New plan to save Costa Rica's national parks

Posted: 17 July 2006

Twenty per cent of Costa Rica's terrority has been granted 'protected status', yet conservationists worry that biodiversity remains threatened without long-term financial commitment to the country's national parks.

Eco tourists, Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Photo: P. Bubb
Eco tourists, Monteverde, Costa Rica. Photo: P. Bubb
Eco tourists, Monteverde, Costa Rica. People are attracted by the beauty of the cloud forests, the mountain environment and the rare birds. © P. Bubb
Tourism in Costa Rica is at an all-time high and surveys show that most visitors want to see the country's renowned national parks, home to an eye-opening array of colorful plants and rare wildlife. Yet efforts to secure Costa Rica's protected areas have been blighted by limited human and financial resources, ineffective regulations, neglect of vital ecosystems that lack protected status and failure to involve local people.

In facing these challenges, the government and international conservation groups have joined forces to draw up an ambitious plan to provide long-term funding for Costa Rica's protected areas. The prinicipal aim is to safeguard the country's biodiversity through research, ecotourism and community development.

"The protected areas system in Costa Rica needs a radical change," says Mario Boza, one of the founders of the country's national park system. "This project aims to make the necessary administrative, economic, and ecological adjustments to consolidate the nation's protected areas."

Boza, an advisor to the Ministry of Environment and Energy, points out that one of the main challenges is to ensure financial self-sufficiency of the country's park system. Although the protected areas generate funds that cover basic administration and protection costs through entry fees, most of these funds are directed into a central government account unrelated to conservation efforts.

"We need to create a mechanism that will make parks more autonomous and provide an incentive to generate as much income as possible," Boza says. "This could include allowing parks to apply for bank loans as private businesses do, or converting them into public enterprises."

He adds that the park's financial problems are so serious that it is even difficult to pay for fire prevention and toilet paper for visitors.

Hunting bane

Illegal hunting is another problem. It threatens to transform protected areas into "empty forests" - forests with vegetation but void of wildlife. The lack of forest rangers is also an obstacle to conservation. "We need to provide the parks with resources to hire guards who are trained to defend our parks and allow the fauna to recover," Boza says, adding that parks such as Tortugero National Park, in northeastern Costa Rica, and Carara Park near the Pacific coast, already show signs of becoming empty forests.

Boza believes that if local people do not benefit from protected areas, they are unlikely to help protect the wildlands. "Local communities don't receive many benefits from the parks - opportunities need to be created for them to offer goods and services to visitors," he says. He points to Las Baulas Marine Park on the Pacific coast, where local women sell food and crafts to visitors and, as a result, have become the park's most supportive allies.

Boza was in charge of the first phase of the project. Some of the most important achievements during this one-year project included an executive decree to promote the sale of non-essential services in protected areas; a national environmental strategy; a training program for park guards; and a decree that will allow for the charging of residents for water provided by public and privately owned forests, which will generate around US$30 million per year.

The project's second phase aims to secure financial self-sufficiency of the country's protected areas. National organisations such as the National Biological Institute, the Environmental and National Resources Law Center (CEDARENA), and the National University's International Center for Political Economy are helping in the effort.

Experts working for CEDARENA believe that the country must also pay attention to its wildlands that have no level of protection, mainly in biological corridors, marine-coastal areas, and privately owned forest land. The organisation is also exploring various tourism options that would benefit local people living close to the national parks.

The last phase of the project, scheduled for end of 2006, hopes to support ecotourism in the country's most popular national parks.

Mario Boza believes that the project has the potential to become a model for Latin America and developing countries around the world and that Costa Rica's protected areas could be "transformed into an economic and social force for the country."