Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Demilitarization to Bioliteracy: How Costa Rica has Become a Biodiversity-Friendly Country

One of the most well-known facts about Costa Rica is the elimination of its military army in 1948. The long-term, positive impact this decision has had in the nation’s development is a collection of benefits that we are still discovering and learning about as we move forward. You may be thinking: what does demilitarization have to do with biodiversity?

For 64 years, several generations of Costa Ricans have been born under a State that has a very high regard for human life. Having no military implies that under no circumstance, a political conflict will become violent through the use of weapons. It also implies that no aggressor, no invader, no trespasser that attempts to violate the country’s territorial integrity or sovereignty will ever be repealed using institutional, violent means.

This decision has shaped the mindset, culture and professional choices of millions of people throughout the last few decades. Most importantly, it has built in many of us the awareness and sensitivity to appreciate life in all its forms, since we have not been taught or raised to end, destroy or offend the lives of other humans.

The conditions of peace that Costa Rica has offered since 1948 have allowed many people to develop expertise in science, arts and humanities, a possibility that is unfortunately difficult in nations that endure long, violent conflicts. Since the 1950s, Costa Rican professionals specialized in fields that offered optimal learning conditions in the country’s natural environment. Today it is a very pleasant part of our history that renewable energies were developed since 1955 as an opportunity to generate electricity from the abundant sources of hydropower along several of the country’s rivers, lakes and waterfalls.

One of the results of these peaceful conditions for human development has been a growing bioliteracy over generations. I would define bioliteracy as the understanding of ecological processes and the richness that derives from them. In a country with outstanding natural characteristics, one is very frequently faced with amazing natural beauty and wealth, making it easier to develop empathy and appreciation for birds and snakes, trees and flowers, whales and dolphins that visit and live in Costa Rica. 

This bioliteracy has facilitated the adoption of the mentality “know-save-use” regarding biodiversity. First, it is important to know the natural wealth in a country’s surrounding ecosystems. As you hear a bird sing or appreciate a colorful tree blossom or experience the might of a whale in open ocean, it is easy to feel a connection with other life forms. Then, making political and economic efforts to preserve ecosystems and save species is more likely, as there is high awareness of such unique high concentration of living organisms in a fairly small territory like Costa Rica. As a result, the use of natural resources for human development and economic growth will happen in observance of other living beings.

This poses an interesting dilemma that needs to be decided by every generation’s leaders: should progress cost us our natural environment? In 1979, leaders chose to stop deforestation, preserve remaining forests and recover the ones that had been lost. A few people made an invaluable contribution to Costa Rica’s biodiversity by implementing an innovative policy that offered economic incentives for conservation. Today, we talk about Payment for Environmental Services, and it is said to be a policy innovation made in Costa Rica. This has recovered nearly half a million hectares of forests, transferring to property owners some US$200 million (JP¥16,000,000,000) in the course of three decades of public, private and international efforts.
In times when humanity’s consumption of renewable and nonrenewable natural resources provokes an ecological footprint that far exceeds the planet’s ability to naturally recover and replenish them, Costa Rica has become the focus of international attention as a result of the country’s economic success while simultaneously reforesting and improving ecosystemic performance. In the last 30 years, Costa Rican GDP has tripled and forest coverage has doubled. This, more than a case of sustainable development, is a case of regenerative development. Instead of setting the goal of not harming nature, Costa Rica has accomplished the goal of enriching nature while improving socioeconomic conditions for its people.

Innovation and entrepreneurship have become important components of this process. In 1989, a group of local and foreign visionary experts followed Dr. Rodrigo Gámez’s initiative to create the Biodiversity Institute, a non-governmental, not-for-profit institution that has been declared of public interest by the government, due to its enormous contribution to environmental conservation, scientific discoveries, bioliteracy and ecosystemic recovery. A few weeks ago, at the COP 11 that took place at Hyderabad, India, Dr. Gámez was awarded the AEON Foundation Midori Prize of Biodiversity, a well-deserved recognition for his efforts to improve the quality of all forms of life on Earth.

For nearly 25 years, the Costa Rican tourist industry has become instrumental in the promotion of ecological tourism, offering abundant business opportunities that have triggered private innovation in the form of ecological activities such as canopy or tree rappelling, surfing and river rafting, as well as tours for bird-watching, whale-watching and turtle-watching.

Public innovation has also played a significant role in the process of improving facilities and conditions for tourists to enjoy nature intensely. In 1996, a public program called Ecological Blue Flag was introduced to promote a healthy competition between tourist destinations, nature reserves and national parks, hotels and government institutions, to comply with sustainability requirements in order to obtain a blue flag that is to be displayed publicly. Every year, each entity must renew its “blue flag” status, raising national and international awareness about these efforts, which attract tourists by the hundreds of thousands.

In 1999, Costa Rica received one million foreign tourists for the first time. Ten years later, it reached two million, despite terrorist attacks in New York or the global economic recession.

Today, the country’s aspiration is to become a global leader in green growth, promoting regenerative development through ecological tourism, commercial use of biodiversity for biotechnology and attracting more modern technologies for renewable energy generation. With this strategy in place, a strong relationship with a country like Japan could create shared value for mutual benefit, and also for the benefit of people from other countries and even for other forms of life.

I hope I have managed to explain the relationship between demilitarization and biodiversity, and explain why Costa Rica means “rich coast” in Spanish, and why it is recognized as the country that has made Peace with Nature.

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