Costa Rica: The Little Engine That Could

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Did you know that Costa Rica accounts for just 0.03% of the Earth’s surface but contains nearly 6% of its biodiversity?

For decades, tourists from all over the world have been traveling to Costa Rica (a country roughly the size of West Virginia with a population of just over 5 million people) to experience the country’s bountiful supply of natural beauty and wonder. In fact, Costa Rica has become such a popular ecotourism destination that over 3 million people visited the country in 2019.

Moreover, with public policies set in place that promote economic equity and equality of opportunity, Costa Rica has been able to maintain one of the lowest poverty rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, thus offering a glimmer of hope in a politically unstable region.

“The country is a beacon of Enlightenment,” writes Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute. “Costa Rica is a world leader in democratic, sustainable, and inclusive economic growth.”

Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica

So how has Costa Rica been able to achieve such a successful democratic model?

In a message from Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada on International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22) 2020, Mr. Quesada outlined some of the county’s most successful policy practices over the decades.

Costa Rica’s successful policy practices by the years:

  • 130 years of public education
  • Nearly 80 years of universal healthcare
  • More than 70 years without a standing army
  • 65 years generating renewable energy
  • 50 years promoting reforestation
  • More than 30 years paying for environmental services
  • More than 25 years as a nature-centered tourist destination

Now let’s dive deeper into each individual policy to see what policies might be best applied by other developing nations.

Salon Comunal in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica

Public education

After becoming the first Central American country to make public education free and mandatory for all citizens back in the late 1800s, Costa Rica has maintained a proud emphasis on its education system ever since.

Following the decision to dismantle its military in 1948, the Costa Rican government decided to reallocate military funds into education instead. With over 4,000 schools and four state-funded universities in its education system, Costa Rica currently employs more teachers than it does police officers, as 30 percent of the national budget has been invested in public education since the 1970s.

Universal healthcare

Offering one of the best government-funded universal healthcare systems in Latin America (known as Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social), Costa Rica can frequently be found amongst the World Health Organization’s top ranking countries in the world for long life expectancy.

Yes, Costa Rica is a healthy place to live in general due to an abundance of clean air, water, and food, but the country’s emphasis on providing high-quality, low-cost healthcare for its citizens certainly contributes to its citizens longevity as well.

No standing army

As previously mentioned, Costa Rica dismantled its military in 1948, and hasn’t looked back since. The decision to abolish the military was made by former president José Figueres Ferrer, who came to power after leading a successful revolution against the Costa Rican Army in a 44-day civil war. It is thought that Ferrer then abolished the army in order to prevent the country from allowing militarism to undercut democracy.

Costa Rica’s demilitarization strategy allowed it to become the most developed nation in Central America, primarily because the government was able to reallocate funds into other important areas like education, health, and sustainable development. Considered by some to be the Switzerland of Latin America, Costa Rica is now home to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations’ University for Peace. It is also an accredited member of the International Criminal Court.

Renewable energy

In 2019, nearly 100 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity came from renewable sources like water and wind. The silver lining to Costa Rica’s rainy season is that the country contains plenty of free-flowing water, used to generate over 78 percent of its electricity. Additionally, Costa Rica produces roughly 10 percent of its electricity from wind and another 10 percent from geothermal activity.

What is more, since 2007 Costa Rica has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2021 — a goal that was incorporated into the country’s National Development Plan and its National Climate Change Strategy. In addition to generating its electricity from renewables, Costa Rica also plans to mitigate carbon emissions through forest conservation, agriculture and livestock, solid waste management, transport, and sustainable building sectors.

Marine environment in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica

Policies promoting conservation

After rampant deforestation in the ‘70s and ‘80s (to clear land for grazing cattle) reduced Costa Rica’s forest cover to just 20 percent by 1990, the country instituted its Payments for Environmental Services (PES) program to promote forest and biodiversity conservation.

PES works by providing direct payments from the Costa Rican government to landowners who maintain healthy and robust land by instituting environmentally-friendly forest management practices. As of 2020, approximately 60 percent of land is now forested, making Costa Rica the only tropical country in the world to successfully reverse deforestation.

Nature-based tourism

In the 1990s, Costa Rica became one of the first countries in the world to recognize the importance of using protected land to promote tourism (known as ecotourism), which now makes up more than 8 percent of the country’s GDP.

With a wide variety of ecosystems and some of the greatest biological diversity on the planet, Costa Rica is now home to 26 National Parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas, 11 forest reserves, and eight biological reserves, as over 25 percent of the country is protected from future development.

In 2019, President Alvarado called for the formation of the High Ambition Coalition, an informal group of over 30 countries within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that will work to protect 30% of land and marine areas worldwide by 2030.

The takeaway

When it comes to addressing prevailing issues like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, Costa Rica’s performance has been exemplary, and we are very fortunate to call this beautiful country — “the little engine that could” — our home. For us, to live and work in a country that is so small but mighty shows us that despite a country’s size or perceived power, if it makes thoughtful decisions and is tenacious, greatness is possible!

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About the author

Spencer Dunlap