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The Green Republic

The Green Republic
A Conservation History of Costa Rica

A readable history of how Costa Rica established a national park system as a response to rapid destruction of its tropical ecosystems.

January 1999
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
335 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 b&w illus., 3 line drawings, 6 maps, 4 tables |

With over 25 percent of its land set aside in national parks and other protected areas, Costa Rica is renowned worldwide as "the green republic." In this very readable history of conservation in Costa Rica, Sterling Evans explores the establishment of the country's national park system as a response to the rapid destruction of its tropical ecosystems due to the expansion of export-related agriculture.

Drawing on interviews with key players in the conservation movement, as well as archival research, Evans traces the emergence of a conservation ethic among Costa Ricans and the tangible forms it has taken. In Part I, he describes the development of the national park system and "the grand contradiction" that conservation occurred simultaneously with massive deforestation in unprotected areas. In Part II, he examines other aspects of Costa Rica's conservation experience, including the important roles played by environmental education and nongovernmental organizations, campesino and indigenous movements, ecotourism, and the work of the National Biodiversity Institute.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Costa Rica's History of Conservation
    • 1. A Legacy of Scientific Thought and Tropical Research
    • 2. The Environmental Problem
    • 3. The Conservationist Response
    • 4. The Development of National Parks and Other Protected Areas
    • 5. Conservation Continued: The Oduber Years
    • 6. Conservation through Crisis: Carazo and the Economy
    • 7. Crisis Continued: The Monge Administration
    • 8. Restructuring and Decentralizing Conservation
  • Part II. Building a Green Republic
    • 9. Environmental Education: Framework for the Future
    • 10.The Nongovernmental Approach
    • 11. ¡Oro Verde! Ecotourism for Economic Growth
    • 12. The National Biodiversity Institute
  • Conclusion. "Picking Up the Gauntlet"
  • Appendix 1. List of Acronyms
  • Appendix 2. The Presidents of the Republic of Costa Rica, 1928-1998
  • Appendix 3. The History of Controversy at Santa Rosa--A Besieged National Park
  • Appendix 4. Anonymous Poem Regarding the Palo Verde National Park Controversy, Summer 1981
  • Appendix 5. The National Conservation Strategy for Sustainable Development
  • Appendix 6. Indigenous Population of Costa Rica by Region and Group
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Sterling Evans teaches environmental history at Humboldt State University in northern California.


Esta tierra pertenece a los costarricences, algunos ya han muerto, otros todavía viven, pero la mayoría aún no ha nacido.
—Costa Rican saying

(This land belongs to the Costa Ricans; some have already died, others are still living, but most have not even been born.)

The vision exemplified in the above oft-quoted saying makes Costa Rica an intriguing case study in environmental history. Its implied message--that Costa Rica is a country with a mind for the future, a future based on the environmental well-being of its land and inhabitants--begs the question of how such a model developed and what measures have been instituted to ensure its success. More implicitly, this idea must be tested by tracing the successes and failures of the Costa Rican conservation experience. Such analysis is the goal of this work. Does Costa Rica live up to its nickname "the garden of the Americas?" Does it embody what York Times writer John Oakes in 1988 called the "greening" of the region? Is it on the path of what a conference that same year concluded was toward a Centroamérica verde? Is Costa Rica a "green" republic?

To attempt answering such questions, this study seeks to track the history of conservation efforts in Costa Rica via analysis of its national parks and other protected areas. The focus of the book will be to examine how Costa Rica came to establish its conservation system, which today includes over 25 percent of the country's terrain. It will describe the system, discuss the key leaders involved, and analyze conservation in light of what it was in response to: rapid environmental destruction of tropical ecosystems due to the expansion of export-related agricultural commodities. How is this agricultural modernization different from past agricultural experiences and how has it affected conservation efforts? What conservation measures or agricultural practices from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries influenced conservation patterns? How and why were national parks and biological reserves proposed and designated? Who has been behind them? Why and how did these individuals become involved in their country's conservation movement? What has been the overall impact of conservation on the nation's environmental well-being, economy, and education? What challenges have conservationists had to confront; what goals and dilemmas await them? Just as important, the study will ask what Costa Ricans have said and are saying about these conservation concerns. Emphasis will be placed on policy reactions--laws and decrees and how they came about.

Only two other works approach this subject in book form. The first, Luis Fournier's Desarrollo y perspectiva del movimiento conservacionista costarricense (1991), lists some of the early conservation policies and discusses the beginning of Costa Rica's conservation movement. Dr. Fournier is a botanist at the University of Costa Rica and has been a longtime conservation proponent. But while written from the perspective of someone who was actively involved in policy making, the book is a rather short condensation of conservation laws and the people behind them, with little analysis or in-depth discussion. Fournier's intent for the book was to be introductory--he provided directions for future research for which I am forever grateful.

The other book is David Rains Wallace's The Quetzal and the Macaw: The Story of Costa Rica's National Parks (1992). Wallace's work is limited, however, to the "story" of national parks only, includes no archival data, and does not put national park development in the larger context of Costa Rican conservation history. Its strength lies in the interviews Wallace incorporated into the book's narrative--interviews that were useful here since the voices of the people involved (some of whom I also interviewed) are important and should be heard in this conservation history.

