Costa Rica's Tropical Forests


Many of us associate the crisis over the loss of biodiversity with tropical forests, and we associate tropical forests with Costa Rica. Although this small country has an a wide range of ecoregions, including dry forests in Guanacaste, several types of mangrove swamps on the Pacific and rugged coastal area on the Caribbean, up to 90% of the country was once covered by forests. Because of a combination of land use (i.e. farming) and population growth Costa Rica had lost approximately 40% of its forest by 1990. Today only about 25% of the forest remain, and this is in protected areas.

Costa Rica's story is about how it successfully grew its population and economy without destroying its natural resources. Unfortunately their story is almost unique. Too many developing nations have traded environmental quality and health for industrialization. Costa Rica took actions along interwoven paths that created a more resilient society and economy. They did this by finding multiple uses for their social, economic and natural assets.


Natural regions

Even though Central America is small, it represents 17 of the over 200 terrestrial ecoregions in the world. Costa Rica has portions of about 12 of these ecoregions.

An interactive map of the ecoregions of Costa Rica is sometimes available at:


Recent history

In the 1960s Costa Rica's government realized that it their land use practices were not sustainable. The demand for farm land, in particular cattle ranching, was causing large amounts of deforesting. Once the forest was cut however, the land became stressed, less productive and took a long time to recover. More and more farm land was required to meet the growing needs for beef. It seemed as if they were headed for a collapse in natural productivity. This concern lead to political actions including a national congress on natural resources. This congress identified a plan for preserving the remaining tropical forests. In the 1980's a cabinet level position for natural resources was created.

In the late 1980s, Costa Rica established a National Conservation Strategy for Sustainable Development. This strategy made decisions based on combined information about the economy, demography, industrialization, agriculture and energy. This strategy allowed them to avoid narrow special interests. This sophisticated decision making process relied on the citizen's generally high level of education including a 93% literacy rate.

Several major policies and actions resulted from the political awareness of the importance of sustainability. These form an interwoven path of action at different scales that allowed Costa Rica to enjoy some success. Five of the most important of these actions are described below: a system of national parks, debt reduction through land conservation, development of ecotourism, sustainable forestry practices, and collaborations between government and industry to develop valuable natural pharmaceutical products.


National parks, reserves and refuges

Costa Rica has protected approximately 28% of its land in national parks, reserves, and wildlife refuges. Just under half of this (12 %) is in a system of national parks. These parks are spread throughout the country in many different ecoregions. The balance of the protected areas (16%) is in a combination of refuges, indigenous Indian reserves, reserves and corridors. These protected lands can have different use levels ranging from light agricultural use around the perimeter to highly protected core areas. Some of the core areas only so restrictive that they only permit a few naturalists/biologists to enter.

There are large and small parks, reserves and refuges distributed across the country. These areas are in different governance regions so that all the parks aren't controlled by the same rules. Thus, even the governance plan has built in diversity and resilience.

In theory, these protected pockets are loosely connected with potential corridors for plant and animal migration. The network of these reserves throughout the country provide for some protection against localized natural disasters (volcanoes, forest fires, earthquakes, or tidal waves) as well as protection from human incursion and fragmentation.

Below is a list of the several of the best known national parks or reserves and a short description of each's resources.

  • Arenal National Park- home of the active Arenal volcano
  • Guanacaste National Park - includes both wet and dry tropical forests
  • Manuel Antonio National Park - coastal park with both marine islands and terrestrial areas
  • Santa Rosa National Park - large park in the NW corner of the country
  • Tortuguero National Park - area on the Atlantic seaboard that includes Green turtle spawning area
  • La Amistad International Park - a very large and untouched region on the southern border with Panama.
  • Monteverde Biological Reserve -this high altitude region includes the cloud forests

