It has become increasingly clear that we have entered the Anthropocene, a geological age beginning in the 18th century characterized by human activity as the dominant influence on the earth’s climate and environment. We are handing the next generation challenges that no generation in human history has had to face, nor address. The youth throughout the world now realize their future, and the future of their children and grand children, are now at risk due to no fault of their own. But our purpose here is not to document the abuses we face on a global scale for that work has already been done, nor do we need to assess blame to the perpetuators of these abuses as the airwaves are full of reasons and recriminations, what we can, and should do however, is highlight examples that demonstrate considerable promise in reversing the inherent dangers the Anthropocene geological period represents. While many efforts are underway worldwide to heal the wounds of a beautiful planet, one particular example stands out. With a modest beginning from which few could have predicted the outcome, a creative and innovative country took it upon itself to show the world it is possible to stimulate economic growth by preserving and protecting its’ natural heritage. The success story that follows should be an inspiration for not only this generation, but for generations to come.

Little did we know when we first visited Costa Rica in the fall of 1996 that the experience would change our lives in ways we could never have imagined. The International Ecotourism Society had invited myself and William Connelly, an architect and business partner, to a conference in the country to help establish guidelines for the emerging ecotourism industry that took root in the rainforests of that beautiful country. The conference was organized by Ana Baez, President of Conservación Consultores and one of the world’s leading experts on ecotourism, and other tourism industry leaders concerned about the growing impact tourism was having on local cultures, economies, and environments. Costa Rica was the perfect host to this event as the country had taken significant steps to protect its’ natural environment and avoid the more industrialized model of tourism where little regard historically had been given to impacts other than economic gains.

The conference began on the west coast in Puntarenas with a series of presentations from a variety of experts and then conference teams moved swiftly into the field to evaluate the social, environmental, and economic impacts tourism was having at a variety of lodge sites around the country. Fortunately, we happened onto a bus with a group of very extraordinary people heading for what was once the most remote and biologically diverse regions on the planet, the village of Santa Elena and the Monte Verde cloud forest preserve. Look at any map of the Americas and you will quickly discover the reason why National Geographic has called Costa Rica “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” The Isthmus of Panama, also historically the Isthmus of Darien, is a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean linking North and South America that was formed approximately 2.8 million years ago. Basically the immense biodiversity of both continents was squeezed into the very small space we now call Costa Rica. Countless species over millions of years have traversed this narrow biological corridor between the continents and crammed 2.5% of the planet’s biodiversity into just 0.001% of the planet’s surface area.

Our particular team in Monte Verde included Sr. Federico Muñoz (Fede), a renowned Costa Rican Biologist, Naturalist and Ecotourism Pioneer. We were all excited to walk with Sr. Muñoz into the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest (Bosque Eterno de los Ninos), also known as CERF. This magical place teeming with life is the largest private reserve in Costa Rica with over 22,500 ha of tropical rainforest and is perhaps the most famous biological reserve in the world. CERF gets its’ name from the unprecedented support it receives from children and schools around the world. We were excited to see as much of the reserve as we could as this was going to be the first time in the rainforest for many of us. Shockingly, after two hours with Sr. Muñoz, we had only moved approximately fifty yards! In those fifty yards we learned more about nature on this planet than in most of our educational careers. Fede’s mind was a kaleidoscope of the interrelations, interactions, and bounty of nature’s masterpiece on earth, the rainforest. It was an exhilarating experience that we will never forget.

