National Parks and Conservation of Costa Rica

This topic submitted by Chelsea Nagy ( at 11:36 PM on 5/14/04.

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Costa Rica has one of the highest protection rates of land in the world. The diverse climatic regions of Costa Rica create a unique mix of biomes each with a wide range of organisms. Many have realized the importance of the survival of these organisms and have worked toward incorporating Costa Rican land into national parks and other nature reserves and wildlife refuges. Conservation efforts have been well established for at least three decades now, a product of the reform of the Universidad de Costa Rica. It was this reform that set into motion many of the organizations devoted to conservation and ultimately the National Park Service. Areas of land protection such as national parks will continue to be increasingly important in the future as issues such as global warming are tied to deforestation and increased carbon dioxide.

A brief historical overview of the country in terms of population, economics, and land use patterns help to explain the path leading up to the resultant efforts of protection in the country. The population growth rate was very high during the 1960s at 3.4 percent (Hopkins, 1995). In the 1970s this number dropped to 2.8 percent and in the 1980s rose to 2.8 percent (Hopkins, 1995). It was expected to remain high through the turn of the century. These growth rates had partly to do with decreased mortality rates from better health care (Rosero-Bixby & Palloni, 1998). With these relatively high growth rates, human disturbance and habitat degradation are to be expected. A large portion of Costa Rica’s population depends economically on agriculture (Hopkins, 1995). Its export products such as bananas, coffee, and sugar are important cash crops. To grow these crops, there has been a significant amount of forested land cleared. Luckily, most of the remaining forests today lie within protected areas. “There are less than 500,000 hectares of commercial forest left in Costa Rica… Much of the remaining forest is located in ‘forest reserves’ where timber may be harvested when permitted by the Directorate General of Forests (DGF) (Hopkins, 1995)”. Another related threat to land in Costa Rica is cattle ranching. Cattle ranching has had great negative environmental impacts (Hopkins, 1995). The threats of cattle ranching and agriculture have led to the highest deforestation rate of any Latin American country (Gottfried et al, 1994). “Whereas originally 99.8% of Costa Rica was forested, the country’s forests now cover less than one-third of its area (Gottfried et al, 1994)”. The factors of land shortage, international markets, and economic development are tied to growing population and increased deforestation (Rosero-Bixby & Palloni, 1998).

With the realization of the environmental damage caused by these activities, awareness of the country rose. As was mentioned above, the establishment of the biological program at the Universidad de Costa Rica strengthened and inspired the establishment of such organizations as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Tropical Science Center, Organization for Tropical Studies, and in 1970 the National Park Service (Hopkins, 1995). “In short, the scientific base and the scientific culture to support a healthy conservation ethic were solidly in place in Costa Rica by the 1970s. That condition was extraordinarily important for the subsequent development of the country’s national parks and reserves that blossomed after 1970 (Hopkins, 1995)”. Although the first national parks as we think of them were founded in the 1970s or after, there were recognized protected areas as early as 1913 when the crater, the lake, and the area around the Poás volcano were declared “inalienable” (Hopkins, 1995). The term “national park” was used in legislation in 1945 for the first time with the prohibition of exploitation of a forest on the Carreterra Panamericana (Hopkins, 1995).

Costa Rica was the first country in Central America and the Caribbean to implement environmental actions on the ministry level (Hopkins, 1995). Although this was a huge move in itself, the system first failed. The new management plan includes decentralization with regional responsibilities as opposed to national (Hopkins, 1995). This new plan divided Costa Rica into nine separate regions for conservation (Hopkins, 1995). The establishment of these regions required that there be coordination of the parks with the community, dealing with economic and social aspects (Hopkins, 1995). Since this time, there has also been increasing involvement of international organizations in policy considerations. From these international organizations, there has been increased investment and funding for the operation and maintenance of national parks in Costa Rica (Hopkins, 1995). “Costa Rica, a relatively small and poor country, by all accounts has been unusually successful in creating and consolidating a national system of parks and reserves of various types (Hopkins, 1995)”. It is estimated that over 25% of Costa Rica’s land is included in national parks and reserves (Menkhaus & Lober, 1995). In this protected area of Costa Rica, activities of production that could damage resources are prohibited (Sánchez-Azofeifa et al, 2003).

