Costa Rica: A Model of Sustainable Development

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SEATTLE, Washington — Costa Rica is well into its transformation from a poor, rural economy into one that is modern and prosperous. Development in Costa Rica has emerged along environmental lines, providing a model for other countries in sustainable growth.

Over the past 25 years, Costa Rica has tripled its GDP. Signs of development include a 97.8 percent literacy rate, widespread cellphone service, universal health care, high vaccination rates, long life expectancy and vast access to potable water. Typically, when a country undergoes such a transformation, it causes environmental degradation in the process. However, this was not the case in Costa Rica.

The process of development in Costa Rica did not drastically increase its carbon dioxide emissions. This feat was achieved by focusing development on clean energy. Half as much carbon is needed to produce Costa Rican goods as for U.S. goods. The electrical grid has been running on clean energy for months, and, among a small handful of others, the country aims to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

During the 1800s and 1900s, the Costa Rican government provided land as a form of welfare. This system allowed citizens to control their own livelihoods and created a foundation for equal economic growth. Farmers built commodity networks and the average citizen had a voice in the development process. These networks worked closely with the government to voice concerns the government met them with action, not repression.

While the land grant program paved the way for an equal economy, it did have consequences on the environment. Deforestation was rampant in order to provide enough land. Now, the government seeks to right this wrong through its payment for environmental services (PES) program.

The PES program helps protect land outside the country’s natural reserves, by compensating landowners who conserve forests and the water supply. These practices, in turn, benefit Costa Ricans as a whole, creating a cycle of prosperity. As of 2013, the PES program provided benefits for 8,000 landowners.

To supplement the PES program, the government implements fuel and water taxes that promote clean energy, hybrid vehicles and biofuels. The government also banned deforestation and designated approximately 20 percent of the country’s land into untouchable natural reserves.

Through such programs, the government aims to cover 60 percent of land in forests, a significant restoration after 80 percent deforestation. In Costa Rica, the short-term environmental consequences are being addressed and offset by long-term development goals.

Development in Costa Rica does need improvements, but progress is ongoing and promising. For example, the country lacks public transportation, causing significant vehicle pollution. Still, the country’s background and progress thus far suggest more gains will be achieved. In 2013, Costa Rica was one of eight countries to receive a World Bank grant to help implement a cap-and-trade program. Tourists and businesses are charged voluntary taxes to offset their carbon emissions. The combination of emissions reduction and forest restoration efforts ensures Costa Rica will achieve its development and environmental goals.

Other developing countries can use Costa Rica’s progress as a model for their own transformations. Key lessons from Costa Rica are investment in agriculture, strong government, and strong institutions supported by the government and the people. Development in Costa Rica shows that when the people, the government and the land have a symbiotic relationship, green growth and economic prosperity are well within reach.

McKenna Lux

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

McKenna Lux

McKenna lives in San Diego, CA. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, and a Master’s in International Relations from Leiden University. McKenna was a four-year coxswain for UC Santa Barbara’s rowing team.

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