It was not possible to walk quickly with our guide as the rainforest narrative is mostly about the small, hard to see stuff that one could easily miss without a trained eye! For example, one might miss the alligator tree, whose conical spikes evolved to repel large sloths that traversed the Americas thousands of years ago, or a strangler fig that starts out as an epiphyte (a plant that takes root on a host but is not parasitic) then grows to the upper canopy for sunlight and then matures and eventually strangles the host by becoming a parasite. One could also miss the tarantula wasp that paralyzes its’ prey with a sting and then lays it’s eggs inside the spider until the hatched larva begin consuming the spider for food from within. If you are really lucky you might also miss the Paraponera Clavata, or, as it is commonly known in Costa Rica, the Bullet Ant because of the extreme pain it delivers following a sting. The Bullet Ant rolled out the welcome mat for me with it’s greeting just I entered the forest for the first time and placed my hand on a rail. This encounter made it clear to me who was in charge and who was the intruder. From this initial greeting I began to develop a profound respect for the power and wisdom of those defense mechanisms that have evolved over the eons in the rainforest that now form the basis of our pharmaceutical arsenal. What excited Fede the most, however, were the 400 species of amphibians and reptiles in Costa Rica that make it perhaps the richest herpetological biodiversity laboratory on the planet as documented in his book, “Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica.” One example is the Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops Asper or Terciopelos), a very venomous and dangerous pit viper found throughout Costa Rica. Fede would effuse enthusiastically about this particular snake and made it clear that we were all very fortunate to encounter one in the wild, with appropriate caution. While holding a small one some years ago and giving a fascinating account of how the highly sensitive pit organs in the Fer-de-Lance can detect heat and prey yards away, he was bitten and had to spend a little time in a local hospital. He made it clear telling the story that it was the tourists witnessing his demonstration, and subsequent bite, who were far more distraught than he was with the encounter!

After our experience in Monte Verde with all the wonderful people we had met from around the world, we became converts to the plight of the rainforest and began to look at the bigger picture. Few people understand that rainforests cover only six percent of the land area of the planet and generate forty percent of its’ oxygen supply. They are the world’s thermostat by regulating temperatures and weather patterns and are critical to the world’s supply of clean drinking water. Rainforests contain over 30-million species or half of the world’s biodiversity and at least eighty percent of all foods in the developed world originated in these vast biological laboratories. Approximately seventy percent of the plants used in the treatment of cancer come from the rainforest but only one percent of plant species residing within these forests has been evaluated for their potential medicinal value. The tragedy is that most experts agree we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily and the same amount ends up degraded as a result of deforestation. To put this into perspective, a football field contains 1.32 acres so we are loosing approximately 60,000 football fields of rainforest every day or approximately 1.4 acres per second! Clearing the rainforests also costs us approximately 135 plant, animal and insect species going extinct every day. We had no idea that these life-sustaining ecosystems were under such threat when we first set foot inside one of them with naturalist and guide, Fede Muñoz.

After the conference, we traveled to San José where we were introduced to Sr. Carlos Jimenez Freer, an agent who had arranged to show us a possible site for a lodge we were considering in parallel to the guidelines discussed at the conference. The ‘site’ we visited turned out to be a small rainforest in the central part of the country. Crossing over the suspension bridge of the Bosque Lluvioso Rio Costa Rica (Bosque Lluvioso) and into a wondrous private reserve with 7-kilometers of hiking trails, reception pavilion, restaurant and an astonishing variety of wildlife and beauty, we were smitten. Could paradise be any better than being surrounded by a sampling of the 850 varieties of birds in Costa Rica including Hummingirds, Oropendolas, Toucans, Parrots or Trogons, or the Howler, Capuchin, and Spider monkeys that could be seen flying across the canopy of the forest, or flowers including a sampling of the 1,300 varieties of Orchids in the country along with Gardenias, Hydrangeas, Bougainvillea, Heart of Palm, Heleconias, Red Ginger, Poppies, Birds of Paradise and the Costa Rican national flower, the Guaria Morada. The experience was not only a feast for the eyes but also for the palate as an abundance of fruits and vegetables were under cultivation everywhere on the property.

