Lessons from Costa Rica

Paola Apestegui


Costa Rica possesses great natural wealth. Approximately 5% of accounted for global species call this small extension of land a home. These species include more than 8,500 plant species, 220 reptile species, 160 amphibian species, 205 mammal species, and 850 species of birds. With 26.5% of its land surface declared a protected wilderness area, the national Costa Rican system of protected areas include 28 national parks, 9 forest reserves, 8 biological reserves, 2 absolute natural reserves, 31 protective zones, 71 wildlife refuges and 13 wetlands, amongst others. It is also home to 44 biological corridors that connect these areas and safeguard habitats and ecosystems.

It is amazing to think that just 51,100 km2 of territory can be home to such an extensive amount of biodiversity. It is a privilege and is not taken lightly. Protecting, maintaining and nurturing these areas is thought of as a common responsibility, where the citizens play a crucial role.

Legal Framework

According to Costa Rica’s Biodiversity Law, all government environmental agencies must seek to promote the active participation of all social sectors in the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of biodiversity. Everything that involves the environment, involves active citizen participation; it is conserved by and for the people.

The Regional Councils of the National Conservation Areas System (SINAC in Spanish) exercise the administration of the areas of conservation and are open to all NGOs and community stakeholders interested in partaking in the sessions. These councils play an extremely important role in integrating the concerns of the community into the administrations of such areas and constitute one of the main instances of citizen participation.

Social Capital

Biodiversity is our heritage, and its protection can be said to be embedded in the DNA of each Costa Rican citizen, supported, of course, by a robust legal structure. It is thus imperative to highlight the importance that the development of social capital has had in Costa Rica’s flora and fauna conservation.

Social capital is a concept that, as others – like sustainability – has become very elusive in its definition due to its multiple applications. We hear about it constantly, the benefits and all-around potential that it offers us. Nonetheless, it can be quite daunting to foster. Setting aside the academic debates, one matter remains certain: social capital is a source of traction. It embodies trust, reliability and overall sense of community. It surpasses superficial and selfish gains to encourage the altruistic qualities of individuals. 

The embodiment of social capital in Costa Rica is observed on a daily basis and through numerous ways. While taking a stroll in a park, I have been witness to selfless individuals who pick up random garbage on their way to their destination; volunteers planting trees to restore endemic species in the area; messages in the bus stops seeking to create awareness for the protection of sharks; educational billboards explaining the importance of specific species to our biodiversity; and countless stories in the newspapers that celebrate citizen initiatives to protect the environment. 


As it can be seen, the environmental empowerment of citizens is encouraged through, amongst others, education, the legal framework, government support and awareness campaigns, but most importantly through freedom of association and speech. Socio-environmental movements are very prominent in Costa Rica. Through peaceful protests, citizens have voiced their concerns and critiques towards developments and overall modes of production that constitute threats to the environment. These movements have overpowered prominent mining companies, as well as one of the biggest producers of pineapple crops, just to name a few of their achievements. They have endured countless obstacles throughout their battles, but their courage and strength has never wavered.

This is what I believe is crucial: networks of individuals that share a common interest in the protection of species; that actively seek justice and believe in their goals; that spread seeds of change and teach by example. It is the establishment of a mindset, where all actions are driven through an environmental scope. As a Costa Rican citizen, I know that there is more ground to cover, as well as deep concerns that need to be resolved, but everyday I am reassured that I do not walk alone; that I stand shoulder to shoulder in this path with countless activists who inspire transformational change.

Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación Costa Rica; http://www.sinac.go.cr/ES/Paginas/default.aspx