San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica Builds anEcological Debt

Costa Rica has long presented itself to the world as a country that promotes environmental friendliness and sustainability. But those who live here are no strangers to its green struggles.

The State of the Nation report reveals a new indicator that measures the ecological footprint the country is stamping on the earth. In 2008, the use of Costa Rica’s natural resources was 12 percent higher than the land’s capacity to heal.

The new environmental barometer measures the use and capacity of the nation’s forested land, its agriculture, livestock and fishing industries, and the country’s ability to absorb carbon released by vehicles and other sources. Costa Rica’s “eco-debts” stem primarily from an increase in carbon emissions and the use of its wooded lands.

A growth in population and a consumption pattern that continuously usurps more acreage of productive land are the two major reasons for the deficit, the report concludes.

The new criterion comes even as the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) constantly chimes, “We have increased the amount of forested land from 20 to 51 percent in the past two decades.”

Throughout much of the 1990s, recuperation of forested land continued at about 9,000 hectares per year. But that rate has slowed to an average of 3,000 hectares per year in an era when the national market’s demand for wood is on the rise.

While the report acknowledges that Costa Rica has left a smaller footprint than the world average, it categorizes the self-styled “green-nation” as an “eco-debtor.”

For the country to climb out of the hole, the report claims, it is “necessary to act quickly to reverse the tendency. The more time the excess exists … the higher the risk will be of the collapse of ecosystems and potential permanent losses of productivity.”

The 50-page “Harmony with the Environment” chapter is packed with statistics and figures, but perhaps most alarming are those related to contamination.

In stark contrast to the rest of Central America, 99.4 percent of Costa Rica’s population has access to clean drinking water. But that accomplishment is tainted by the lack of attention given to wastewater.

Between 2000 and 2008, the percentage of the national territory that was served by wastewater sewer systems fell from 31 to 25.6. As a result, the number of underground septic tanks has risen throughout the decade, posing threats to subterranean water supplies.

And regarding air pollution, in Heredia, north of San José, the number of contaminating air particles per cubic meter rose from 51 in 2005 to 58 in 2008.

The report also declares that the majority of municipalities don’t treat solid waste. More than 90 percent of municipal budgets goes toward trash collection and street cleaning instead of implementation of integral recycling plans.

Two major natural disasters recently tested the country’s ability to face unexpected adversity.

In May of 2008, tropical storm Alma dumped record rains along the Pacific coastal region and flooded many communities. And in early 2009, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Chinchona, north-northwest of San José, caused deadly landslides and claimed dozens of lives.

The aftermath of both disasters gave rise to serious questions about the vulnerability of thousands of Costa Rica’s small towns in the face of Mother Nature’s worst hits. According to the report, only 56 percent of the municipalities affected by Alma were equipped with regulatory and evacuation plans.

“What we have seen in this section is that there are a lot of environmental conflicts,” said Jorge Vargas, sub-director of the State of the Nation. “Local problems become national problems. What happens with the deforestation in relation to the gold mine in Crucitas affects us all. Conflicts over allocation of water, such as in Sardinal, the same. These issues will mark Costa Rica for the next several decades.”

–Mike McDonald


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