Our delight was tempered, though, as Sr. Jimenez informed us that this magnificent rainforest was about to be bulldozed and the trees sold to the highest bidder. Old growth, or primary tropical forests, are forests that have never been cut or logged. Secondary forests have been logged or disturbed in a significant way and are in the process of regeneration or restoration in varying degrees. Clearly, most of the Bosque Lluvioso was still primary with a small area cleared for agriculture in the early to middle part of the 20th century. Few people realize that one hectare of tropical rainforest can hold up to 650 tree species, more than all species of Canada and the continental United States combined! Because there are no clearly delineated seasons in the rainforest, trees continue their growth throughout the year becoming prized hardwoods for export. Logging tropical hardwoods like teak, mahogany, rosewood, and other timber for furniture, building materials, charcoal, and other wood products is big business with big profits. Unfortunately, the demand, extraction, and consumption of tropical hardwoods has been so massive that some traditional exporting countries of tropical hardwoods are now importing them because they have already exhausted their supply by destroying their native rainforests in slash-and-burn operations. The demand for tropical hardwood timber is damaging to the ecological, biological, and social fabric of tropical lands and has proven to be clearly unsustainable for any length of time.  

The more we learned about these remarkable treasures and how threatened they had become, the more we began to appreciate the perspective from an ecologist who, after years of research in the tropics, suggested that, “clearing an acre of rainforest to make room for a cattle pasture is like bulldozing the Sistine Chapel to make room for a parking lot.” It seemed a very appropriate analogy after our sojourn into what struck us as an experience in pure magic with life leaping out to us from every direction and filling our souls with beauty and wonder. How could we possibly allow this magnificent place in this beautiful country to be destroyed? We knew we had to do something on an intuitive level but what could we do given our naiveté and lack of knowledge of the country, it’s language and culture? We also considered the ethical question of whether or not foreigners should be allowed to buy sensitive lands in the country even if only for conservation. The decision that we made at that moment, clearly a knee-jerk reaction from the gut, was simply to buy it on the spot and then try to figure out what to do with it later on. We knew we had to come up with a plan to protect the forest in perpetuity and we also knew we had to link that effort up with a Costa Rican environmental organization dedicated to conservation. From this point forward in the story, our journey can only be considered an adventure into the inner workings of the Costa Rican genius for conservation and how these extraordinary people were able to set an example that the world would follow.

The National Biodiversity Institute (Instituto Naciónal de Biodiversidad-INBio) in Costa Rica with their mission and accomplishments had almost become legendary around the world. After decades of deforestation, Costa Rica began to take steps in 1980 to protect its’ natural environment and the government helped to establish INBio with a handful of scientists and entrepreneurs led by biologist Rodrigo Gámez Lobo. Prior to becoming President of INBio, Gámez was instrumental in establishing the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and was the leading force behind the management and transfer of biodiversity information within Costa Rica and around the world. In addition to the requirements in Costa Rican schools to be literate in reading, writing, and arithmetic, Gámez began implementing ecology and biodiversity education into school curricula. He coined the term ‘bio-literacy’ with the idea that when the youth of the nation had a better understanding and appreciation of their biological connection to their natural heritage, bio-literacy would help instill in them a desire to help protect their nation’s environment. It is clear to anyone who has visited the country recently that the efforts of these early visionaries and pioneers have been extraordinarily successful.

INBio turned out to be the perfect choice to establish a relationship with a Costa Rican conservation organization that might help us in our efforts to preserve the Bosque Lluvioso. At the time INBio was conducting the world’s first national Biodiversity Inventory of the entire gene pool of the country, a collection that ultimately included 4.6-million species catalogued scientifically utilizing the binomial nomenclature of genus and species. The entire collection was then labeled, digitized, artistically rendered and then stored in temperature-controlled vaults at INBio’s offices in Santo Domingo de Heredia. This collection, an international treasure of biological wisdom, would become the foundation for the establishment of the world’s first ‘Bio-prospecting Agreement’ between the pharmaceutical giant Merck and the Costa Rican people. Subsequent contracts were later developed with Bristol-Myers, Squibb, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and other drug companies around the world. Basically, this pioneering agreement was the first time in history that a host country would benefit economically from the intellectual property rights residing within that country’s vast repository of biological information and wealth.

