San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

V.P. Elect Speaks on the Environment

The administration of President-elect Laura Chinchilla, of the National Liberation Party (PLN), faces some stiff challenges upon moving into the Casa Presidencial in May. Among those challenges is moving toward achieving the goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2021. Outgoing President Oscar Arias has espoused this idea in myriad public appearances since the goal was announced in 2007.

This aspiration, in many ways, entails all things environmental, from preservation to electricity and energy consumption. Perhaps in a move to win over some of the doubting ecologists who were opposed to many of the policies of Arias’ reign, Chinchilla selected 70-year-old Alfio Piva as one of her two vice presidents.

A biologist by profession and a former director of the National Biodiversity Institute, Piva proposes to make conservation “the motor” for Costa Rica’s future. He was founder of the NationalUniversity’s school of veterinary medicine and he cofounded the University of Costa Rica’s college of zootechnics.

Recently, The Tico Times sat down with the new vice president-elect to discuss conservation, carbon neutrality and clean energy.

TT: Costa Rica has verbally committed itself to carbon neutrality by the year 2021. But even with the reforestation that has taken place, critics doubt this goal is feasible unless serious action is taken in the transportation sector. What is this government’s proposal to transform the transportation sector by 2021 in order to reach this goal?

AP: Carbon neutrality is a really important goal, and reforestation is a major part of it. We need to continue reforestation for a very simple reason: Costa Rica is a very rugged country. When you have a naked mountain, erosion is increased and people’s concerns are increased. (We need) more trees, but not just in forests.

If you look at Costa Rica’s land, there is still a great portion that isn’t forested. I don’t believe that there isn’t space to reforest. There is space in farmland, in fields.

Remember that in the forestry law, we have to maintain forest cover 50 meters along (the banks) of every river. The majority of the rivers, not only in the Central Valley, but also in the Northern Zone and in Guanacaste, are still missing trees … So, there is still space for millions of trees.

And, as these trees grow, they will be able to capture a great quantity of carbon … If every child in school were to plant 5, 10 or 15 trees, they would carry the idea that caring for the environment is a positive thing.

And, in 20 years, not only have they learned to value this idea, they have planted thousands and thousands of trees. This has other advantages, too. Trees planted along rivers help clean up the water as well. Reforestation has many advantages.

But what about cleaning up transportation?

We have to consider the possibilities of electric transit, such as electric cars. We can lower taxes on these cars to make them easier to obtain. We are still very far from a sufficient electric car market, but I think we can start moving toward this. But what I think is most feasible is the improvement of electric mass transportation.

All the great cities, such as Madrid in Spain and Berlin in Germany and many other cities in Europe, have a great quantity of electric transport. We also can have this in our future, but it would require a change in mentality to begin an electrification process. We have a great advantage in this country in that we generate more than 90 percent of our electricity from renewable sources. This is an advantage that many other countries don’t have.

But here, there is an education problem. We need to prepare our drivers, our engineers, our system administrators if we are to install a first-rate mass transit system.

Do you have new hopes for Costa Rica’s energy sector?

We have great geothermal energy potential in this country – more than what we are taking advantage of at this moment. We also have great wind potential in this country, and we can build more wind generators. Our goal in these four years is to reach 100 percent production by renewable energy.

Do you think the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) is well enough equipped and has sufficient financing to make these changes?

Yes. ICE is a noble institution. It’s a technically sound institution. But over the last years we have quit investing in new projects, and this has delayed us by 10 years with some of these projects. Today, ICE is building various large projects and planning for others has begun … A really good project is the new hydroelectric plant on the Pirrís River (70 km south of San José), which is about 70 percent built. The dam has new technology problem is that ICE hasn’t made sufficient investments in the last 15 years in long-term projects. (Hydroelectric) projects are long-term, for example. You must study the river. Will there be filtration? Will there be ecological problems with the water, with the fish? Will the government have to expropriate property? These are very thorough studies and complex processes that take 15 years. So, ICE has to invest money today to get results 15 years down the road.

In recent years, ICE has had to accommodate much higher demand very quickly.