I have attempted to be broader in historic range, more comprehensive in conservation policy making, and more reliant on archival records and newspapers than The Quetzal and the Macaw intended to be. I have also drawn on many articles and essays written by Costa Ricans and others that pertain to individual aspects of conservation policy. Those sources helped greatly in piecing together the larger picture.

To limit the scope of the project, "conservation" here will imply the creation of governmental and private areas of land (national parks and monuments, biological reserves, wildlife refuges, indigenous reserves, and private ecological reserves) that have been set aside for long-range preservation. This project will not address in any great length such environmental concerns as pollution, urban sprawl, toxic wastes, air and water quality, sanitation, or human health issues. These important matters have a literature all their own and exceed the boundaries of this particular conservation history. Nor is this work a comparison of Costa Rican conservation efforts with those of other republics in the region. Rather, The Green Republic is an attempt to synthesize diverse elements of Costa Rica's past (natural history, government, education, etc.) to evaluate the successes and failures of the nation's conservation system.

Luis Fournier has written that "in reality, we are no longer just a few people clamoring for a rational use of this environment, and what in the past for many was merely a romantic or utopian dream, has been transformed into something vital for the future of the country, and is coming to be understood by a greater number of Costa Ricans."

The intent here is to follow the development of this Costa Rican pattern of thinking. Disagreement exists whether this is a long, historic phenomenon--predating and including the colonial era--or if it is a recent product of late-twentieth-century scientific understanding. Some scholars point to the ecologically sustainable ways of pre-Columbian native peoples in Costa Rica as a base for an enduring environmental awareness. Others note that farmers in the colonial and early national eras practiced responsible agriculture and thus continued conscientious land use patterns.

Some researchers, however, suggest that environmental awareness has resulted only in the past twenty-five years. Estrella Guier, the director of environmental education at UNED (the Universidad Estatal a Distancia, usually translated as the National Open University), remarked: "It is only recently that a conscience among some towards a rational and balanced exploitation of natural resources has been created." Luis Fournier agrees: "Fortunately in the [1970s] . . . in Costa Rica there has been a change of attitude in the people . . . with respect to the problem of the environment."

Both sides will be examined here. But has Costa Rica managed its natural resources rationally, and if so, what mechanisms (structural and attitudinal) have proven successful and are in place to continue the trend?

To address these concerns, this book is divided into two parts. Part I concerns Costa Rica's history of conservation; Part II, with the country's framework for what will be called "building a green republic." Emphasis in Part I is placed on such issues as the legacy of tropical research, the environmental dilemma of Costa Rican agriculture, and the conservationist response via public lands management--especially stressing the role national parks have played in the Costa Rican conservation strategy (Chapters 1 through 5). Surprisingly, a large percentage of public land was protected during the severe economic crisis of the early 1980s. Reporting how this unique, perhaps paradoxical, experience transpired is discussed in Chapters 6 and 7, and the government's push to restructure and decentralize conservation efforts in the late 1980s and 1990s is discussed in Chapter 8.

Part II examines other aspects of Costa Rica's conservation experience and how they apply to the structure in place for the future. Chapters 9 and 10 analyze the important roles played by environmental education and nongovernmental organizations. Campesino and indigenous movements are important dimensions of the overall story and are included in Chapter 10. And more recent phenomena such as ecotourism and biodiversity inventorying are discussed in Chapters 11 and 12.

The study, however, would be terribly remiss and blind to the facts if it omitted a discussion of the serious challenges facing Costa Rica's conservation system. What is often called "the grand contradiction" is the paradox of Costa Rica's development of extraordinary national parks simultaneous to massive deforestation in unprotected areas. The fact that only since 1969 more than 25 percent of Costa Rica has been protected in one form or another must be balanced with the fact that over 60 percent of the country is deforested and that the rate is growing by 4 percent a year. Equally disturbing is that 17 percent of the land is composed of highly degraded or seriously eroded soil, rendering it almost useless for agriculture or for reforestation.

Keeping matters in perspective, however, is important. Where things are now is less important than the direction in which they are going. And therein lies the hope for Costa Rica. The people of Costa Rica have been motivated for a change in direction to preserve their natural heritage. The history of how this occurred merits attention and is the underlying purpose of this work.

In his conservation history of Mexico, Lane Simonian has written that environmental history should become "more international" in scope. "In many places, people have fought to protect nature," he continues, and "their stories should be told." What follows is the account of many who have worked to make Costa Rica a green republic--a country that conserves natural resources for those who have yet to be born.



“Using a wide range of sources, including interviews, archives, and newspapers, Evans paints a complex and nuanced picture of how conservation emerged in twentieth-century Costa Rica....This lucid and thoughtful work will be useful to historians and policymakers, and as a textbook for graduate and undergraduate courses on agriculture, development, and conservation in Latin America.”
Hispanic American Historical Review