At our first meeting with President Gámez at his office in Santo Domingo, we asked him if INBio would be interested in obtaining a forest to train their parataxonomists in the science of collecting species in the field. It was a type of request that few Costa Rican organizations ever received from foreign nationals. Our terms were quite simple: we would donate the forest to INBio for ₡1,000 Costa Rican Colon (approximately $2) and then form a partnership between the Pax Natura Foundation and INBio to jointly formulate a plan for the forest’s protection. He, along with the Board of Directors of INBio, were thrilled with our offer and so the property was donated to INBio at a ceremony at the Bosque Lluvioso in 1998. Present at the ceremony were INBio’s senior management, representatives from the Costa Rican government, environmental organizations, emissaries from various countries, and Trustees from the newly formed Pax Natura Foundation.

The gifting of this small rainforest back to the people of Costa Rica seemed to open a floodgate of gratitude and well-wishers both from within the country and from abroad. It quickly became very apparent there was considerable support internationally for any serious effort to protect and conserve tropical rainforests, especially in a politically stable country like Costa Rica. For example, while on a routine trip to the country, Carlos Jimenez, who had now become a Trustee of Pax Natura Foundation, mentioned that a friend of his, Sr. Federico Gutierrez, had heard about our project and would like very much to meet us. In our naiveté we informed Carlos that we did not have time on that particular trip but would try to make his acquaintance at a later date. This particular scenario repeated itself several times on subsequent trips until at last Carlos insisted on making the connection. We had quite a surprise at our first meeting with Sr. Gutierrez in his home high in the hills overlooking San José. His ‘Casa Giralda’ was a veritable museum and testament to an extraordinary life spent exploring distant lands and exotic locations where few ever venture. Helmets from ancient Sparta, tapestries from the Middle East, perfect spheres (Las Bolas) from the Diquís Delta and Isla del Caño in Costa Rica dating from 500-1500 CE, and artifacts from all over the world were replete everywhere. Uncertain of his motivations concerning our project and mission, we nevertheless shared our vision, had a lovely visit and conversation and then returned to our hotel.

Upon entering my room the phone was ringing and it was Sr. Gutierrez. “Randall, your project concept and plan are excellent but your presentation is lacking. Would you have time to meet a friend of mine tomorrow evening at his home in San José?” I asked him who is friend was and he said, “Oscar Arias, the former President of Costa Rica and winner of the Noble Peace Prize.” This time, I said yes immediately. Thus began one remarkable episode after the next with Sr. Gutierrez over several months that ultimately attracted five Noble Peace Prize recipients and a host of very talented experts in conservation and rainforest ecology. Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Betty Williams from the United Kingdom, José Ramos-Horta from East Timor, Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma, Edward O. Wilson from Harvard University and Dinah Davidson from the University of Utah all joined the Board of Trustees of the Pax Natura Foundation primarily because our mission was dedicated to the idea of ‘Peace with Nature.’ We now had a partnership in place with a very reputable Costa Rican scientific organization and an internationally recognized governing board to oversee our efforts not only within the country, but beyond its’ borders as well. There was one more surprise addition to our governing board whom we all had deeply admired for decades but had never even considered contacting until, unexpectedly, we were invited to a meeting in San José in early 1999.  Dame Jane Goodall, PhD, U.N. Messenger of Peace, British primatologist and anthropologist, National Geographic Explorer in Residence at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, President of the Jane Goodall Institute and founder of the Roots & Shoots environmental education program now operating in over 140-countries, wanted to meet with us and visit our forest in Costa Rica!

We shared a lovely evening at a private home in San José with Jane and her assistant, Mary Lewis and the next morning left for the Bosque Lluvioso. It was a beautiful sunny day as we crossed the suspension bridge over the Rio Costa Rica and set foot into a most beautiful forest. Walking the trails with her was a dream come true and I could tell she was back in her element and in total bliss. I sensed in her a desire for silence and so I picked up the pace and left her to her solitude. Just as I was delighting in having such a distinguished guest with us in the forest, I began to hear the pounding of drums and music that sounded like a concert nearby! In fact, it was a concert nearly seven kilometers away on a day that turned out to be a Costa Rican national holiday! I was horrified. I had never heard such an egregious infringement on the stillness and tranquility of the Bosque Lluvioso! As I began to walk back to her with a look of what must have appeared as shock on my face and began to apologize for the intrusion, she motioned to me to relax and then said, “Randall, don’t worry, I love the drums as they remind me of the old inspirational Tarzan movies when I was growing up!” We have shared many more wondrous moments together in the rainforest and in other places around the world and she graciously agreed to serve as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Pax Natura Foundation.  

