San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

British MPs eye Tico environmental program

Members of the British House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee came to Costa Rica this week to learn about Costa Rica’s Environmental Services Payment (PSA) program, an initiative established in 1996 to safeguard forests and promote reforestation in degraded areas. 

The PSA program provides payments to landowners for protecting forested areas and planting new trees. Environmental services are defined in Costa Rica’s Forestry Law as four benefits that forested areas provide to the wider community: carbon sequestration, watershed protection, promotion of biodiversity and landscape beauty. The program is highly regarded globally as a way to incentivize landowners to protect land.

In a 2011 white paper, the British government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested the implementation of an environmental services program. Dan Rogerson, a 36-year-old Liberal Democrat from North Cornwall and a Commons environment committee member, made the trek from the U.K. with colleagues to see how Costa Rica’s PSA program has played out in the 15 years since its implementation.

The Tico Times caught up with Rogerson on Monday to talk about what he’s learned. Excerpts:

TT: Why come all this way to study this program in Costa Rica?

DR: There are three of us, and we’re members of the Environment Committee in the House of Commons, and our job is to scrutinize what the government department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does. So, we look at things they’re proposing to bring forward in terms of legislation and also how they spend taxpayers’ money.

This particular inquiry we’re doing is into a consultation they’ve published on payment for ecosystems services, which clearly Costa Rica has been a pioneer in doing as a country and as a government. So, we’ve come here to find out more about that to help inform our report at home.

We met with [Costa Rican Environment Minister] René Castro [on Monday] morning. We heard about the background, where the policy came from, what the origin was, his feelings about successes and challenges and then the international dimension as well. He has great hopes that through international links, what’s been accomplished here could be replicated throughout the tropical region of the globe. It’s a very ambitious thing to set out to do, but you know, a lot of this stuff needs to be done.

What aspects of Costa Rica’s PSA program have you discussed?

We’ve talked about reforestation, which is the obvious physical manifestation. I was keen to ask [Castro] about whether wildlife … has come back, or have you got these sort of empty, quiet forests? He said that was a challenge, and they had to look at the species of trees that were coming back and so on. The best and most effective way is to allow nature to recolonize areas, and that’s when native species come back, and that’s when the animals will come too.

We’ve had the chance to talk to members of Congress about … difficulties with payments, and whether [payments] are enough to compensate for the loss of [a property’s] primary business purpose. 

Is Costa Rica’s PSA program transferable to the U.K.?

The report we’re doing is because the government has started a consultation on adopting a similar sort of policy. Clearly it’s going to be adapted for the U.K.’s situation, maybe with slightly different emphases, but it’s the principle that’s the important thing. We’ve taken evidence from farmers’ representatives, from industry, from a whole range of people and we’ll carry on doing that, but as part of it we thought it would be good for at least some of us to come and see here in Costa Rica the place where it began.

One of the complications would be that we’re obviously members of the European Union, so we already have a common agricultural policy, so there are some payments through the subsidy regime there for environmental goods. …

This process, as the government here is looking at, for example, power generation through water and how much those industries should be paying back into the environment, we’ll be doing the same thing. 

We’ve got a lot of renewable generation of power, so that involves more things out in the countryside, whereas the traditional model has been a great big power station on the edge of a city. That’s a very different model going on there. As those developments take place, things like landscape, for example, are taken into account, because tourism is quite important in an area like mine. I represent a place called Cornwall, which is in the southwest on the Atlantic coast of the U.K., and tourism is very important to us there, as well as agriculture. 

So it’s trying to balance all these things. The approach to me, though, seems to be giving the environment, as it is, a place at the table when these things are discussed. So it’s not just focusing on the producers, the processes and the consumers, it’s actually looking at the whole in which they all sit.

As a member of the environment committee, what environmental challenges do you see the U.K. confronting?

Food security is a big thing where it wasn’t perhaps five or 10 years ago. … So it’s about balancing that, and current negotiations on reform of our agricultural policy will reflect that more. But we remain absolutely committed as a country and, I think, on a cross-party consensus of the three main parties, that we need to do our bit to tackle climate change, and also more broadly than that to foster biodiversity and to not just cut down on our exploitation of land, but to actually increase the biodiversity to make a positive impact.

Have you discussed shortcomings of Costa Rica’s PSA scheme?

I think you can’t just pick up the experience here in Costa Rica and drop it in the U.K. So for example, how agriculture works will be different and where and how the process unfolds.

But what perhaps we’ve heard a little bit is that while there seems to be great support across the country and consensus in that this is the right way to go, there could be some changes to help particularly people who have been involved in farming in some of the provinces to continue to do well and to prosper, having moved away from a more intensive use of land.

What would a similar program look like applied in the U.K.?

What this proposal would do is set up local partnerships which will involve industry, [nongovernmental organizations,] local council members and others to set the priorities for a particular area [and] to come up with a way of managing that process. So, it’s very much pro-sustainable development; it’s not anti-all-development. It’s not fossilizing everything, but it is about ensuring that with any development that takes place there will be things like the substitution of lands. If something has to be in that location, can we recreate that area somewhere else? If not, is that the right place to do it? So that kind of process creates these local nature partnerships and there will be areas designated. There’s an applications process at the moment for the first few of these areas to be designated, where we will pilot the program and we’ll see where we go from there.

What do you expect to take back to the U.K. with you after this trip?

First of all, an understanding of how the program has worked, as we’ve said, successes and failures. Secondly, how the people have become involved as a whole and how they’ve accepted this approach, because as politicians, we have to justify policies to the people who put us there. And you know, we’ve all seen examples across the world where there might have been something that was a good idea, but in the way it was implemented they lost the people and it [fell] down.

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