For a list of all the parks and reserves please see


Debt for nature swap

One mechanism that Costa Rica used to preserve natural areas was to be involved in debt-for-nature swaps. In these agreements, a developing nation (such as Costa Rica) agrees not to harvest the natural resources of a particular region in exchange for a conservation group buying off part of their national debt. Such swaps can be particularly attractive if the developing nation has large debt that they were planning to pay off by exploitation of timber or conversion to farming. Conservation groups (such as The Nature Conservancy) buy the countries debt at a discount because the loan would be difficult to repay anyway. The debt is forgiven and the country maintains a certain amount of land as wildlife reserves. In 1992, The Nature Conservancy and Costa Rica agreed on a debt-for-nature swap that removed $80 million in debt but cost The Nature Conservancy only $12.5 million and Costa Rica has to commit $43 million toward conservation projects.



Tourism that both draws foreign visitors to see wildlife and does this in an ecologically sensitive manner is called "ecotourism". Development of successful ecotourism requires investments in two areas. First the natural resources have to be made accessible to tourists. This may require roads to the reserves, trails in the reserves and other infrastructure. One of the problems with ecotourism is that the participants usually do not want to be in crowds or even small groups. This type of infrastructure may be particularly expensive especially considering that fewer people will be using it. Second, the investments must also include the construction of environmentally friendly resorts. The resorts need to walk a fine line between providing enough amenities that might be desired by affluent clients without over-running the environment. The ecotourism industry relies on tourists spending money in the local economy. These two factors may be difficult to justify based on simple financial accounting. For example, it might be much cheaper in terms of cost per user to build a large casino with ample parking that it would be to create a small wilderness lodge.

Ecotourism is a risky undertaking. There are uncertainties associated with the whims of tourists or international travel patterns that might change from terrorism or currency exchange. In addition, ecotourism can be damaged by its own success. Too many visitors to an area can cause damage, and the areas that are most in demand for nature tourism are some of the most fragile in the world.

Costa Rica has been successful with its ecotourism industry. In 1994, ecotourism was their primary source of foreign income. This trend has continued but some people are worried that the construction of more resorts and vacation real estate sales will dramatically change the nature of the experience.


Sustainable forest products

Most people think of "forest products" industries as logging and wood products. There are many other commercial products that are harvested from forests. Even in Oregon's forest we harvest mushrooms (for eating) and ferns and grasses (that are used by florists). Costa Rica aggressively sought out new products and business models for making money off the forest without damaging it. One approach is to harvest nuts or fruits. Another approach is to harvest plants that have medicinal value. There are some studies that show that such sustainable harvests from rain forests can slightly exceed the income per acre from tropical pine-wood forests.

One business model that Costa Rica pursued was to form an industry/government partnership between Merck pharmaceuticals and a government sponsored agency called INBio (Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad de Costa Rica). The basic ideas was that Costa Rica claimed all rights to any biological material that was discovered. The government had an agreement that let Merck evaluate these biological samples for potential products and then Costa Rica would licence these products to Merck. The money from the joint venture was used to support conservation of biodiversity and the exploration of the biodiversity. The exploration would be in the people's interest because it would help manage their national resources and it would be in Merck's interest because they could exploit some of these natural products that were discovered. The agreement between Merck and Costa Rica was not as successful as many had hoped, but it represented a new wave of thinking about valuing nature.


This case study describes how the biodiversity Costa Rica's forests was simultaneously exploited and conserved. The explotation, i.e. use took the forms of debt-for-nature swaps, ecotourism, and extraction of natural products. The conservation plan included forming a network of reserves, refuges, coridoors, buffer areas and parks. Instead of relying on monocultures of crops or beef exports, Costa Rica diversified its economy by relying on this natural resource base. The ideas that Costa Rica attempted to implement in the 1960's through 1980's would seem in cutting edge in most of the rest of the world now, over 40 years later.



Mayer, J. Richard, (2001) Tropical Forests and Biodiversity. Chapter 2. In "Connections in Environmental Science". pgs 41 - 57. McGraw-Hill.

van der Duim, V. R. (2000) Agriculture, nature conservation and tourism in Costa Rica. Retrieved from on 20004.11.21.