The idea of ‘Pax Natura’ took root in the rainforest at the Bosque Lluvioso, but Jane and the other international trustees were interested in extending the concept beyond the forest’s boundaries. While wars have perpetually ravaged human civilization, an undeclared war has also been raging against the natural world. This conflict, while complex and difficult to define, came to the attention of at least one sovereign nation decades ago, a nation convinced that violence against nature was a far more insidious and dangerous threat to the long-term survival of the country’s population. So it seemed appropriate that Pax Natura would be born a country that was making every effort to extend to the natural world, at least in theory, some of the fundamental principles of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, especially Articles 1 & 2 establishing the basic concepts of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood. At an event at the Provincial Colonial Capital of Cartago, on September 14th, 2002, the administration of Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco declared “Peace with Nature” by proposing guarantees that, if approved, would have made environmental protection the “constitutional duty of citizens and the government.” In the ceremony on the eve of Costa Rica’s Independence Day, the President formally signed a package of seven constitutional amendments that would later be taken up by the country’s unicameral congress. “We ask the Legislative Assembly to make the historical decision of elevating the defense of nature to the highest legal degree in the land.” While this legislative initiative failed to become the law of the land under his enlightened leadership, all of us who were there shall never forget the response from the thousands of Costa Rican people who witnessed this extraordinary moment. They cheered, they clapped, and then spontaneously held each other and sang Costa Rica’s beautiful national anthem! None of us had ever felt such patriotism in our lives and could hardly believe what we had just heard. This wasn’t the narrow, often blind national fervor one sees in the U.S. on Independence Day or some other national holiday, this was a proclamation and patriotic affirmation for life in all its’ diversity on the planet! If patriotism in this form could ever extend across the globe, one could only imagine what a very different world this could be.

Unwittingly, after 2002, Pax Natura Foundation would soon begin to play a role on a global scale utilizing its’ governing board and expanding relationships within Costa Rica. While we began to consider a possible environmental education Exploratory and eco-tourist destination center to protect the Bosque Lluvioso, Rodrigo Gámez suggested that we contact La Selva Biological Station and EARTH University as possible partners dedicated to rainforest conservation and research. La Selva was founded by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in 1968 as a private biological reserve and research station. Since then, it has become one of the most important sites in the world for research on tropical rainforest with over 240 scientific papers published yearly from research conducted at the site. OTS is a consortium of universities primarily from North American. La Selva expressed interest in utilizing the student housing facilities at the Bosque Lluvioso but after our meeting with José Zaglul, President of EARTH University, our mission at the Bosque Lluvioso began to change.

EARTH University (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda), is very near the Bosque Lluvioso and we were very taken by the mission of this remarkable institution, “EARTH University’s innovative educational approach has been preparing young people from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and other regions to contribute to the sustainable development of their home communities while constructing a prosperous and just global society. EARTH offers a world-class scientific and technological education emphasizing ethical entrepreneurship and strong socio-environmental commitment. Shepherded by a prestigious international faculty, an EARTH education culminates in a four-year undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences and natural resources management.” So, at our first meeting at their extraordinary campus near Guápiles, we suggested they consider utilizing the Bosque Lluvioso for their educational outreach. But EARTH had another idea for us concerning the Bosque Lluvioso. Dr. Zaglul suggested we might want to contact the Fondo de Financiamiento Forestal de Costa Rica (FONAFIFO), the Costa Rican government agency responsible for implementing and managing what is called the, “Environmental Services Payment Program” (Pago de Servicios Ambientales-PSA). We came to realize, remarkably, that by enrolling our project into PSA we might be able to accomplish our conservation goal without developing anything on site. To understand not only how the PSA program came into existence, how it has helped to protect and expand the Costa Rican rainforest including the Bosque Lluvioso, and how it become an international model, we must look back at what prompted the Costa Rican government to develop perhaps the most successful forest conservation program ever conceived.

