Costa Rica is considering ways to sustain success in reforestation

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — Costa Rica has transformed from one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation in the 1980s to a country focused on ecotourism, luring world travelers with the chance to move between marine reserves and cloud forests beyond one day.

But the Central American country, known for its lush jungles and rich biodiversity, now faces a dilemma as one environmental priority – reforestation – collides head-on with another – cutting fossil fuel use.

The program, which has paid landowners for 25 years not to cut down trees, depends almost entirely on fuel taxes that will disappear by 2050 as Costa Rica switches public and private transportation to electricity in pursuit of zero emissions. This forces the government to look for alternative financing options.

These may include new taxes or a tweaked mix of existing ones. Tourists who flock to see toucans, sloths and bright frogs may someday see a fee on their hotel bill for helping to preserve the forests. And Costa Rica will continue to pressure developed countries—the planet’s biggest polluters—to compensate countries that do more than their share of carbon storage.

Reforestation in Costa Rica gained momentum last year when President Rodrigo Chavez announced a $16.4 million World Bank grant for carbon-reducing forests. The program will bring in a total of $60 million by the end of 2025, money that Costa Rica hopes will double the number of protected forests.

The money is one step toward ensuring the international community does its part to save the precious forest, said Jorge Mario Rodríguez Zuniga, director of the National Forestry Financing Fund, known by its Spanish initials FONAFIFO.

“If it’s good for the world, it’s only fair that the world does its part to protect it,” he said, adding that he hopes one day soon he will be able to say that all of Costa’s private forests are getting some sort of boost.

Once the demand for agricultural land took a serious toll on Costa Rica’s forest cover, which was reduced to 21% of the national area in the 1980s, when nearly 125,000 acres were cleared each year. Although Costa Rica has invested heavily in the creation of national parks, the government realized that something had to be done to preserve private forests when it began to promote ecotourism.

The Forestry Act of 1996 established the Payments for Environmental Services (PSA) program, funded by the gas tax. It paid landowners about $60 per 2 1/2 acres (1 hectare) annually for the four “ecological services” — water, beauty, biodiversity and carbon — associated with forest conservation. The program currently covers more than 680,000 acres (276,000 hectares).

Along with the gingerbread came the stick: strict rules and fines for land use changes.

Tourism soon grew so much that agriculture’s share of the economy fell from 25% in 1982 to 4.2% in 2019. Meanwhile, the number of visitors to protected natural areas rose from about 500,000 in 1990 to more than 1.7 million in 2019.

Some landowners were already philosophically inclined to protect their forest.

Floripe Córdoba and Siegfried Kussmaul decided before the program started that they wanted to let the forest reclaim 8 acres near San Jose where they grew coffee and raised cattle, even though they said some neighbors thought they were “crazy.” They now receive about $300 a year from the program, a largely symbolic sum for them, living off his pension from his years as a geology professor.

“When I preserve, I allow all the insects, down to the smallest, the fauna and everything in the forest to have their place,” said Cordoba, a former tourist guide who walks the forest daily. During one of these walks, Cordova pointed out her favorite trees and recognized the butterflies that flew by.

Surrounded by cattle farms, Kussmaul said, “Neighbors see us and say, ‘What a waste of land!'”

World Bank money is open to landowners not yet participating in the Costa Rica program. But it only offsets carbon emissions, one of four “environmental services,” raising the question of whether $18 for 2 1/2 acres (1 hectare) would appeal to many landowners.

The Central Volcanic Chain Development Fund FUNDECOR, a non-governmental conservation organization, has been helping sign up landowners to the PSA program for many years. Executive director Mario Piedra welcomed the cut in funding that will come from fossil fuel cuts, but said replacement options beyond what the World Bank program is offering must be found.

“They didn’t realize that $7 or $18 per hectare per year is not going to improve the sustainability of these areas in the long term, because that’s very little money,” he said.

Rodríguez, director of FONAFIFO, said he knows $18 is not much, but said his organization is looking for additional funding to cover the addition of biodiversity as an environmental service that must be offset. At the same time, the program offers retroactive payments to those who had verified forestland as early as 2018.

Officials are also trying to make it easier. Landowners can register through a website, with the government in most cases using satellite imagery rather than site visits to verify the existence of forest. And where the PSA requires landowners to hire foresters to help look after their forests – at a cost of up to 18% of government payments – World Bank money does not.

Rodriguez said FONAFIFO hopes to find the money to make payments after 2024. Both Piedra and Rodriguez talked about using the private capital markets to build systems that would offset conservation efforts.

FONAFIFO spoke to Costa Rican tourism officials because this industry is one of the biggest beneficiaries of forest conservation, but there is no tax for this purpose and now is not the time to launch one, given the ongoing economic difficulties associated with the pandemic, he said Rodriguez.

One indication that tourists may be willing to support some kind of tax is that a voluntary program offering them the chance to offset emissions while on vacation raised $600,000 last year.

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