CBC in Costa Rica

This topic submitted by Whitney Johnson ( johnsow4@miamioh.edu) at 12:02 PM on 5/18/06.

The "Three Amigos" pose in the Bahamas

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

Whitney Johnson
Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica
May 2006

Community-Based Conservation
In Costa Rica

Community-Based Conservation
Natural resources have been under the protection of national legislation for many years. Today, a shift has taken place due to the poor outcomes characterizing many environmental policies; communities, through local participation are taking an increased role in the design and implementation of effective conservation outcomes.
One of the many legacies of colonialism in the developing world has been the marginalization of poor communities. Elites maintain control in decision-making and the market, setting up a system of top-down policies oftentimes met with resistance and mistrust. Today, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow, it has become even more critical to analyze the role of the state in the management of natural resources. As these gaps grow, so too, do the abilities of the people without power to give a voice to environmental issues and how to address them. Repeatedly, “national governments undermine the independence and authority of the local unit that has managed common property” (McKean, 1992).
A long line of hypocrisy, double standards and inequality are evident with the habitual exclusion of communities in resource management. The establishment of national parks and wildlife areas furthered the belief that forests, rivers, and valleys must be managed by policies not people. Free trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) have taken this a step further letting the market dictate how natural resources are used and valued.
Economic pressures, resource depletion, and population growth have put a tremendous strain on the sustainability not only of natural resources, but on the success of policies as well. Current state-centered, top-down approaches cannot solve environmental problems. A stronger focus must be given to community-based conservation and local participation.
Frequently, the state is limited by resources and the long-term feasibility of projects. An emphasis on using local knowledge and creating an incentive to protect resources offers a solution both valuable and sustainable.
Issues and Elements of CBC
Communities are complex and diverse. In some areas of the world, there might be a greater need for urgent action in which long-term solutions like an environmental education program will take a back seat to creating an inventory of species and mobilizing the community for action.
The frequent failure of community-based conservation programs by government and development institutions calls for a change. Although these organizations might have access to funding and resources above and beyond most NGOs, the capacity to build successful programs has been undermined by their approaches. New CBC models may serve as a powerful tool for redirecting agencies such as the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and programs of the United Nations.
Crucial to community-based conservation programs is creating micro-institutions made up of stakeholders and leaders. This often allows for a combination of traditional knowledge with modern conservation management practices. Both outsiders and insiders from the community must be given a place and a voice in the process of determining sustainable communities and ecosystems.
The study of economic factors within a community can provide many important details about how the society functions socially and within their environment. The relationship of wealth and geographical factors are closely intertwined to the use of a communities’ natural resource use, which will often determine the destiny of the forest and its species. This type of analysis is important in developing effective programs to protect biodiversity and engage communities in income-generating alternatives.
Developing jobs and income provides an incentive to protect resources instead of engaging in activities known to exploit such as logging, mining, and the pet trade.
Focusing on the local economy is an important factor in successful conservation programs. However, going into a community and immediately setting up a program to boost the economy can be risky to the community and to the ecosystem. Thorough studies must be done to understand how wealth is distributed, what resources are available, and what this income-generation will do for the future. (Will it be sustainable? Can it by run by the community?) This step should be taken after considerable studies and input from the community.
Environmental education is crucial to a successful long-term conservation strategy. It is the hope that through environmental education, the programs will create future leaders and conservationists. While education is vital, so is creating a multidisciplinary approach to community-based conservation programs.
Environmental education is an important component in the process of empowering communities to make changes and take interest in the development of conservation strategies. Especially important is the involvement of children who are not only future leaders, but also able to transmit their knowledge well beyond the classroom, into their homes and communities.
EE programs should emphasize a collaborative approach using both traditional knowledge and modern conservation management practices. EE is a tool that can help create, define, and implement solutions to environmental problems. Focusing on children is a key element to EE. It has been found that there is an intergenerational transfer of knowledge that takes place outside the classroom and into homes, and the community (Vaugh, 2003). What is most important is considering that there are probably many “teachers” within every village. Combining local knowledge with conservation practices and local policies is the goal.
The creation of an interdisciplinary team involved in resource management solutions can be one of the most difficult, yet valuable assets in developing a community-based conservation program. Too often, top-down approaches have met with failure. This approach has taken away the legitimacy of and power of local communities. The aim is: “…that the people who use environmental resources should be involved in their management and that conservation can be achieved through continued sustainable use of environmental goods and services, rather than through state-imposed preservation and separation of nature and people.” (Allison, 2004).
Stakeholders must be identified based on several levels: the village, the conservation area level, and the government level. Representatives from the village might include elders, youths, and spiritual leaders. At the conservation area level, this may consist of several villages encompassed by a watershed, forest, or hunting grounds. The government level includes those who are responsible for enforcing and negotiating public policies. This encourages local input in policy development. They may include government officials, forest management officials, and local government leaders. Representatives may be chosen by elections, surveys, or by volunteering.
The creation of the micro-institution within and across communities creates a powerful method for developing policies on a large scale. As government agencies and non-governmental organizations involved in conservation work increasingly realize the importance of community-based efforts, opportunities to influence policies are emphasized with more and more regularity.
Analyzing economic factors in the community is another tool for implementing successful conservation strategies. Often overlooked by scientists and given quick fixes by well-meaning government agencies or NGOs, the relationship of wealth and geographical factors is often likely to determine resource use, and the destiny of the forest and its species. The relationship between power and status can define how resources are used and who has access to them (Agrawal, 2003). In order to determine socioeconomic factors and wealth stratifications, surveys should be used to gather relevant data. Wealth can be determined by land-holdings, nonland assets, livelihood practices and productive capital ownership (fishing nets, guns for hunting, farming equipment, etc). The surveys break down the community at a household level, and then further, with an examination of wealth, geography, and resource usage.
Community mapping is an important component of conservation planning. It allows for local knowledge and practices to be place side by side with modern GIS maps often visually representing important information for everyone involved. Mapping is not only vital for identifying resource use and traditional forest management practices; it can also help identify “hot spots” and important boundaries.
CBC in Costa Rica
Costa Rica though small in size, is well known for its vast biological diversity. The country also has a well-known park system, a huge draw for the tourism industry. Over 27% of the country is protected, with 14% in a national park system. Support and drive of the conservation agenda in Costa Rica has largely been fueled by a national and (often) an international agenda, excluding communities.
With significant resistance, the first park to be established was in 1971, the Santa Rosa National Park(Campbell 2002). Tensions have continued as restrictions on small farmers have continued while major logging industry remains unhampered, or traditional resource usage is put under pressure/limitations such as marine turtles with the creation of the Tortuguero National Park, Ostional Wildlife Refuge, Gandoca and Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and Leatherbacks of Guanacaste National Park (Campbell 2002).
The government of Costa Rica realizes the importance of tourism to their national economy. Costa Rica is a signatory to almost every international covenant with regards to the environment. The government has sought to increase infrastructural support of the park systems, allowed some bioprospecting, and considers eco-tourism a crucial part of their agenda.
As tourism and development increase so too do efforts to ensure some sort of guidelines for how development and conservation can take place together. There are many organizations, as well as businesses capturing this niche in the market. Some of these organizations and businesses are highlighted below:
• The Nature Conservancy is working in La Amistad/Talamanca and the Osa Peninsula. The organizations works largely with in-country partners such as the government, other conservation groups, local communities, and park staff.
• Conservation International is one of the partners in La Amistad. CI has worked very hard with the indigenous and other communities in the area to develop a conservation-friendly economic development project. This project includes growing organic cocoa and coffee.
• Residents in Monteverde established the Monteverde Institute in 1986. This organization uses a participatory approach to education and has been important for the community to address the growing flow of tourists to the small town. They also have been working on a project to build a hiking trail through rural villages with homestays contributing to rural families.
• Café Monteverde is a small, locally owned coffee company. They grow sustainable, fair trade coffee, which directly benefits the community, the farmers, and the surrounding eco-system.
• Foro Emaus is an organization based in San Jose. They work to develop alternatives to banana plantations in the country by using sustainable agriculture, fair trade, and have developed a list of “minimum standards” regarding the environment for growers.
These organizations are just a small example of organizations working in the country. The government also has programs to protect the environment. There is now a law in place to provide legal protection, as well as economic incentives for qualified private nature reserves. Owners receive three incentives for following government approved management plans. The incentives are: 1) exemption from property taxes, 2) technical assistance, and 3) assistance in case of squatters on their land. Conservation incentives are important for expanding biodiversity protection and expansion, and equally important, increasing education and participation in communities.
Pros and Cons to CBC
While CBC is an important and crucial element to ongoing conservation efforts throughout the world and in Costa Rica, it too, must be able to adapt and change in its policies, proposals, and techniques. Organizations promoting CBC must continue to keep people in their politics and their science. Alliances must be made with on the ground groups who are daily affected by conservation measures.
Scientists and traditional knowledge are crucial to identifying ecosystems and communities in need of conservation. For this reason, insight must be gained by attempting to measure and monitor programs. Communities are complex, as are their cultures and traditions. Science does not always provide a definitive answers. Government varies in their policies, interests, and motives with regard to the environment. For all these reasons and more, CBC must take an adaptable, holistic approach to the continuing work around the world. In Costa Rica, one of the important successes has been the partnerships created by both international, as well as in-country conservation groups.
As tourism increases and pressures on conservation increase, the above mentioned groups must come to the table together to create, modify, and challenge their practices. CBC is an important tool in the conservation efforts and as development grows in Costa Rica, so too must the efforts of all stakeholders in the country and its communities.