After decades of deforestation in Costa Rica in the early 20th century, the country had lost 54% of its forest cover in just 47 years and by 1987 had only 21% forest cover remaining. Fearing the loss of the country’s utility grid as a result of deforestation and the subsequent loss of watershed protection the forest provides, the Costa Rican government began implementing a series of forestry reforms in 1980 that culminated in the PSA program. Essentially, PSA became the world’s first REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) program targeting small to medium-size land owners with forest cover over a significant portion of the land. How this small country in Central America was able to implement the first REDD project is a fascinating story.

The Kyoto Protocol was the international treaty that emerged from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) committing member states to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions primarily from human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2), the principle driver of global warming. The Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on the December 11, 1997, and became operational in February, 2005. Eventually, 192 countries (Parties) signed onto the Protocol to reduce emission concentrations in the atmosphere to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The Kyoto Protocol will lapse in 2020 when the new Agreement, ratified at the COP-21 (Conference of the Parties) meeting in Paris in December, 2015, takes effect. Under this new agreement, member Parties would apply their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions (NDCs)” to reduce GHG emissions. The Paris Agreement left countries free to implement the most effective and efficient means possible to meet global emissions targets.

Under the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, a very important attempt was made to address the inequities of developed versus developing nations carbon emissions, or ‘luxurious versus survival emissions,’ under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Under the mechanism, a provision for the transfer of capital and technology from developed to developing nations was designed to remedy the imbalance and global injustice between emitter and non-emitter nations. Thus, a ‘cap and trade’ system was adopted into the Protocol, largely through the efforts of the U.S. led delegation, that based it’s assessment for implementation upon the success of the Montreal Protocol cap-and-trade system with respect to ozone depleting substances.

The idea behind developing a carbon market was really quite simple and elegant. To reduce emissions in the most efficient, rapid, and cost-effective manner possible given the constraints of current technologies, developed nations’ emissions would be capped with a provision to allow for the international trade of carbon credits. Cap-and-trade swas designed to help give industry and major polluters a way to meet emissions targets while simultaneously allowing industry time for fuel switching, renewable-energy development, carbon-capture and storage or other technologies designed to reduce emissions within their own countries. Eventually caps would be reduced to zero as global emissions stabilized to safe levels and the market for trading carbon emissions would go away.

Interestingly, under the Marrakesh Accords of the Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the COP-7 in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2001, specifically the provision for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, (LULUCF), the role of deforestation was recognized as a major contributor to global GHG emissions (roughly 15-20%). Unfortunately, under LULUCF, even though deforestation was recognized as a major cause of global warming, under the mechanism, only reforestation and afforestation projects alone would qualify for carbon finance (carbon offset credits), but standing, or existing forests would not. This oversight by LULUCF created a perverse incentive for countries to destroy the world’s remaining rainforests, including the immense biodiversity they contained, and then re-plant them in order to obtain carbon funding.

Incensed by this glaring offense to tropical forest nations trying to slow the rate of deforestation in their own countries, a ‘Coalition of Tropical Forest Nations’ within the UNFCCC strongly objected to this provision of LULUCF and took steps to insert into the convention a provision for ‘Avoided Deforestation,’ later morphing into ‘Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation’, or REDD, at COP-11 in Montreal in 2005. While REDD, and its’ offshoot REDD ++ integrating sustainable forest management and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries, has come under considerable criticism by conservationists and indigenous peoples the world over, Costa Rica was one of the first countries to implement a voluntary REDD program that significantly exceeded early expectations for forest conservation, and, in the process, addressed and resolved most major international criticisms of REDD. Hence, PSA was Costa Rica’s response to the glaring omission of REDD in the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, it was Sr. Franz Tattenbach, the Costa Rican representative to the Kyoto talks who argued eloquently against the injustice of excluding REDD from the protocol. Sr. Tattenbach, Director of FUNDECOR, a pioneer organization for sustainable development and responsible management of natural resources in Costa Rica, and forest engineer German Obando-Vargas, also with FUNDECOR, provided all of the technical work for the international validation of the Pax Natura project, the first validated REDD project in Costa Rica in 2007.