Privately owned reserves also contribute to conservation efforts in Costa Rica. Although it may be difficult to find information on these privately owned reserves, one study in particular looked to see just how prominent they were within the country. They found that there are almost 64,000 hectares under protection in 211 privately owned reserves, or about 1.2% of the land area (Langholtz & Lassoie, 2001). “The total number of private reserves is estimated to be in the vicinity of 250, based primarily on additional reserves that surfaced after the study’s completion (Langholtz & Lassoie, 2001)”. Most (about two-thirds) of these are owned on the individual or family level (Langholtz & Lassoie, 2001). Uses of these reserves were commonly for personal enjoyment and/ or ecotourism (Langholtz & Lassoie, 2001).

The Langholtz & Lassoie study found that the most common problem occurring in these private reserves is the poaching of mammals (2001). Studies of mammal protection of Gulfo Dulce Forest Reserve in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica also suggest that they are having only partial success of protecting mammals (Carrillo et al, 2000). Thus, for national parks and private reserves alike, despite their good intentions, there must be progress made in enforcement. However, it is also useful to look at the purposes of the created reserves to see patterns of relative success. For example, Gulfo Dulce Forest Reserve was created for the “production of water, timber, wildlife, forage, and recreation, with a minimum negative effect on the resources (Carrillo et al, 2000). It is easy to understand how these production activities could lead to destruction without proper management and monitoring.

The three most popular parks in Costa Rica, in terms of numbers of visitors, are Manuel Antonio National Park, Poás Volcano National Park, and Irazú Volcano National Park (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). These parks receive 192, 174, and 112 thousand visitors respectively (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). The Manuel Antonio National Park is only 2.5 square miles but includes areas of beaches, rain forest, mangrove swamps, and marshland (Fodor’s, 2002). The Irazú Volcano National Park is the summit of the Irazú Volcano, the highest volcano in Costa Rica (Fodor’s, 2002). The Irazú Volcano is currently dormant and its last eruption was in 1963-1965 (Fodor’s, 2002). The Poás Volcano National Park is 22 square miles and it protects the cloud forest on the volcano’s slopes (Fodor’s, 2002). In order to reduce stress on these three parks, others are being promoted and encouraged. For example, Braulio Carrillo National Park has attractions to offer similar to that of Poás Volcano National Park and Irazú Volcano National Park. Consequently, infrastructure allowing better access to Braulio Carrillo National Park is being built to even out the distribution of visitors to the parks (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). Currently Braulio Carrillo National Park only receives 12 thousand visitors (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). Braulio Carrillo covers 171 square miles and covers a variety of ecosystems from cloud forests to tropical wet forests (Fodor’s, 2002).

Other important parks and reserves include Cahuita National Park, Corcovado National Park, Monteverde Biological Reserve, and La Selva Biological Station. Cahuita National Park is the only park administered by both the National Park Service and the local community (Fodor’s, 2002). Cahuita’s coral reefs have been degraded due to increased sedimentation from deforestation and agricultural production (Fodor’s, 2002). Corcovado National Park covers one-third of the Osa Peninsula, or 168 square miles (Fodor’s, 2002). It is covered with virgin rain forest and there are no roads within the park (Fodor’s, 2002). The Monteverde Biological Reserve is known for its great biodiversity including 2500 species of plants, 400 species of birds, 500 kinds of butterflies, and over 100 different mammals (Fodor’s, 2002). La Selva Biological Station is also known for its great biodiversity and only comprises an area of 6 square miles (Fodor’s, 2002). It is run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and is geared towards scientists, but does allow general visitors (Fodor’s, 2002).