The only way to do this quickly is through thermal energy. It’s not that the ICE wants to install more thermal plants. ICE has been working on renewable energy plants, but these require more time and planning. And, in the meantime, ICE has built thermal plants for backup in case hydro and other renewable sources fail.

Now, as for the bill in the Legislative Assembly. It creates the possibility of amplifying (the energy output of) ICE by encouraging private investment in the energy sector. Costa Rica … has capped private generation at 15 percent and fewer than 20 megawatts. But with all of our new electric devices and transportation, if we are to have enough power to supply the country, it’s important that we have participation on the part of private generators, at least in small projects of 50 megawatts. If private investors build four of these plants, that’s 200 megawatts of electricity.

When it comes to energy, there are a lot of options. We can build plants that burn biomass. A couple of well-equipped landfills could help us out with this, and that would be a way to solve two problems. The options are plentiful.

According to Gruas II, 11 percent of Costa Rica’s preserved areas is in private hands and 12 percent is in public hands. The report states that the 12 percent in public hands lacks personnel and funds. If Costa Rica wishes to protect 90 percent of its biodiversity, should the country encourage more private conservation?

Conservation is a very delicate, but very important, topic. It seems to me that the national parks and the various areas under protected status should remain under the administration of the state. I participated in the drafting of the biodiversity law. It’s a shame that this law, for one reason or another, hasn’t been implemented 100 percent.

It has always required other laws. We have taken steps toward planning a good administration of our parks. What we are lacking is the implementation of these measures. You say that funds are lacking and it’s possible … This is a developing country that doesn’t have funds for everything.

So, amongst everything – including infrastructure, security, the Social Security System and conservation – we have to see how to make the funds we have meet our needs.

Are there ways to find more funds for public conservation?

There are possibilities in conservation to find new funds. One idea that we believe is important, that occurred to me as I was visiting Rincón de la Vieja (in the Northern Zone), is that ICE can explore and produce geothermal energy in one portion of the park and compensate the state for the portion it used. ICE can place a small fee on each user, and this fee can be used for new funds to finance conservation areas.

Increasing park sizes has problems. The state is around $150 million in debt for its protected areas, which is mostly money owed to private landowners (within the boundaries of the parks). We are paying this debt at a slow pace, which we have to increase. To increase this debt (by expanding parks) sounds irresponsible. The idea of Gruas II is that, through a system of biological corridors, we can include new conservation areas, areas that are now in private hands.

But if its private and you offer incentives – like the payment for environmental services – you can ensure that these private landowners also take care of the environment.

By not increasing the load of land payments you must make, you can increase the 11 percent of ecosystems that aren’t protected right now.

Less than one percent of Costa Rica’s marine areas are protected. How will the state protect them in a way that considers the needs of those people, such as fishermen, who depend on the sea?

The idea is the same as on land. We haven’t done a careful analysis of the sea … When you look at the fishermen of this country, you see some of its poorest people. The most important is the Pacific zone. What you are seeing is fishermen traveling further and further out to sea to find fish. The catch size has diminished 50 percent, and fishermen not only catch fewer fish, but smaller ones as well. Fishing has become completely unsustainable. (These circumstances) will force us to have to regulate. And you have to start with scientific knowledge. You need to know the quantity and the species of each zone.

We can’t allow free fishing everywhere. We can’t fish, for example, with dragnets where 75 percent of what is caught is thrown away. Fishermen have to be more selective with their methods … And, we have to regulate some areas as reproduction zones. If we don’t allow these species to reproduce, they will disappear from the sea. (Regulation) not only favors biodiversity, it favors the fishermen, too.

Conservation isn’t just for humankind, but for a better equilibrium between man and nature. Remember that conservation is a human problem. Destruction, that’s man’s doing. Therefore, conservation also has to be man’s doing. It’s a human problem.

Whether I’m a minister, a fisherman, or a judge, it’s our problem. And we have to resolve it with intelligence and with scientific knowledge.

I believe with a little intelligence, a little bit of will and cooperation, we can make conservation a boon for Costa Rica. My dream is that we can reach a point where conservation is the motor of development for Costa Rica. We can be the first country in the world where conservation drives development.

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