The PSA program has been funded since the mid-1990’s primarily by a fossil-fuel energy and watershed tax and the money used to pay landowners of small forests to not cut their trees. Within the provisions of the PSA program, the environmental services that standing forests contribute to the country were addressed by assessing an economic value to a tree standing in four areas: watershed protection; biodiversity conservation; scenic beauty; and carbon sequestration. For every dollar invested into the program, an amount was set aside proportionately for each of the environmental services that forests provide. Currently, there are approximately 7,000 landowners enrolled in the PSA program with an average forest size of approximately 28ha. Once a forest has been accepted into the program, the payments are distributed to the landowner once a year for five consecutive years with an option to extend another five years. Primarily as a result of this program, Costa Rica was able to stop the destruction of its standing forests, recapture approximately 33% of its land mass to forest cover in the last 30-years, and transition it’s economy from a non-sustainable agriculture base to eco-tourism. Everyone now wants to visit the country to take in it’s beauty and abundance that was made possible primarily by the PSA program.

By 1995 more than 800,000 foreigners were coming to Costa Rica to experience the vast biological diversity of the country in the national parks and private reserves. In 1999 over 1,000,000 came, and 2.6 million in 2015 brought in gross receipts of US$2.4 billion, or 4.8% of the countries total GDP. In 2014, the Global Tourism Monitor Survey revealed that Costa Rica was the top tourist destination in the world all because this small country decided to protect its watershed and standing forests.

Costa Rican REDD projects have come of age internationally and now offer other countries a model to lower their own emissions at a fraction of the cost of the other wedges of climate change mitigation. For example, it costs roughly 2$-5$/mtCO2 (metric ton of carbon dioxide) to lower emissions by protecting tropical rainforests through REDD finance versus $50 to $120/mtCO2 for carbon, capture, and storage (CCS), renewable-energy development, fuel switching, etc. Tropical forest REDD carbon credits constitute the low-hanging fruit in reducing global GHG emissions from deforestation and the spirit of the CDM and the Costa Rican example have made this possible.

The Costa Rican program also addresses international criticism of REDD in several important ways. Often times issues such as corruption, land ownership, and greed concerning REDD are lumped together geographically and rejected, especially from indigenous peoples concerned about land tenure issues. However, not all REDD projects are the same and it would be a mistake to level criticism across the board. In the Costa Rican example, the program simply rewards good stewardship of the land and is completely voluntary. Because small farms and the poor are targeted, PSA has surprisingly proven itself to be an effective anti-poverty program in the region. Farm owners enrolled into the program typically invest their proceeds into small-scale tourism or agriculture activities and, because no land is purchased or undergoes any ownership transfer as a result of participation in the program, the owner has the freedom to exit the program at any time. Owners must verify land tenure through the National Registry, which could include associations and tribal lands, and then, if enrolled, must voluntarily hypothecate the carbon stocks in their forests to PSA for the five or ten-year implementation period before the first year payment is received. After the completion of the contract, landowners are free to do whatever they wish with their property, including cutting trees. Concerns from indigenous tribes about the loss of sovereignty and property rights are thus very minimal under the Costa Rican PSA program.

