Costa Rica’s National Parks and Environmental Issues

Bridge in the Reserva Biológica Nosara. Photo © Peter Sheik, licensed Creative Commons usage.
Bridge in the Reserva Biológica Nosara. Photo © Peter Sheik, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Costa Rica’s varied terrain makes for an amazing number of microclimates, each with its own complicated ecosystem. Incredibly, less than 20 percent of this biodiversity has been scientifically identified, making it all the more important to preserve the land until scientists can catch up with nature. Who knows if a cure for Alzheimer’s or a solution to world hunger lies in the depths of the disappearing rainforest? The National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), a joint public-private venture, is working hard to find out.

Costa Rica is devoted to protecting its own environment—more than 25 percent of the nation’s territory is set aside in parks and reserves. Still, there are serious challenges. The country doesn’t have the money or human resources to fully enforce environmental laws or patrol preserves. Poachers and lumber companies continue to chip away at the land ringing the protected areas, even making forays into national parks when they think they can get away with it. Another problem has been the government’s inability to pay landowners for the territories expropriated for national parks. Sometimes these uncompensated landowners return to their land and continue farming, mining, or logging it.

Still, with all its problems, Costa Rica is teeming with life, and the country knows that it’s this life that draws tourists. And since tourism is a huge business, there’s yet another incentive to pass—and enforce—laws that protect the environment. It’s not only the land that boasts so many species; Costa Rica has 10 times as much protected territory underwater as it does on land and is working hard to protect everything from giant sea turtles to shark populations, recently threatened by the practice of “finning”—removing fins for the Asian markets in which they are a delicacy, while leaving the rest of the mutilated shark to a watery grave.

On a happier note, the Tourism Institute has created a Bandera Azul (Blue Flag) program to recognize beach towns that commit to cleaning up their act. Program assessors not only look at whether there’s trash on the beach, but also judge waste disposal, security issues, and environmental education efforts. More and more beaches, on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, are working to be green enough to fly the blue flag.

Local newspapers are filled with accounts of struggles to balance industries like fishing, mining, large-scale agriculture, and oil exploration with protection of the land. Some call Costa Rica hypocritical for billing itself a green republic while still allowing some exploitation of its natural resources, but it seems inevitable that there will be conflict and compromise along the road to balancing all the country’s needs. Those who lament the sometimes slow progress and backsliding often take matters into their own hands, joining forces with national and international conservation organizations or even buying up land so developers won’t be able to get their hands on it.

Costa Rica’s National Parks

The strength and importance of Costa Rica’s National Conservation Area System (SINAC) is all the more impressive when you realize it began very recently—in the 1970s. And Costa Rica’s 26 national parks are just the tip of the iceberg; there are also more than 100 reserves and refuges that seek to protect varied habitats and ecosystems for both present and future generations.

One of the most popular parks is Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific coast, with its beaches bordered by wildlife-rich rainforest and its location only a few hours from San José. Also popular and even closer to the capital are Braulio Carrillo, a teeming, dripping forest that you can see via aerial tram if you’d rather not get your shoes muddy; and stunning Irazú Volcano, from which on a clear day you can see both coastlines.

A little more effort is required to get to two other popular parks: the Caribbean coast’s Tortuguero, with its canals, crocodiles, turtles, manatees, and teeming bird population; and Corcovado, on the lushly wild Osa Peninsula, where tapirs and jaguars roam.

Significantly more effort is required to reach Isla de Cocos, 532 kilometers (331 miles) off the country’s Pacific shore. Protected as a park in 1978 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, this uninhabited island is a favorite of scuba divers who come for the rays, dolphins, and hammerhead sharks. Isla de Cano, just off Drake’s Bay on the Osa Peninsula, is another island reserve known for its undersea life. Isla San Lucas, near Puntarenas, is Costa Rica’s version of Alcatraz, where the ruins of an old penitentiary sit on a wildlife-rich isle.

After you’ve visited the big guns of the system, it’s a pleasure to start exploring the lesser-known and less-visited reserves, where you might not see anyone else on the path for hours or even days.

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