In 2003, young reporter Carlos Arrieta and retired English teacher Rodrigo Arias met frequently either at one of their homes or at a local pub in Cartago, east of San José, where the two live. Although they are from different backgrounds, the two share a common interest in protecting the environment.
Friends soon joined in the discussions, which mostly focused on ideas to protect Costa Rica’s biodiversity. As the group grew, the two decided they would take their passion for environmental issues into the political arena. They founded the Green Ecological Party in September 2004.
In the past seven years, Arrieta has campaigned twice in national elections, in 2006 and 2010, hoping to represent Cartago with a seat in the National Assembly. In 2006, Arrieta and the Green Party received only 1,604 votes. In 2010, they received slightly more, with 2,901 votes. Still, both remain hopeful they can pick up a congressional seat in 2014 elections.
“In the last five years, people’s political consciousness has shifted,” Arias said. “Voters have realized the importance of strong environmental policies and they are starting to demand it from their candidates.”
The Costa Rican political landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. In 2001, more than 90 percent of congressional seats belonged to members of the two traditional parties: the Social Christian Unity Party and the National Liberation Party. Today, lawmakers from eight different political groups occupy the Assembly’s 57 seats, representing a range of ideologies.
Still, Arrieta and Arias say that Costa Rica’s environmental movement isn’t fairly represented in Congress.
“Some political parties have a certain commitment with environmental issues, but it’s not a priority for them,” said Arias. “Citizens Action Party has fought vigorously against harmful projects, including mining and oil exploration, and we respect that, but people concerned about the environment deserve to have their own legislator.”
Both men say they shy away from labeling themselves politicians. But operating outside traditional political norms has its consequences.
“Sometimes people don’t even listen to us because they believe environmentalists are against progress,” Arrieta said. “That’s a huge misconception. If we ever obtain a seat in Congress, voters will see how the Green Party’s strategy is based on sustainable development and not just the exploitation of nature.”
“Sometimes people believe only college students are the ones who fight for the environment,” said Arrieta. “This is especially true in the rural areas.”
“By 2014, many voters will have been born in the nineties, when environmental awareness gained momentum internationally,” Arrieta said, adding that, “these young adults have been raised under new paradigms and the Green Party will benefit from this, because we offer a fresh political option.”
But can older voters be persuaded? Arias thinks so. “Voters of a certain age have witnessed the deterioration of living conditions. During their childhood, they likely grew up next to rivers and trees. Today, much of that’s gone and they feel sad.”
One of the party’s legislative objectives is to ban the use of plastics in many Costa Rican industries.
“Plastic should be part of the past,” Arrieta said. “Most of the world’s pollution is caused by it. We will strongly push for new regulations in the country so that only biodegradable plastics are allowed.”
The Green Party supports more environmental education programs and curriculum in schools.
“Students should go through an environmental education process from the very early years,” Arias said.
“This type of education should be mandatory in both public and private schools,” Arrieta said. Such an initiative could also create jobs, as many biologists are currently unemployed.”
The party’s third proposal is the creation of an environmental police force to patrol and levy fines against litterers, polluters, illegal loggers and other environmental violators.
But such big plans seem a long way off. In the short-term, the Green Party must first convince voters to vote them into office, and that takes money and time. Party members organize games of bingo and hold bake sales to pay costs.
“Important political figures have approached us and offered money to make the party grow,” said Arrieta. “But we have refused their help. We prefer to stay loyal to our principles and grow at our own pace, no matter the costs.”