Costa Rica: paving the way for Rights of Nature?

Figure 1 Wilma Compton [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 1 Wilma Compton [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sara Bellan

Costa Rica, and the conservationist policies they have implemented, serves as a model for green political action around the world. Costa Rica has over 30 percent of its national territory marked for conservation—one of the highest ratios in the world. They have become a leading destination for ecotourism and could consider Rights of Nature as the next step in their evolution towards living in harmony with nature.

Intro to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is located in between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America. It borders the Pacific Ocean on one coast, and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Costa Rica has a population size of 4,987,142 based on 2018 estimates. They live in a country slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia (and slightly larger than the country of Denmark). 

Costa Rica’s climate is defined as tropical with coastal plains, and mountain ranges in the middle of the country with many being volcanic. Roughly 51% of the land is filled with rainforest.

While Costa Rica is only roughly .03% of the land mass on the Earth, it contains 5% of the world's biodiversity. This makes it one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, and the contain a level of biological density that is unmatched by anywhere else on the planet. 

Rainforests make up most of Costa Rica, which have become widely known for the animals and other species within it. Rainforest animals like, poison dart frogs, types of parrots, jaguars and other large cats, monkeys, sloths, and tapirs, have become particularly famous. Within Costa Rica’s diverse region, there are at least 838 species of birds within the region, 1,300 species of butterfly and 35,000 species of insects. There are also roughly 205 mammal species, 220 species of reptiles and 160 species of amphibians found within Costa Rica.

Figure 2 303sstevens [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2 303sstevens [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Costa Rica as a whole has over 100 species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources endangered species list like the Hawksbill Sea Turtle, the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark along with many species of corals, jellyfish and sea anemones.  The drivers of this extinction? Deforestation, pollution and habitat changes. Conservation policies in Costa Rica have been aimed at preventing further endangerment, minimizing deforestation and preserving habitat.

Geographic placement also accounts for the biological diversity of Costa Rica which is directly connected to both North and South American continents through Panama. As a result, animal, plant and insect species have populated Costa Rica that can be found in both of these large regions

Finally, there is a broad range of microclimates within Costa Rica because of its positioning along the coast creating tropical environments, its vast area of forestry and its mountainous areas. Microclimates is defined as atmospheric and climate differences within relative small areas. There are 1,290 kilometers of coastal land in Costa Rica which allows for diverse marine animals and other species.There are also various mountain ranges that are within Costa Rican territory that provide a microclimate. Because of the different climates, there are more species that can inhabit Costa Rica which helps to make it was of the more biologically diverse places in the world.

Green Policies in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has implemented policies throughout the government to promote less destructive land use, conservation of the biodiversity, and formal protections for large parts of the region. The government has implemented wide-ranging policies across several areas including: tourism, eco-hotels, taxes, protected areas, and funding for conservation groups.

Costa Rica has deployed a variety of levers to promote the restoration and protection of Nature including tax changes, land policies, and the minimization of deforestation. Heavy deforestation between the 1960s and the 1980s dropped rainforest cover from 50% to 21% in 1987. And by 2005, Costa Rica had boosted their rainforest area to 50% again

Costa Rica also funneled taxes into promoting practices that help protect the earth. The government uses taxes from fuel, cars, and energy fees and puts these funds towards managing protected areas and environmental services, like cleaning air and water measures. A new law  pays landowners to protect old-growth forest areas and to plant new trees to promote reforestation which benefits both farmers and forest ecosystems.

Costa Rica created a National Commission on Biodiversity, a group comprised of passionate community members, including scientists, politicians, activities and indigenous representatives, who act as an ecological think tank for the state. They propose conservationist policies to the government and help to incorporate sustainable education for the citizens.

In 1998, the Costa Rican government also implemented the Biodiversity Act, which has remained in effect today. The Biodiversity act protects endangered species and thus biodiversity, while giving the state the means to enforce sustainable practices when interacting with biological resources. This means when land is used for farming, agriculture or industry, protections remain to ensure the health of the natural habitat. Costa Rica has also funded and supported various other groups promoting their biodiversity, both publicly and privately.

Role of Protected Areas

Another aspect of Costa Rica’s conservation drive has been to create protected zones. Today Costa Rica has 27 separate national parks, 58 refuges for wildlife or sanctuaries, 32 protected zones and 19 forest or biological reserves.

