Costa Rica: a mirage of sustainability?


A focus on sustainable development has shown some success in Costa Rica but its credibility is undermined by persistent economic inequality and widespread environmental pollution. Tom Swinscoe reports.

Costa Rica is often portrayed as the poster boy for sustainable development in the global south and a leader in green tourism. And in September 2016 it became the first country to sign a national pact for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the latest commitment to sustainable development by the international community. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government signed the pact along with civil society organisations, faith-based organisations, public universities, local governments and the business sector.

However despite steady economic expansion over the past 25 years the country faces a sharply increasing fiscal deficit, due to increased public spending with no increase in taxes. Furthermore pervasive pollution continues from agriculture and treatment of sewage is almost none existent. Nonetheless, in 2016 the largest proportion of budgetary resources was allocated to sectors seen as important to a sustainable development path. So what is actually going on?

Most reports regarding sustainable development in Costa Rica focus on its success with its pioneering Payments for Environmental Services (PES) programme introduced in 1997, a programme which has provided environmental, social, and economic benefits. Although largely relying on public finances (fuel and water taxes), it is also funded by agreements with pharmaceutical companies interested in bio-prospecting; sale of carbon credits; grants from international donors; a loan from the World Bank; and private agreements with companies interested in water protection including hydroelectric companies, breweries, and the tourism industry. The money is used to pay landowners to protect forest cover and the ecosystem services the forests provide such as: watershed protection; carbon capture and storage; biodiversity conservation; as well as providing an important attraction for eco-tourists – a vital industry in Costa Rica contributing to about 6% of GDP.

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Thomas Swinscoe

Thomas is a water resource researcher and analyst.

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