2 March 2010

Tonight’s program is called “Sustainable Costa Rica.”  We just returned from three weeks in Costa Rica, where we volunteered on a sustainable farm and visited several nature reserves and studied Costa Rica’s efforts at going green. In addition to reviewing some of those efforts (and not ignoring problems and complications), we will play a prerecorded interview with Celina Arragones, co-owner of the farm on which we volunteered.  We’ll also close with announcements of several opportunities that exist in the Northstate to make this region a model for going green.

To listen to the show, click here.

Background on Green Costa Rica

We arrived in Costa Rica during an historic week in which the country elected its first woman president, Laura Chinchilla, who is succeeding Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace Prize winning president.

Costa Rica has a long history of social and political progressivism that includes social security and universal health care systems that go back almost 100 years. In addition, Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, and thus for 60 years has enjoyed the benefits of turning spears into ploughshares.

Over a quarter century ago, Costa Rica also figured out the financial as well as ethical benefits of going green.

During that period, Costa Rica has dramatically reforested while placing almost one-third of the country under various forms of environmental protection through public and private reserves. It has also become an ecotourism destination—which, as we’ll explain, has some downsides—but has also allowed the country to reduce some of its dependence on fickle global markets in coffee, cocoa, and bananas.

In 2007, the country established the impressive goal of being carbon neutral by 2021, which establishes it as a global leader. Just compare that goal to the United State’s unwillingness to ratify the Kyoto treaty and legislators’ current waffling and quibbling over climate change legislation that would, at best result in a mere 17-20% reduction in greenhouse gasses by the same date.

We should note that Costa Rica has a head start on that goal through reforestation and from the fact that it already generates more than 90% of its energy needs from renewable resources, mostly hydroelectric power from an artificial lake, Arenal, in the highlands, which also, it should be noted, destroyed some mountain ecosystems and submerged a number of towns.

The commitment to a carbon neutral Costa Rica has been reinforced by the new president and by one of her two vice-president-elects, Alfio Piva, who is, as reported by the Tico Times English language newspaper, “a biologist by profession and a former director of the National Biodiversity Institute.” In an interview with writer Mike McDonald.  Piva said:

Carbon neutrality is a really important goal, and reforestation is a major part of it.[…] If you look at Costa Rica’s land, there is still a great portion that is not forested.[…]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.

On the topic of transportation, Alfio Piva said:

We have to consider the possibilities of electric transit, usch as electric cars. We can lower taxes on these cars to make them easier to obtain. We are still very farm from a sufficient electric car market, but I think we can start moving toward this….We have a great advantage in this country in that we generate more than 90 percent of our electricity from renewable resources….But [there is] an education problem….It would require a change in mentality to begin an electrification process.

Piva concluded the interview by acknowledging a number of fiscal problems that are obstacles to Costa Rica’s green future, but added:

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.[…] 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.

[ Tico Times, February 12, 2010, pp. 12-13.]

However, we don’t intend to greenwash or romanticize Costa Rica’s role as a model for a country going green. There are not only obstacles to its green revolution, but some clearly contradictory movements.

For example, Costa Rica is in midst of a huge development boom, particularly on the Pacific side, where the climate and low costs are attracting developers, investors, and foreigners who talk the language of green but are chewing up the countryside at a terrific rate.

Note the language from this promotional brochure for a company called “Portasol,” whose slogan is “in partnership with nature.” (The brochure, by the way, was in English only, suggesting that its audience is not native Costa Ricans.) Portasol offers a:

“Rainforest and ocean view community” [that claims to be] “sustainable and socially responsible” in an “eco low density community” that is a “biological reserve” where “83% of the total area is preserved.”

The nonpreserved 2 to 10 acre lots already been developed with water, electricity, and access roads through the forest and the company is building:

“bungalows nestled into the middle of the rainforest. Built on stilts, simulating tree houses, their artisan roofs and decorative verandas create a wonderful space for joy and relaxation. Created for you to experience the Real Costa Rican tropical charm.”

We did not actually visit this resort, but listeners may forgive our skepticism—it’s hard for us to see how such development can make a legitimate claim to being “sustainable.”

[Brochure from Portasol, Portalon, Costa Rica, www.portasol.net]

Further, we found the Tico Times to be filled with commentaries and letters arguing  that the developers are “colonizing” Costa Rica and turning the country into “The Next Florida,” while the government has permitted them “to run amok.”

And even ecotourism—of which we were admittedly a part—has its downside, including what one writer characterized as “in your face environmental degradation,” including the national reserves which “have been taken over by tourists” and the native animals have fled to other parts of the rainforest, driven out by the guided tours.

[Tico Times, February 26, 2010,  pp. 10, 11, 14-15]

One place that is not part of the problem is the farm where we worked for two weeks as volunteers. Celina and Janice Arragones purchased 57 hectares of mountain jungle near Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, and are developing an ecofarm and educational center. During our stay, we trimmed banana plants, planted and transplanted pineapples, helped establish a terrace garden, and did some work on the farm’s infrastructure. And we learned an enormous amount about the goals and practices of sustainable farming.

Listen to the show.

Community Announcements

As many listeners will recall, we have been participating in pubic meetings concerning climate change and the Copenhagen climate change conference. These have led a number of community members to become attentive to the excellent work of the Chico Sustainability Task Force.  At its monthly meeting held yesterday, the Task Force responded to expressions of community interest by creating a subcommittee on Outreach and Education, which will be asked “to develop public education and outreach activities to provide the community provide information and increase awareness on climate change and sustainability.”  Many of the Copenhagen vigil participants will serve on the committee, and if you are interested in joining in this work, you should send an e-mail to Mayor Ann Schwab—she’s at aschwab@ci.chico.ca.us .

We also learned of an informal monthly gathering of people interested in sustainability.  It’s called “Green Drinks Chico,” and it meets at Johnnie’s on 4th Street the second Thursday of each month at 5:30. It’s a no-host bar and an opportunity to talk informally with community members who share an interest in greening the planet and our town. The next gathering will be Thursday, March 11. And again, that’s 5:30 at Johnnie’s.

We also encourage you to check out the website of Green Transition Chico, greentransitionchico.org. It features a number of postings of community events, including a March workshop on biodiesel, information on nutrition, a new series of community environmental video screenings, and an announcement of the new Butte Freeskool, which will be offering classes in a wide range of environmental and other topics.