Figure 3 Green Turtle Hatchlings at Tortuguero National Park by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3 Green Turtle Hatchlings at Tortuguero National Park by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortuguero National Park was the first national park established in Costa Rica, in 1970. Located on the coast of the Caribbean sea, it spans 77,032 acres of the country making it one of the largest national parks in the country. Tortuguero National Park is often referred to as Costa Rica's 'Amazon Jungle' because its waterways are the only method of travel. The park is home to a large amount of biodiversity with over 375 species of birds, 2,2000 species of plants and 400 species of trees specifically.  

Tortuguero National Park is named after its most important inhabitants - sea turtles. Tortuguero is Spanish for 'region of turtles' in English. 20 miles of coastline in the park are used by the four sea turtle species that lay eggs there. Tortuguero National Park is considered to be one of the best places in Costa Rica for wildlife viewing in nature. Despite only being able to reach the park by boat or plane, it is Costa Rica's third most visited park. The park is important for protecting many threatened species of flora and fauna. It was declared a national park in 1970, after having been protected in 1963 as a nesting sanctuary. Dr. Archie Carr was a turtle biologist that recognized the importance of the area for turtles and sought to protect it. It was his work that was instrumental in protecting the region.

Figure 4 A Tapir in Corcovado National Park by zielwasser [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Figure 4 A Tapir in Corcovado National Park by zielwasser [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Corcovado National Park is the largest national park in Costa Rica and was the second park to be founded in Costa Rica, in 1975. Located on the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean, Corcovado is located on the opposite coast of Tortuguero National Park. This park also hosts critical biodiversity, and is one of the remaining places where tapirs live. Within it, also live a variety of wild cats, such as leopards and jaguars. It is also the only place where all four types of Costa Rican Monkeys can be seen in the same place. This park has 500 species of trees within it.

Costa Rica has put an emphasis on creating protected areas as a means for conservation. This has allowed for people to safely visit these locations, learn about conservation and the biodiversity and promote sustainability. 

Ecotourism within Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s focus on living in harmony with nature has benefited the country’s economy by boosting one of its largest sectors: tourism. For more than a decade, tourism represents one of the largest industries in the country, and now 5.5% of Costa Rica’s GDP.

Although ecotourism and other forms of sustainable travel originated with the environmental movement of the 1970s, ecotourism itself did not become prevalent as a travel concept until the late 1980s.

Costa Rica’s push towards ecotourism began with the establishment of the Cabo Blanco National Reserve in 1963 and the first national parks in 1971. as a way to protect Nature while creating more money to put back into conservation work as well as improve living standards/ wages for the people. In neighboring communities to protected areas, poverty has been reduced by 16% due to the economic uptick from ecotourism.

Building on strong tourism growth that began in the mid-1980s and increasing significantly with 800,000 foreigners visiting Costa Rica in 1995, over one million visited in 1999 and 2.34m in 2012. Those 2012 visitors generated USD2.4 billion in revenue for the country. Of those, half put their money into ecotourism including hiking, bird and wildlife watching, seeing the country’s flora and fauna as well as visiting rural communities.

Costa Rica promotes and encourages hotels using energy conserving practices, like solar power, and sustainable management practices like water, waste and garbage conservation. They do this by promoting them on websites about travel and recommendations of lodging to tourists. Eco-hotels generally use eco-friendly materials in their buildings, such as locally sourced materials and biodegradable products. Some hotels have volunteer conservation programs for guests as well as Costa Rican citizens.

Eco-hotels generally use funds from the parks to support management of sustainable practices, and maintaining areas within the park. These eco-hotels provide employment for local communities at the same time as they are promoting sustainable practices.

Earth Law as the next step for Costa Rica?

Recognizing that not only is humanity part of the web of life, but also that we need Nature to be healthy for us to be healthy is a philosophy that has been put into practice in Costa Rica.

A commitment to creating legal and tax structures has allowed Costa Rica to show that prioritizing Nature’s health can also benefit the economy, culture and general well-being of citizens. Giving Nature a seat at the table, so to speak, by considering the well-being of natural ecosystems along with human considerations forges a new way forward. 

Earth Law could be the next step to ensure permanent legal protections of the gains already made in putting Nature first in Costa Rica. Rights of Nature makes it a legal responsibility to ensure that Nature continues to exist, thrive and evolve. When designated or natural areas gain legal recognition for their own sake, local communities are then empowered to defend nature against pollution and other forms of destruction. Costa Rica could continue to advance their conservation leadership by passing Rights of Nature laws to keep being a role model for how people can live in harmony with nature. 


Earth Law Center works to promote legally recognizing rights of the Earth. ELC creates protections that recognize and enforce the rights of nature. This can be seen particularly in Costa Rica’s political recognition of their habitats and ecosystems.

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