One hundred years ago, rainforests covered two billion hectares, 14 percent of the earth’s land surface. Now less than half remains, and the rate of destruction is increasing: An area larger than the U.S. state of Florida is lost every year. Today, the rainforests resound with the carnivorous buzz of chain saws.
It is a story that’s been repeated again and again during the past 400 years. Logging, ranching, and the development of large-scale commercial agriculture have transformed much of Costa Rica’s wildest terrain. Cattle ranching has been particularly wasteful. Large tracts of virgin forest were felled in the 1930s through 1960s to make way for cattle, stimulated by millions of dollars of loans provided by U.S. banks and businesses promoting the beef industry to feed the North American market.
Throughout the 1980s, Costa Rica’s tropical forest was disappearing at a rate of at least 520 square kilometers a year—faster than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere and, as a percentage of national land area, reportedly nine times faster than the rainforests of Brazil. By 1990, less than 1.5 million hectares of primal forest remained (about 20 percent of its original habitat).
By anyone’s standards, Costa Rica has since led the way in moving Central America away from the soil-leaching deforestation that plagues the isthmus (when humans cut the forest down, the organic-poor soils are exposed to the elements and are rapidly washed away by the intense rains, and the ground is baked by the blazing sun to leave an infertile wasteland).
The country has one of the world’s best conservation records: About one-third of the country is under some form of official protection. The nation has attempted to protect large areas of natural habitat and to preserve most of its singularly rich biota. But it is a policy marked by the paradox of good intent and poor application.
Many reserves and refuges are poorly managed, and the Forestry Directorate, the government office in charge of managing the country’s forest resources, has been accused of failing to fulfill its duties. In the 1970s, the Costa Rican government banned export of more than 60 diminishing tree species, and national law proscribes cutting timber without proper permits. It happens anyway, much of it illegally, with logs reportedly trucked into San José  and the coastal ports at night. Wherever new roads are built, the first vehicles in are usually logging trucks.
It’s a daunting battle. Every year Costa Rica’s population grows by 2.5 percent, increasing pressure on land and forcing squatters onto virgin land, where they continue to deplete the forests that once covered 80 percent of Costa Rica. Fires set by ranchers lap at the borders of Santa Rosa National Park . And oil-palm plantations squeeze Manuel Antonio  against the Pacific. In 2000 the Ángel Rodríguez administration even authorized oil exploration within an indigenous reserve and adjacent to two national parks; while MINAE (the ministry responsible for land welfare and use) proposed a plan to open protected areas for mining and agriculture.
Part of the government’s answer to deforestation has been to promote reforestation, mostly through a series of tax breaks, leading to tree farms predominantly planted in nonnative species such as teak. These efforts, however, do little to replace the precious native hardwoods or to restore the complex natural ecosystems, which take generations to reestablish.
Nonetheless, dozens of dedicated individuals and organizations are determined to preserve and replenish core habitats. Privately owned forests constitute the majority of unprotected primary forest remaining in Costa Rica outside the national parks.
Scores of private reserves have been created to prove that rainforests can produce more income from ecotourism than if cleared for cattle. As a result of all these efforts, forest cover increased to 51 percent of the nation in 2005, up from only 21 percent in 1987, according to MINAE, while illegal logging is down significantly. (However, MINAE seems now to classify even the most marginal forest types.)
Ironically, a conservationist ethic is still weak among country-based Costa Ricans. The majority of ecological efforts, including that which resulted in creation of the national park system, are the result of initiatives by foreign residents.
President Oscar Arias determined to make Costa Rica the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021. In 2007 his administration began more aggressively enforcing environmental regulations against hotel and other property developers along the coast. Illegal well drilling is draining precious aquifers. And much of the fauna of Nicoya  (and other regions) is fast disappearing following a construction boom that has seen a 600 percent increase in the land area developed during the past decade. (However, Arias also championed a proposed gold mine near the Nicaraguan border, and even wanted to take away the Leatherback Turtle Marine National Park’s national park designation.)
Meanwhile, the Bandera Azul Ecológica (Ecological Blue Flag) program has had tremendous success in cleaning up Costa Rica’s beaches. Modeled on the ICT’s successful Certification for Sustainable Tourism, the program assesses the cleanliness of individual beaches and their communities, who have been provided an incentive to clean up their act and stay clean. In 2009, Tamarindo  lost its blue flag status—and none too soon! Fecal contamination in the waters around Tamarindo was far above levels considered unsafe by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (an alarming 97 percent of the nation’s sewage flows untreated into rivers and/or the ocean).