To obtain international validation for specific projects, Project Development Documents (PDDs) in the host country require five to ten year deforestation rate analysis periods under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification standards. Monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) of forest carbon stocks are carried out through annual site visits, forest-engineers inspection reports, remote sensing, and other monitoring tools available to the government. Because the PSA program in Costa Rica is a nationally administered program, the issue of leakage has, somewhat surprisingly, proven positive. Leakage typically occurs under REDD when forest conservation efforts in one area result in deforestation in other areas of the country, or even other countries. In Costa Rica, primarily because conservation is a national priority, forest regeneration has actually been shown to increase directly as a result of the PSA program, referred to in carbon market jargon as ‘positive leakage.’ Because PSA targets small to medium size farms that are located in biologically sensitive habitat corridors, the program promotes biodiversity conservation and other impacts. For example, the Pax Natura Project was the first REDD project in the country to obtain validation to the highest ‘Gold Level’ from The Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) standard on 39,500 hectares of privately owned forest inside the Central Volcanic Range Conservation Area (ACCVC) in Costa Rica. The CCBA “identifies projects that simultaneously address climate change, support for local communities and small holders, and conserve biodiversity.”

Even though Costa Rica’s self-funded REDD program was well underway, we suggested to the government that Pax Natura could extend funding outreach for the PSA program to the REDD carbon markets internationally. Upon completing validation of Costa Rica’s first REDD project, Pax Natura formed a partnership with FONAFIFO and began marketing Costa Rican REDD in North America, Latin America, the European Union and Asia. Largely as a result of this effort, the Payment for Environmental Services protocol has been largely adopted by the coalition of rainforest nations and REDD was officially integrated into the mechanism at COP-21 in Paris in 2015.

It should be no surprise that Costa Rica has time and again demonstrated great leadership and set many examples for the world. First and foremost, “On Dec. 1, 1948 — almost 70 years ago— Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledgehammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall at the nation’s military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. Its imposing towers and massive gates had loomed over the capital city of San Jose since 1917, the country’s premier symbol of military power and the home of the “Tico” military establishment. Figueres was not just being a showman; he was announcing something truly extraordinary: Henceforth, Costa Rica would take the almost unheard-of step of renouncing its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he publicly handed the keys to the minister of education, announcing that Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and the nation’s military budget would be redirected toward healthcare, education and environmental protection.”

The savings from that effort has paid off handsomely. According to a World Health Organization report in 2010, “The Costa Rican State is about to celebrate its 70th year of healthcare management. It all started as social security for public sector workers, but eventually, the structure of the system was consolidated until turning it into one of the most effectively universalized healthcare systems in Latin America, both financially and geographically, and making it reach infant mortality and life expectancy indicators comparable to those of European developed countries.” Costa Rica now considers healthcare a basic human right. We quote at length from one of the great Constitutional achievements in history, “The Constitutional Chamber in repeated sentences, has developed the extent of the right protected in Article 21 of our constitution, thus recognizing life as the most important good that can and should be guaranteed by the Legal System, even giving it the status of principal value within the scale of personal rights. This is justified in the fact that without its enjoyment, all the other rights prove to be useless. Therefore, the Political Constitution, in its 21st Article, recognizes that human life is inviolable, and from there, the Court has derived the right to health as a fundamental one which, from all standpoints, must be guaranteed by this Jurisdiction. As a result, there is no questioning whatsoever about the constitutional protection of this fundamental right, inasmuch as it is inherent to the dignity of the human being.”

Forest cover in the country was 21% in 1987 and is now 54% today largely because of the PSA program. Without international agreements on REDD that Costa Rica has pioneered, there appear to be few alternatives other than good will to stop the total destruction of the rainforest, and there have been few instances where good will has succeeded. Nothing need be done under the Costa Rican model because it creates it’s own incentive to stop cutting the rainforest, nature’s masterpiece on earth containing 50% of the planet’s biodiversity and home to indigenous peoples and cultures for thousands of years. Taxing the fossil-fuel industry to protect nature has proven to be a very good idea in the country and should serve as a model for other countries as well.

Lastly, The Cost Rican people in referendum after referendum have managed to ban shark fishing off its’ coasts, gold mining within it’s borders, and offshore oil drilling. In spite of the neglect from the international community and numerous arguments to the contrary, Costa Rica has proven that economic development, environmental conservation, and basic human rights are not incompatible.

Randall Tolpinrud,
President, Pax Natura Foundation