Costa Rica considers ways to sustain reforestation success

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Costa Rica has gone from having one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world in the 1980s to a nation centered on ecotourism, attracting travelers from all over the world with the possibility of moving between marine reserves and the forest. cloudy in one day.

But the Central American country known for its lush jungle and rich biodiversity now faces a dilemma as one environmental priority – reforestation – clashes with another – reducing the use of fossil fuels.

The program that has paid landowners for 25 years not to cut trees depends almost entirely on fuel tax revenue, which is set to disappear by 2050 as Costa Rica converts public and private transportation to electricity with the goal of achieving net zero emissions. The government is therefore looking for alternative financing options.

These could include new taxes or a modified mix of existing taxes. Tourists who flock to see brightly colored toucans, sloths and frogs may one day see a charge on their hotel bill to help conserve the forest. And Costa Rica will continue to press developed countries – the biggest polluters on the planet – to compensate countries that do more than their share to store carbon.

Reforestation in Costa Rica received a boost last year with President Rodrigo Chaves’ announcement of $16.4 million from the World Bank for forests that reduce carbon emissions. The program will bring in a total of $60 million by the end of 2025, money that Costa Rica hopes can double the area of ​​protected forest.

The money is a step towards the international community doing its part to preserve the precious forest, said Jorge Mario Rodríguez Zúñiga, director of the National Forest Financing Fund, known by its Spanish initials FONAFIFO.

“If it benefits the world, it is right for the world to help protect it,” he said, adding that he hopes that one day soon he can say that all private forests in Costa receive an incentive. .

Demand for farmland once weighed heavily on Costa Rica’s forest cover, which fell to 21% of the national territory in the 1980s, with nearly 125,000 acres being cleared each year. Even though Costa Rica invested heavily to create national parks, the government realized that something had to be done to conserve private forests as it worked to promote ecotourism.

A forestry law passed in 1996 created the Payments for Environmental Services (PSA) program, funded by the gasoline tax. It paid owners about $60 per 2 1/2 acres (1 hectare) annually for four “environmental services”—water, scenic beauty, biodiversity, and carbon—associated with conserving the forest. The program currently enrolls over 680,000 acres (276,000 hectares).

With the carrot came the stick: strict rules and penalties for land use changes.

Tourism has rapidly grown so much that agriculture’s share of the economy has been eclipsed, from 25% in 1982 to 4.2% in 2019. Meanwhile, visits to protected natural areas have fallen from around 500,000 in 1990 to over 1.7 million in 2019.

Some landowners were already philosophically inclined to conserve their forest.

Floripe Córdoba and Siegfried Kussmaul had decided even before the program started that they wanted to let the forest take over the 8 acres near San Jose where they had grown coffee and raised cattle, although they said some neighbors thought they “crazy”. They now receive about $300 a year from the program, a largely nominal amount for them since they live comfortably off his pension from years as a geology professor.

“When I preserve, I let all the insects, even the smallest ones, the fauna and everything in the forest have their place,” said Córdoba, a former tourist guide who walks through the area daily. forest. On one such walk, Cordoba pointed out her favorite trees and identified passing butterflies.

Surrounded by cattle ranches, Kussmaul said, “Neighbors see us and say, ‘What a waste of land!'”

World Bank money is open to landowners who are not already enrolled in the Costa Rica program. But it only reimburses carbon, one of four “environmental services,” raising the question of whether $18 per 2 1/2 acres (1 hectare) will appeal to many landowners.

The Foundation for the Development of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range, FUNDECOR, a non-governmental conservation organization, has for years helped landowners enroll in the PSA program. Executive Director Mario Piedra welcomed the decline in funding that will come from fossil fuel reduction, but said replacement options must be found beyond what the World Bank program offers.

“What they haven’t understood is that with $7 or $18 per hectare per year, it’s impossible to improve the sustainability of these areas in the long term because it’s very little money. “, did he declare.

Rodríguez, director of FONAFIFO, said he knew $18 wasn’t much, but said his organization was looking for additional funding that would cover the addition of biodiversity as an environmental service to be offset. In the meantime, the program offers retroactive payments to those who owned verifiable forest land as early as 2018.

Officials are also trying to make it easier. Landowners can register through a website, with the government in most cases using satellite imagery rather than a site visit to verify the existence of the forest. And where PSA forces landowners to hire a forester to help them watch over their timber – at a cost of up to 18% of government payments – World Bank money does not.

Rodríguez said FONAFIFO hopes to find the money to make payments beyond 2024. And Piedra and Rodriguez talked about tapping into private capital markets to set up systems that would offset conservation efforts.

FONAFIFO spoke with Costa Rican tourism officials because this industry is one of the biggest beneficiaries of forest conservation, but no tax for this purpose exists and now is not the right time to launch one given the ongoing economic difficulties of the pandemic, Rodríguez said.

One indicator that tourists may be willing to bear some sort of levy: A voluntary scheme in which they were offered a chance to offset emissions from their vacations raised $600,000 last year.


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