The ups and downs of Costa Rica’s environment

Costa Rica has an environmental reputation that is the envy of many world leaders. There is no doubt that in some respects – its protected areas; its development of locally-based tourism; its zero-carbon aim – it is deserving of all the plaudits it receives. But there is no shortage of other respects for which the country deserves a few brickbats – its high dependence on plantation export crops; its excessive use of toxic pesticides; in some cases its surrender to corporate international tourism developments.

News of several developments of environmental significance during the last few months typify these contradictions. For The Violence of Development website, Martin Mowforth provides a round-up of several items of Costa Rican environmental news from the first six months of 2022.

August 2022


Global Environment Facility (GEF) supports Costa Rica’s transition to an urban green economy

In March 2022 the GEF invested in the project ‘Transitioning to an urban green economy and delivering global environmental benefits’, led by the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with the Organisation for Tropical Studies, an international organisation with a base in Costa Rica.

The project aims at decarbonising the Greater Metropolitan Area of Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, by providing $10.3 million (USD) to invest in the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by the city. The investment will go towards the improvement of public transport, the greening of approximately 2,000 hectares of land and the implementation of an integrated urban planning strategy.

Expanding the electric train network was one of former President Alvarado’s stated aims and although he has now been replaced by Rodrigo Chaves (April 2022 election) it is likely that some of the GEF funds will be used to continue the work which had already been started on this programme.

Other transport improvements stemming from the initiative include the construction of 8 km of bicycle lanes, 3 km of shared paths and pedestrian walkways and 20 km of green sidewalks with improved access.

Visitors to and residents of Costa Rican cities will be aware of the urgent need to improve the transport systems in the country’s cities most of which are known for their poor roads and traffic congestion.


Cocos Island National Park designated a Natural Shark Sanctuary

In April 2022, the Environment Ministry declared the Cocos Island National Park (PNIC) to be a Natural Shark Sanctuary and connected the protected area with the Sweet Gulf (Golfo Dulce) Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary. Along with numerous marine protected areas in the eastern Pacific (including the Galapagos Islands), the PNIC forms part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor.

These measures extend Costa Rica’s marine protected areas from 2.7 per cent to 30 per cent of the country’s seas. Much of the country’s seas suffer from illegal fishing which especially affects sharks.

The Vice-Minister of Water and Seas, Cynthia Barzuna, noted the “bays and islets in the protected waters of Cocos Island National Park, serve as habitat, nursery and transit for fifteen species of sharks.”


Crocodile feeding in the Tarcoles River

The Tarcoles River is a favourite tourist location for watching crocodiles, but some tour guides have developed the habit of feeding the animals which can be a dangerous activity. Some tourists are even invited to take part in the feeding which is sometimes undertaken at close quarters.

The National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) has received several complaints that the feeding continues even though it is known to be illegal. Rafael Gutiérrez, executive director of SINAC, said that “feeding crocodiles exposes the lives of many tourists [to danger], as well as the person who is feeding the animal.”

Particularly where young crocodiles are concerned, the practice is likely to lead to the build-up of a dependence in the animals on food brought for this purpose. Some ecologists have also said that it is likely to lead to disruptions in the ecosystem.


Attacks against the Indigenous peoples of China Kichá

In May 2022, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco Calí expressed his concern about recent denunciations of tear gas attacks on and arbitrary detentions of Cabécar Indigenous peoples by the Public Force, essentially the police service of the country.

More than 370 people from 150 organisations signed a petition to the authorities against the violence suffered by Indigenous peoples in their territories. The attacks have included many fires started over 800 hectares of the 1,100 hectare territory. There have even been attempted assassinations as a result of the conflicts between non-indigenous people and the Indigenous who are legally recovering their land.

In March the weekly Costa Rican newspaper, Semanario Universidad, conducted a study which showed that almost all the recovered land had been consumed by fire whereas land belonging to non-indigenous people was almost completely free of any kind of damage.

The police have shown systematic bias against the Indigenous people trying to defend their recovered land.


UNDP warns Costa Rica about its excessive use of pesticides

In May 2022, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) produced a report on the diagnosis of health effects due to the use of pesticides in Costa Rica. The high use of pesticides affects the health and threatens the lives of plantation workers who are regular victims of toxic poisonings.

According to the report:

  • Over 65 per cent of poisonings occurred in the agricultural sector, particularly in banana, coffee and pineapple plantations, these three being the country’s main crops.
  • Health effects can include: different types of cancer; Parkinson’s disease; male infertility; damage to the cardiovascular and immune systems; damage to the blood, digestive, dermal, respiratory and ophthalmic systems.
  • Most of the intoxications were related to diazinon, paraquat, and glyphosate pesticides.
  • Between 2010 and 2020, 58 deaths were due to poisoning in the country and these were mainly associated with the use of agrochemicals.

Costa Rica continues to use pesticides that have been eliminated or banned by international organisations and agreements signed by the country. This includes paraquat whose high toxicity is well documented and widely acknowledged.


Water supply and climate adaptation project (PAACUME)

In early May 2022, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI / BCIE) loaned $425 million (USD) to Costa Rica to fund the Water Supply Project for the Middle Basin of the Tempisque River and Coastal Communities (PAACUME).

The project is intended to provide the Guanacaste region with water for human consumption, agriculture and tourism for the next 50 years. By providing a new source of water, it is also aimed at re-activating the economic and social development of numerous cantons in the region.

Additionally, it will help people, especially farmers, to adapt to the difficult conditions caused by climate change by providing a permanence of water.


Costa Rica generates more electronic waste than any other Latin American country

According to a report by the Regional Monitor of Electronic Wastes in Latin America, Costa Rica generates the greatest quantity of waste electrical and electronic equipment (known as WEEE in the UK, but as RAEE by its Spanish initials) of the 13 Latin American countries studied. Moreover of the total generated, only 8 per cent is collected for environmental treatment.

The report was published at the end of January 2022 by the United Nations University and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

Despite this poor record, Costa Rica is one of only three of the 13 countries studied which had specific legislation relating to the treatment and legal responsibility for RAEE.


And finally …. what the new Costa Rican President thinks of his own country

In Davos, Switzerland in May this year, the new Costa Rican President, Rodrigo Chaves, expounded his views on what problems faced the country, and principal among his concerns were the dreadful state of the rivers and waterways, social inequality and the poor state of public services.

More details of his speech and interviews are given in a separate article in this set of additions to The Violence of Development website.