1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Essential Matter: Biodiversity Protection and Action Research in Costa Rica

1 Sep 1998

The greening of Costa Rica:
Costa Rica has gained worldwide recognition as a country that is actively promoting environmental protection, particularly in relation to forests and biodiversity. Sharp variations in ecological zones and the fact that nearly a quarter of the nation is under tropical forest, make Costa Rica one of the world's most biologically diverse countries. At least half a million species, roughly 4 per cent of the world's terrestrial living species, are thought to exist within the national territory of only 51,000 square kilometres.

While the contemporary wave of environmentalism dates back nearly three decades, it was not until the late 1980s that the "greening of Costa Rica" assumed more tangible dimensions. Deforestation declined sharply in the early 1990s, while reforestation and natural regeneration increased considerably. According to some estimates, average annual deforestation fell from 50,000 to 10,000 hectares, while the area under secondary forest nearly doubled between 1984 and the early 1990s. There was also a three-fold increase in forest plantations during the first half of this decade.

Costa Rica is perhaps best known for its protected areas, which today cover approximately one quarter of the country. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, many such areas were known pejoratively as "paper parks", because their protected area status existed only in legal documents and not on the ground. In recent years, however, a series of institutional reforms and improved funding have facilitated the task of administering and regulating some national parks and reserves. In the space of a decade, tourism — much of it "ecotourism" — moved from being a relatively small foreign exchange earner to becoming one of the country's largest.

Many other conservation initiatives and institutional innovations have added to Costa Rica's reputation. They have included numerous agroforestry and community-based natural resource management projects; promotion of timber certification and ecolabelling for certain crops such as coffee, bananas and vegetables; debt-for-nature swaps; decentralization of environmental protection programmes; greater involvement of NGOs in conservation activities; and partnerships with Northern transnationals in such fields as bioprospecting and carbon offset programmes.

Questioning the model
But how effective have these efforts been in promoting key aspects of sustainable development that have to do with both environmental protection and human welfare? How much remains at the level of policy guidelines or objectives, amounts to piecemeal initiatives, or focuses too narrowly on environmental goals to the exclusion of social aspects related to people's livelihoods? And to what extent are concepts like "participation" and "empowerment", commonly used by actors and organizations supporting conservation efforts, actually applied in practice? These questions were posed in research recently conducted by the Universidad Nacional (UNA) of Costa Rica, as part of the UNRISD project on Social and Political Dimensions of Environmental Protection in Developing Countries.1

The research showed that while progress has certainly been made in various fields, the reality of natural resource conservation in Costa Rica does not quite match the country's international image. Case studies of a number of local-level conservation projects and initiatives, complemented by an analysis of national environmental policy making, were oriented toward identifying the key institutional, social and political conditions that account for what, in practice, is a fairly mixed record.2 Four findings, in particular, help explain the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Contradictory government policies
First, from the perspective of sustainable development, government policy can be somewhat contradictory. In the 1990s the Costa Rican government intensified its efforts to promote structural adjustment programmes that not only implied a fairly substantial unravelling of social safety nets, which had been an important feature of the Costa Rican model of social democracy, but also restricted the capacity of the state to administer or provide resources for conservation programmes and policies. Some aspects of natural resource management and regulation were "privatized". For example, responsibility for drawing up forest management plans, which companies must have in order to obtain logging permits from the government, is being increasingly assumed by forestry engineers, acting as private consultants, rather than by public officials from the Ministry of Environment and Energy. At the same time, large NGOs or foundations have assumed de facto control of several of the country's main national parks and reserves. This has occurred in Guanacaste, the Osa Peninsula and the Central Volcanic Mountain Range. While such developments can improve efficiency, they have also raised a series of important questions about whether, or to what extent, natural resources in the public domain should be managed by private interests rather than public institutions.

Structural adjustment has also been associated with the reduction of certain fiscal and financial incentives for reforestation. The drive to promote agricultural exports has involved the rapid expansion of banana production and so-called "non-traditional" crops, heavily dependent on agrochemicals — several of which are banned in the industrialized countries. Banana production has also encouraged the clear-felling of some forest areas and the break-up of more diversified and environmentally benign peasant farming systems. Structural adjustment policies have affected rural producers in other ways as well, restricting their access to credit, support services, technical assistance and basic social services. As a consequence of such trends, pressures on natural forests have been intensified, and by the mid-1990s there were signs that rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss had again increased in certain areas.

Second, efforts to promote the decentralization of conservation programmes have been problematic. While the devolution of power and responsibility to local resource users and institutions may, in many contexts, facilitate sound environmental management, there is sometimes a fairly wide gap between the theory and practice of decentralization. At times, institutional changes associated with decentralization have had the effect of paralyzing decision making and administrative processes related to conservation. Moreover, decentralization has not always facilitated the meaningful participation of local resource users in decision-making processes nor has it necessarily furthered an integrated approach to natural resource management. The question of which local institution actually acquires greater rights and responsibilities is often determined in a top-down manner, not negotiated with the diverse interests that exist locally. Some of the large environmental NGOs and foundations that now administer protected areas have tended to adopt a fairly technocratic approach to conservation and have failed to co-ordinate their activities effectively with municipal authorities.