1. Allison, Edward and Marie-Caroline Badjeck. Livelihoods, Local Knowledge, and the Integration of Economic Development and Conservation Concerns in the Lower Tana River Basin. Hydrobilogia, vol 527: 19-23. 2004.

2. Agrawal, Arun. Sustainable Governance of Common-Pool Resources: Context, Method, and Politics. Annual Rev. Anthropology, vol 32: 243-62, 2003.

3. Campbell, Lisa. (2002) "Conservation Narratives in Costa Rica: Conflict and Co-existence". From Development and Change vol 33: 29-56.

4. Matzke, Gordon and Nabane. Outcomes of a Community Controlled Wildlife Utilization Program in a Zambezi Valley Community. Human Ecology, vol 24, (No. 1), 65-85. 2001.

5. McKean, Margaret. Success on the Commons: A Comparative Examination of Institutions for Common Property Resource Management. Journal of Theoretical Politics, vol 4(3): 247-281. 1992.

6. Takasaki, Yoshito and Bradford Barham. Amazonian Peasants, Rain Forest Use, and Income Generation: The Role of Wealth and Geographical Factors. Society and Natural Resources, vol 14, 291-308. 2001.

7. Vaughn, Christopher, Julie Gack, et al. The Effect of Environmental Education on Schoolchildren, Their Parents, and Community Members: A Study of Intergenerational and Intercommunity Learning. The Journal of Environmental Education, vol 34, No 3, 12-21. 2003.

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