Costa Rica: A Model for Sustainability

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By Erica Flock

The mountains north of Costa Rica’s capital city San Jose are covered in small coffee farms. To the untrained eye, they’re quite picturesque but Michelle Deugd of the Rainforest Alliance urges the group I’m touring with to look closer. These farms are missing an important, sustainable feature: trees.

Not only does coffee grow best under shade trees, this simple practice helps preserve biodiversity. The Rainforest Alliance works in Costa Rica and many other countries to help farmers adopt green practices like this and today we’re visiting one such farm: Doka Estate Coffee.

Unlike most of the farms around it, Doka is preserving its trees, phasing out the use of most pesticides, and incorporating many other sustainable practices. Quality coffee like this earns a better price in the market, and workers are spared the damaging health effects of pesticides. During the tour where we learn about the sorting and drying of coffee beans, we hear a variety of birds calling from nearby trees. Managed right, a coffee farm makes great habitat for wildlife.

Like many tropical countries, Costa Rica lost a significant portion of its forests to agriculture in the 20th century. The US was responsible for most of this damage: they provided massive “aid” loans to cattle farmers in Costa Rica starting in the 1960s in order to feed Americans’ growing appetite for meat.

It’s not easy to come back from losing 80 percent of your forests, but Costa Rica is making a valiant effort through its payment for ecosystem services (PES) program. Using revenue from a gas tax, the government is paying small landowners to help reforest the country, with special attention to water resources and areas of high poverty. Their goal is to have 60 percent of the country covered in forests, a significant feat for any country.

 

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Coffee beans drying in the sun at Doka Estate

 

This ambition is paying off for Costa Rica’s tourism sector: it now surpasses agriculture as the country’s biggest industry. People all over the world are drawn to Costa Rica’s renowned national parks and plentiful ecolodges.

In the midst of this tourism boom, the Rainforest Alliance is giving hotels and lodges the tools they need to run sustainably too. They train hotel employees and tour operators, provide marketing support to certified businesses, and strengthen international ecotourism standards. Their work complements the policies the Costa Rican government has passed to ensure that large and small businesses alike respect the country’s people and environment.

Nestled inside a cloud forest is an ecolodge that’s earned the country’s top green ranking: Villa Blanca. The lodge employs on-site composting and gray water treatment. Neighboring farms provide food for the dining hall and employees volunteer in the community. Visitors to the lodge not only soak up the transcendent beauty of the cloud forest, but also learn about green practices they could adopt when they go home.

Not all hotels in Costa Rica are doing it right. Some major hotel chains that offer all-inclusive coastal vacations don’t require visitors to engage with or give back to the communities they’re among. It’s a troubling, unchecked trajectory according to the documentary film The Goose With the Golden Eggs.

But with the help of groups like the Rainforest Alliance, that could change. “If there’s a country that can pull off [sustainability], it’s Costa Rica,” says Sergio Musmanni, ‎Senior Advisor of the Low Carbon Development Program at German Development Cooperation Agency in Costa Rica. Already, Costa Rica gets most of its energy from renewable sources and has banned hunting and mining. As the world moves toward a cleaner future, we would do well to look here for sustainable inspiration. 

 

Learn more:

Our work in Sustainable Tourism, Rainforest Alliance

Our work in Sustainable Agriculture, Rainforest Alliance

Happy 25th Birthday to Earth University, Earth University

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