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While Latin America deforested, Costa Rica gained forest. Why?

While Latin America deforested, Costa Rica gained forest. Why?

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz

A new study by the United Nations Organization for Agriculture (FAO) gives us the bad news: 70% of deforestation in Latin America between 2000 and 2010 occurred to make way for commercial agriculture, but it also shows to Costa Rica as a model country that managed to take a reverse route.

What makes Costa Rica so successful? FAO attributes the growth to state support and its incentives to conserve forest cover and in particular to the Payment for Environmental Services (PES) program.

Perhaps you have never heard of PES (hopefully so), but it is one of the most successful public environmental policies in the history of the country and is frequently used as an example to reproduce the model in other countries.

In essence, this program is simple: if you keep the forest on your property, Costa Rica will pay you. The official definition speaks of "financial recognition by the State" to the owners and possessors of forests and forest plantations "for the value they give their forests.

A little reminder for those of us who quickly forget: Costa Rica was a forest disaster for much of the 20th century and until the 1980s. FAO itself explains that:

Forests were previously considered “land banks” that could be converted as needed to meet agricultural needs

We went from having 75% of the country covered by forests in 1940, when today's octogenarians were being born, to having 21% in 1987, when we reached the worst moment of our forest cover, as this graphic from Revista Vacío shows.


This graph, produced by Rodrigo Ruiz for Revista Vacío, shows the percentage change and the approximate geographical change of forest cover.

(Credits: Vacío Magazine)

Now, we have more than half the country with forest cover and, of that cover, about 50% of the country's forest area is in protected areas, where the forest law prohibits the change of land use.

What happened?

Well, the PSA and its predecessors happened.

The PSA was built on the basis of other policies in previous decades. As SINAC officials Francisco González and Sonia Lobo explained in a presentation made in 1999 (when the green country model was still taking hold):

In 1979, in order to reduce the pressure on forests and incorporate new options for forest products into the national market, the income tax deduction system was established, aimed at individuals or legal entities who wished to develop forest plantations for commercial purposes. .

In 1986, with an amendment to the Forestry Law, another mechanism was created: the Forest Manure Certificate. What was this doing different? Not all people or companies with forests on their properties could access the income deduction system, so the CAFs were created, which could “be negotiated or used to pay taxes, national and municipal rates or any tribute, or be made effective in the National Stock Exchange, ”González and Lobo stated at that time.

Then, in 1997, the PES was created, the mechanism that the FAO indicates has done so much good for the country. Between 1996 and 2015, investments in forest-related PES projects in Costa Rica reached $ 318 million.

The Program pays precisely for these four environmental services provided by forests (which are defined in the 1995 Forestry Law, if you feel curious):

  • Carbon capture (remember the process of photosynthesis, where plants use carbon dioxide and release oxygen?)
  • The protection of water for rural, urban or hydroelectric use
  • Protection of biodiversity
  • Natural scenic beauty for tourist and scientific purposes

The effectiveness of the program improved over time. In the environmental chapter, the State of the Nation 2015 explains that between 1997 and 2000 the PSA prevented two out of every 1,000 hectares protected under this modality from being deforested annually, which is equivalent to ten hectares out of every 1,000. (The authors clarify that although this impact seems small, this is due to the fact that deforestation rates were already low at that time.

As the program took hold, the rate grew. Over the next five years, the rate doubled: between 2000 and 2005, 20 hectares out of every 1,000 (four per year) were preserved.

In a study carried out in the Sarapiquí area and published in 2012, a group of scientists analyzed farms vulnerable to deforestation with and without PES and managed to conclude that the Program increased forest cover between 11% and 17% of the average forest area.

In general, PSA is more efficient away from National Parks, as a 2015 study showed, something that is likely related to the level of enforcement near national parks.

These lands are usually more secluded and, for the owners, the opportunity cost of conservation is lower. What does this mean? That they are large owners who generally consider that the payment made by the PES is sufficient and that, if they use the land for something else, they could not get the same benefit from them.

With food safety

While the other countries of the region deforested their forests to make room for agricultural production, Costa Rica managed to reduce the pressure of crops of basic products in favor of the conservation and sustainable management of forests, without losing food security.

This, in fact, has had an increase since the 1990s, due to increases in agricultural productivity and the import of food from countries with lower production costs, according to the new FAO report. The organization's latest reports on food security are positive (although there are poor, landless and vulnerable rural families who suffer the consequences of food insecurity).

This is key: if Costa Rica manages to conserve its forest cover while maintaining good levels of food security, why can't the rest of the region?

Eye to the Climate


Video: Costa Ricas reforestation efforts promising (June 2021).