Local communities
Third, the success of community-based programmes and projects has been undermined by the fact that many local communities have little in common with the harmonious social ideal that planners and project personnel tend to associate with the term "community". On the contrary, communities are often rife with social division which may undermine attempts to promote community action for conservation and work against the equitable distribution of the costs and benefits associated with environmental projects. Furthermore, suspicion of outsiders (including conservation agency personnel) may run deep, particularly in forest communities located in isolated areas that historically have been marginalized or under threat from outsiders. In such contexts building and sustaining trust — essential to project success — can be extremely difficult. In short, local culture, identity, and social relations in forest areas can assume very distinctive and complex forms that environmental planners and project personnel need to comprehend.

Token participation
Fourth, although Costa Rica's democratic tradition has facilitated dialogue and consensus politics, the range of actors involved in shaping mainstream environmental policy (including representatives and officials of government departments, multilateral and bilateral assistance agencies, a few large NGOs and some academic institutions) has tended to remain somewhat restricted. These groups have often adopted a top-down approach to natural resource management, despite the fact that they commonly uphold the need to promote "participation", "empowerment" and "integrated development". "Participation" often amounts to little more than token consultation with local resource users or organizations. Many interventions that aim to conserve forests and biodiversity lack an integrated vision or strategy to address both environmental and human welfare objectives. Income-generating components of environmental projects often prove too small to significantly improve household security and reduce the pressures on forest resources or fail due to bureaucratic resistance. Some prove unsustainable because limited attention is paid to marketing, training, technical assistance and land tenure issues.

From research to action
The senior researchers involved in the UNRISD project — Antonieta Camacho and Silvia Rodríguez, from the UNA Schools of Social Planning and Environmental Sciences — did more than simply end their work on a critical note. They went on to facilitate a participatory approach to environmental decision making and analysis that contrasted sharply with the conventional top-down approach described above.

Beginning in 1995, they invited representatives of forest communities, indigenous groups and NGOs to a series of workshops. One of their aims was to consider a range of issues, including the role of local communities in generating knowledge on biodiversity, as well as in managing, marketing and protecting natural resources; the ways in which other actors such as business enterprises are using natural resources; and how local communities and groups might best respond to threats to biodiversity, livelihood or human rights. In a meeting with NGOs, the implications of global trends associated with free trade and intellectual property rights were also discussed. Another purpose of these meetings was to design a response to the problems that had been identified, and to formulate an action strategy that would allow these groups to be heard in relevant decision-making fora at the national and regional levels. In addition, the workshops generated ideas for projects and technical initiatives to preserve and improve biodiversity.

The researchers also became involved in action at the national level. Representing the UNA, Silvia Rodríguez was appointed to head a special commission of the National Assembly mandated to draft a biodiversity law. Drawing on her considerable experience in the field of participatory action research, she supported efforts to bring to the negotiating table not only the social actors and stakeholders who traditionally shaped the nation's environmental policies and programmes, but also those who were often marginalized in consultation and decision-making processes. The latter included representatives of smaller NGOs, grassroots organizations, indigenous peoples and the public universities. Five months of dialogue and negotiations led to the formulation of a draft law which was signed by President Figueres in May 1998. Thus, Costa Rica became the first country to enact a comprehensive biodiversity law that systematically incorporates into national legislation the principles and guidelines contained in the Convention on Biological Diversity signed by most governments at the Earth Summit in 1992.

An important aspect of the law is its explicit recognition of "intellectual community rights" associated with biodiversity. Although international agreements and national legislation in this field tend to emphasize the intellectual property rights of private enterprise, the Costa Rican biodiversity law also aims to protect certain aspects of indigenous knowledge and local resource management practices. Therefore, Antonieta Camacho and Silvia Rodríguez are currently developing a participatory process through which it will be possible to register specific practices and forms of knowledge qualifying for protection under the law.

Peter Utting is Project Co-ordinator at UNRISD.

1 Case studies were also carried out in the Philippines and Senegal. Publications related to these studies include: Towards Participatory Conservation? Environmental Politics and Practice in the Philippines, edited by Peter Utting, forthcoming 1999; Discours et réalités des politiques participatives de gestion de l'environnement, edited by Peter Utting and Ronald Jaubert (UNRISD/IUED, 1998, Geneva).

2 The final report by Antonieta Camacho and Silvia Rodríguez is currently in press. Processos socio-políticos en torno al aprovechamiento y conservación de recursos naturales en Costa Rica (1990-1996), Editorial Fundación UNA (EFUNA), Heredia, Costa Rica.