Once an Eco-Paradise, Costa Rican Parks Falling on Hard Times

by John Burnett

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, Oct. 13, 1997 - Ricardo Rodriguez sits at a picnic table inside the national park he manages and watches the blue Pacific pounding the sickle-shaped beach. Nearby, a white-faced monkey searches for food scraps, while an iguana lolls in the sun.

Visitors awed by the natural beauty of Manuel Antonio National Park and Costa Rica's other spectacular wilderness areas don't understand how much trouble they're in. But Ricardo Rodriguez does.

"They knock on our door everyday and say, 'Hey guys, we need the money, because that's our land,'" he says.

Twenty-five years after Manuel Antonio was created, it is still only half paid for. Moreover, 17 percent of Costa Rica's national parks still belong to private landowners, who legally have the right to cut timber on their inholdings, though few do.

"They try to tell us, 'We need land for our cattle. We're going to cut it down if you don't pay,'" Rodriguez says. "We say, 'Okay, we don't have money, we're looking for money. Take it easy.'"

Internal economic problems and critics say government indifference have put the parks in peril. Costa Rica's national debt is devouring 25 cents of every dollar in the treasury. And foreign donations have begun to dry up as international donors are taking their projects elsewhere.

Interviews with more than two dozen conservationists, biologists and government officials reveal serious concerns that this nation is not living up to its own environmental rhetoric - either in supporting its famous park system or in halting deforestation.

"The government talks a lot about protected areas, biodiversity, sustainable development, but the practice of that is not so true," says Mario Boza, who is considered the father of the Costa Rican parks system after he helped create it in the 1970s.

"I think politicians have overestimated what we are doing in conservation," says Julio Calvo, director of the respected Tropical Science Center in San Jose. "It's true we're preserving natural forest, but it's also true that we have not been able to stop deforestation, or the pollution of our rivers."

Even the nation's chief administrator of the protected areas system complains that most of the time he feels like just another special interest begging for attention from the Costa Rica congress.

"The politicians have recognized that national parks have attracted a lot of foreign currency because of ecotourism," says Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, who oversees the nation's 1.5 million acres of nature reserves, "and they use the environmental issue in every political campaign. But there is not the political will to really work to resolve our problems."

Conservationists inside Costa Rica say that the lack of funding of national parks has reached crisis levels.

"In some areas in those parks we find what we call empty forest. You see the forest, but there are no animals. They were hunted. We cannot protect the area," says Mario Boza.

A few examples:

  • The number of guards in Corcovado National Park - the crown jewel of the system - has fallen from 60 to 13.
  • There are no rangers at Baulas National Marine Park, meaning the park service is unable to patrol it or charge entrance fees.
  • Poachers are looting sea turtle nests on the unprotected beaches of Tortuguero National Park, on the Atlantic Coast.

"In Tortuguero, maybe one percent of the coastline is guarded," says Leslie du Tout, a South African sea turtle activist who lives in Costa Rica. "We walked about a mile and a half of the beach and found seven (endangered) leatherback (sea turtle) nests, and all of them had been robbed."

It's not that the parks can't pay for themselves: they earned four million dollars last year in entrance and research fees. But Costa Rica's cash-poor central government has to raid these earnings in order to pay for other urgent national needs.

"There's not enough money for the roads, so the roads have potholes," says Amos Bien, director of the Association of Costa Rican Private Nature Preserves. "Everybody's protesting, so the government takes money from some things and puts it into potholes. The schools are having problems, so the government makes a big effort. But the hospitals are having problems. Well, some of national parks haven't been paid for. You can pay for the parks, but you have to take it from something else. And it goes around and around and around."

Costa Rica - a country smaller than West Virginia - has more bird species than the United States and Canada combined. To its credit, this nation has taken advantage of this extraordinary biodiversity by creating one of the most extensive protected areas systems in the world. Eleven percent of its territory has been set aside for national parks; that's the equivalent of the United States declaring all of Texas and Oklahoma as nature preserves. Costa Rica accomplished this in the 1970s and 80s, when coffee and cattle prices were good, international aid was generous, and the country could afford to buy up undeveloped wilderness.

The environmental record of a small Central American republic might not seem important, but Costa Rica is held to a higher standard. It is looked to as a model by the rest of Latin America. Its stable democracy, strong middle class, high literacy and its brain trust of skilled biologists have earned it tens of millions of dollars in international environmental aid. If conservation is going to work anywhere, experts say, it's supposed to work in Costa Rica - which has dubbed itself a "laboratory for sustainable development."

"We've done, in a lot of ways, as much as we can," says Katrina Brandon, a conservation biologist at the University of Maryland and an expert in sustainable development in Central America. "What's required now is an extraordinary demonstration of political will. And unless that political will is forthcoming, then you're not going to get effective conservation in the country. People know what needs to be done. But it's just not happening."

Nature tourism has now become Costa Rica's richest industry, earning $700 million last year, even surpassing bananas and coffee exports. Costa Rican conservationists hope the country realizes it will have to take better care of its renowned wilderness areas if it wants the tourists to keep coming.

Copyright 1998 John Burnett

This article or any portion of the article that appears on UT-LANIC may be downloaded, quoted or referenced with the stipulation that it be credited to John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

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