The Costa Rican government has implemented a mixed free-market/ government intervention program that still allows for significant deforestation in the country. An alternative model that would allow for sustainability includes individual local decision making based on the assumption that these local decisions would be better informed on local conditions (Gottfried et al, 1994). They suggest that the government should be involved in guiding decision making. The government should be concerned with “What should society try to sustain, who should benefit from this, and who should bear the cost (Gottfried et al, 1994)”. It should be kept in mind that poor people are more concerned with their own survival than environmental degradation. “When poor people first encounter mature forest, their first inclination is to convert it into financial resources, or ‘liquidate it’, as rapidly as possible, an economically rational short-term strategy for them to pursue (Gottfried et al, 1994)”. Consequently, land management and conservation has direct connections to social problems and issues and should be addressed accordingly. A system which acknowledges the underlying social patterns will be most successful in creating a sustainable system.

Models for creating reserves and national parks need to be based on a solid ecological understanding because it is difficult to decide what areas should be set aside. Models today are based on spatial patterns and interactions of organisms in and between habitats (Williams et al, 2004). Habitat fragmentation is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and consequently, the use of models for assessing spatial patterns of habitats has become extremely important in designating land for conservation purposes. Five different models are discussed by Williams et al. and vary based on factors of connectivity and size (2004). Increasingly in the future, these models will undoubtedly become more accurate and thus more critical for the conservation of land and resources.

Ecotourism is one way to promote sustainable use of natural resources. By placing land under protection, such as in a national park or other reserve, conservation of the land and its resources is more likely. Ecotourism in theory allows for protection of land as well as income generation for local populations (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). Entrance fees to the park help promote and maintain the parks. As of 1999, national park entrance fees were standardized (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). The fee for foreigners was $6 and for Costa Ricans and other Central Americans was $1.25 (Hearne & Salinas, 2002). These fees can help promote sustainability through regulation and management.

The future of biodiversity is directly tied to national parks and reserves. These areas have the goal of protecting the organisms within its boundaries and preserving the relatively undeveloped state of the land. This is not to say that there must be no human influence on the land; rather a more realistic approach is to incorporate humans and the environment in a sustainable manner. It is impossible to separate humans from nature as they are dependent on its products for life. Costa Rica serves as an example of great concern and involvement of the government and private individuals alike in the process of conservation and preservation. Management is the key in Costa Rica or any other country and must be a priority to ensure a sustainable future. It must be dealt with in an interdisciplinary setting, incorporating the natural, social, and cultural aspects of sustainability.

Work Cited

Carrillo, Eduardo, Grace Wong, and Alfredo Cuarón. “Monitoring Mammal Populations in Costa Rican Protected Areas under Different Hunting Restrictions” Conservation Biology. (2000) 14:6 1580-1591.

Fodor’s. Costa Rica. New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications (2002).

Gottfried, Robert, Charles Brockett, and William Davis. “Models of Sustainable Development and Forest Resource Management in Costa Rica” Ecological Economics (1994) 9: 107-120.

Hearne, Robert and Zenia Salinas. “The Use of Choice Experiments in the Analysis of Tourist Preferences for Ecotourism Development in Costa Rica” Journal of Environmental Management. (2002) 65: 153-163.

Hopkins, Jack W. Policymaking for Conservation in Latin America: National Parks, Reserves, and the Environment. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995.

Langholtz, Jeff and James Lassoie. “Combining Conservation and Development on Private Lands: Lessons from Costa Rica” Environment, Development and Sustainability. (2001)3:309-322.

Menkhaus, Susan and Douglas Lober. “International Ecotourism and the Valuation of Tropical Rainforests in Costa Rica” Journal of Environmental Management (1996) 47: 1-10.

Rosero-Bixby, Luis and Alberto Palloni. “Population and Deforestation in Costa Rica” Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. (1998) 2:2 149-185.

Sánchez-Azofeifa, G. Arturo, Gretchen Daily, Alexander Pfaff, and Christopher Busch. “Integrity and Isolation of Costa Rica’s National Parks and Biological Reserves: Examining the Dynamics of Land-cover Change” Biological Conservation (2003) 109:123-135.

Williams, Justin, Charles ReVelle, and Simon Levin. “Using Mathematical Optimization Models to Design Nature Reserves” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (2004) 2:2 98-105.

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