San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Blue Flag program outlines broad environmental goals for next five years

Since 1995, the Blue Flag program has helped Costa Rica clean up polluted rivers, beaches and oceans and mitigate the effects of climate change. It has convinced business owners and communities of consumers to use less electricity, fossil fuels, water and paper. And it is constantly expanding with new environmentally responsible initiatives.

This week, members of the National Blue Flag Commission, which oversees the coveted Blue Flag award program, announced goals for broadening the program in the next five years.

By 2017, the commission hopes to increase the number of local committees participating in the program by 66 percent, from 2,216 to 3,681. They hope to boost the number of beaches flying the Blue Flag from 114 to 124. And they plan on registering 290 homeowners in a new category – sustainable housing – which represents a 700 percent increase in the next five years. The commission already has awarded 40 Blue Flags for sustainable housing since the category was created.

“The Blue Flag program has shown in its 18 years that it is an excellent tool for development, and improving public health and well-being in harmony with nature,” Blue Flag National Commission coordinator Darner Mora said on Tuesday, at a conference at San José’s Hotel Crowne Plaza.

A sustainable project

The Blue Flag program awards beaches, communities and schools that uphold certain environmental standards. According to the commission, the program helped reduce electricity consumption in 2012 by the equivalent of 33,996 tons of carbon dioxide. Also, fossil-fuel use decreased by 942 tons, water consumption by 112,920 cubic meters, and paper use by 5.7 tons, the commission said.

As the tourism industry grew in Costa Rica in the 1990s, beaches became popular destinations for tourists, real estate speculators and hotels hoping to cash in. The result was increased pollution and degradation at some of the country’s most precious coastal areas.

The Blue Flag program was created as a response to the destruction by convincing communities, organizations and businesses to protect natural resources. That helps draw more sustainable business.

“The program’s philosophy is to award those who do things well, and to make them an example for others to follow,” commission member Alberto Quintana said.

It started with beach-protection efforts, but today, the Blue Flag program has several award categories that include communities, schools, protected nature areas, watersheds, climate-change mitigation, sustainable homes and special events.

A commission administers the program and is composed of various government agencies, including the Costa Rican Tourism Board, Environment Ministry, Health Ministry, Costa Rican Electricity Institute, Education Ministry, and several others.

Some 1,500 schools in Costa Rica proudly display the Blue Flag. The commission hopes to boost that number by 1,000 in the next five years.

The commission also hopes to train more municipal officials in environmental conservation, so that they can guide their communities through the process.

“Local governments should participate in the Blue Flag program to improve public health in their communities,” Mora said.

On Tuesday, Mora also announced two projects to help finance the program in coming years: public and private sponsorship programs to help with logistical support and to buy needed items, and a funding partnership with Banco Nacional.

Another major goal of the commission in the next five years is to clean up the heavily polluted Virilla-Tárcoles river basin. The Tárcoles River, which originates in the Central Valley and empties into the Pacific Ocean, is the most polluted river in Central America. It flows through five of Costa Rica’s seven provinces – San José, Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago and Puntarenas.

“The [Virilla-Tárcoles] watershed is the most polluted in Central America. Although there is liquid waste, it’s mostly polluted with solid waste. The only way to clean it up is through education and getting people involved in the project,” Mora said.

To win a Blue Flag, communities must form a committee, register with the commission and present an annual plan with specific steps to protect natural resources.

At the end of each year, candidates must demonstrate progress to commission members, who issue the awards.

Companies also use the program to meet social responsibility goals through waste-treatment and water and energy conservation, Quintana said.

For more on the Blue Flag program, see:

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