Conservation and Your Vacation
In the early 1990s, area governments entertained the idea of the Paseo de la Pantera (Panther's Path): an unbroken strand of protected forest lands stretching along the Caribbean coast of Central America which would guarantee the range that wild animals need in order to survive.
Although this project was funded by a consortium of conservation organizations, it foundered in the face of opposition from indigenous and campesino groups. Indigenous lands often have extensive forests, and governments have rarely been concerned with giving native people legal title to them. Poor farmers often lacked title as well.
Both groups were aware of Central American history, in which elites have taken the most desirable land and pushed native people out. Native people feared a land grab that would banish them, once again, from their homes.
With time, even strict conservationists came to see that it was unnecessary to prohibit all human activity in order to preserve nature. They also began to understand that large tracts of land could never be assembled if the needs of local residents were not met.
Conservation and Costa Rica's Social Democracy
In order for large scale conservation efforts to work, local communities must be active and well organized. Costa Rica's vital grassroots democracy lent itself to the task. In contrast to most Latin American countries, Costa Rica celebrated it's first democratic election in 1889. Elections have continued almost uninterrupted through the present day. But what is truly impressive is the level of community organization.
President Daniel Oduber (1974-78) said, "Humans must not be the object, but the subject of their own development." He believed that the well being of rural communities was intimately linked to the health of the nation. He formed the National Directorate for Community Development (DINADECO) to help communities organize themselves to address their needs for water, electricity, healthcare and cultural activities. Advisers would travel by jeep, motorcycle or horseback to make sure that communities had the tools they needed to form successful organizations. Today, DINADECO is no longer very active, but the culture of community involvement persists.
Building on its traditions of grassroots democracy, the Ministry of the Environment has encouraged citizens to form Natural Resource Vigilance Committees (COVIRENAS). These volunteer groups are active in almost every rural area of the country, educating their neighbors about illegal logging, poaching, fishing, trade in endangered species, water protection, and how each person's actions can make a difference. They work with art and theater to encourage children's awareness, carry out clean-up campaigns, and report environmental infractions to the authorities. They are given official I.D. cards as environmental inspectors ad honorem.
Through its Small Grants Program, the United Nations Development Program has funded COVIRENAS groups, local conservation and development associations, and farmers' cooperatives so that rural communities with limited resources can have their own ecotourism businesses. This enables farmers to conserve their forests and rivers, keep their families on the land, and supplement their farming incomes. Many are turning to organic agriculture and are planting crops that provide habitat for a diversity of birds and wildlife.
Costa Rica still has the dreamy ecolodges that made it famous, where, after your massage and your yoga class, you can sit sipping rum-laced tropical smoothies and nibbling on delicate fish carpaccio while gazing out over the ocean. The extensive rainforest reserves owned by many of these lodges are also part of the conservation system. But make the effort to spend some time at the communities as well. You'll learn a lot about them in the Community Based Ecotourism section of this site.
We all know that clean air, water, soil, and trees are limited, and yet they are among our most precious assets. Costa Rica is leading the way in valuing these resources and in finding ways for humans to live in harmony with nature. Just by vacationing, adventuring, and learning at places that are involved in conservation in Costa Rica, you will be contributing to this world-changing work.