Path of the Panther, a historical forested corridor that once spanned from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. The ultimate dream is a Central American "biogeographic corridor," a contiguous chain of protected areas from Mexico to Colombia. Then the isthmus could once again be a bridge between continents for migrating species--"a much more daring and valuable dream," says one writer, "than a canal between seas."

La Amistad

The first and most advanced of the transfrontier parks is the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, created on 2 Feb. 1982 when the Costa Rican government signed a pact with Panama to join two adjacent protected areas--one in each country--to create one of the richest ecological biospheres in Central America. La Amistad's remote, unexplored rainforests protect 60% of Costa Rica's fauna species, including large populations of big cats and more than 400 species of birds. In August that year, UNESCO cemented the union by recognizing the binational zone as a biosphere reserve. La Amistad (the Friendship Park) covers 622,000 hectares and includes six Indian reserves and nine natural protected areas.


The idea for a transboundary park along the northern border with Nicaragua germinated in 1974, but little progress was made until 1985, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega seized on the idea as a way to demilitarize the area, which was then being used by anti-Sandinista rebels. Ortega proposed the region be declared an international park for peace and gave it the name Si-a-Paz: "Yes to Peace." Efforts by the Arias administration to kick the rebels out of Costa Rica's northern zone led to demilitarization of the area, but lack of funding and political difficulties prevented the two countries from making much progress on the Si-a-Paz project. Since 1990, presidential elections in Costa Rica and Nicaragua have led to improved relations between the countries, and the end of the Nicaraguan war has allowed the government to dedicate more money to conservation. Si-a-Paz has been rejuvenated, and both Costa Rican President Rafael Angel Calderón and Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro have cited it as a conservation priority.

Si-a-Paz represents a last chance to save Central America's largest and wettest tract of rainforest. In the north, natural resources once made inaccessible by guerrilla warfare are now being plundered by loggers. In the south, the rainforests have already been severely deforested, and only scattered patches of wilderness remain intact, plus a strip of forest along the Atlantic coast. In the wake of peace in Nicaragua, thousands of people displaced by the war are drifting back to the area, chasing dreams of a better life through the vast dank chambers of the rainforest of the Río San Juan, one of Costa Rica's last seductive frontiers and the boundary between the two countries. Conservationists must immediately find a way to stabilize this wave, to help this hungry horde develop farming skills.

The idea is to enable people to make a living in one place, to involve them in conservation efforts and provide them with ecologically sustainable livelihoods so that they won't have to keep eating away at the forest's receding edge. The park design requires a full evaluation of existing human and natural resources, social and cultural considerations, demographics, and development potential. Si-a-Paz planners want to wrap buffer zones of low-input agriculture and agroforestry around core habitats, with whole communities integrated into the park design.

The goal is to establish a wildlife refuge along the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua, whose Solentiname Islands would be reforested and designated a cultural preserve. Other areas along the San Juan River would be included in the park, making it a paradigm of ecosystem protection. The Costa Ricans plan to expand Tortuguero National Park to include the eastern part of Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, which would connect the park with Nicaragua's Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.

There are also plans to create a corridor between the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge and Nicaragua's Los Guatusos Wildlife Refuge and to create a new protected area west of where the Sarapiqui River pours into the San Juan, in Tambor. Also, the two-km-wide protected border zone will be expanded to a width of 10 km on the southern side of the San Juan River.

The Nicaraguan portion of the project is centered on Indio Maíz, which protects nearly half a million hectares of rainforest--one of the largest areas of undisturbed wilderness in Central America--in the southeast corner of the country. The Si-a-Paz region is such an El Dorado of biodiversity that conservation groups from around the world already have projects pending, from butterfly farms to sophisticated horticulture systems of intercropping. The governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and Norway have already committed funds, and the IUCN World Conservation Union is helping coordinate the project.