Topic Area: Deforestation
Geographic Area: Costa Rica
Focal Question: Deforestation in Costa Rica: What are the effects on the environment and the native people?
(2) Myers, N. The Gaia Atlas Of Planet Management. Pan Books, London
Reviewer: Ronald W. Russo, Colby College '99

Many areas around the globe are now experiencing deforestation at alarming rates. This problem is very serious and should be examined in detail before irreparable damage is done. Once a tropical rainforest is logged or clearcut, it is very difficult if not impossible to replace, by definition, a nonrenewable resource. This study will look at the direct effects of deforestation on an ecosystem as well as some of the other "unintended" effects on the environment specifically in Costa Rica. To put the time frame in perspective, if significant conservation efforts are not taken soon, Costa Rica is likely to lose ALL of the tropical rainforests not protected or roughly 89% by the year 2010.

To begin the analysis, one must consider the motivations for cutting down so much of nature. First, there are strong economic incentives to extracting wood. It requires little investment and the wood is generally of high value. To reap an equivalent crop on agrarian land would require additional investments as well as significant periods of time. Logging, ranching, and the development of large scale commercial agriculture have transformed much of Costa Rica's wildest terrain. The Local effects are apparent and well known. Erosion due to loss of tree cover leads to increased spring runoff and soil destabilization. More importantly, the loss of animal and plant diversity has enormous costs on the biological equilibrium of the earth. The animals which inhabit the rainforests and cloudforests of Costa Rica are as biologically diverse as those found anywhere in the world. To lose a population or entire species that is yet to be discovered would be a tragic event. On a global level, if the current rate of deforestation persists and is not changed by outside forces, the earth will lose 50,000 plant and animal species per year!

Three primary impacts of deforestation are: loss of cultural diversity, loss of biodiversity and loss of carbon storage capacity. The first, loss of cultural diversity can be examined as follows; over ten million people live in the forests which are being destroyed. For example, in a historical context, between 1900 and 1950, Brazil lost 87 tribes of forest dwellers. These peoples will never return. Loss of biodiversity is the second of these considerations. Biodiversity is defined as, "The level of difference among living things". The less biologically diverse the environment becomes, the more apt it is to succumb to large scale disturbances. Resilience is to a large extent influenced by biodiversity. One reputable source comments on the severity of the situation as, "Already the scale of biodiversity disruption engendered by the present generation of human activities ranks with the greatest prehistoric extinctions." The third and perhaps most imminent impact is the loss of carbon storage capacity. This loss of capacity is one of the contributing factors to climate change. Our world cannot remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere without the aid of forests and woodlands.

Costa Rica is a country roughly the size West Virginia with more types of birds than The US and Canada combined. The Osa Peninsula, found just off Panama on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is Central America's greatest area of biodiversity as well as its wildest province. It is not uncommon for Jaguars to hunt in the open by daylight. Unfortunately, and to the great dismay of many of the inhabitants of this area, this too is beginning to be logged and clearcut. From the air, one can easily see the ill-effects of deforestation on the landscape. Large areas are barren and the hilltops are checkered with tracks from trucks. Cattle ranchers are the catalysts in this process; the money they offer is often more than rural Costa Ricans can turn down for portions of the land they inhabit. For every kilo of meat exported, Costa Rica loses 2.5 tons of soil to erosion. The more startling fact is that a farmer can make 86 times more per acre with coffee and 284 times as much with bananas yet cattle ranching takes up twenty times as much land as the two combined. These people are not choosing to make less. The economic incentives are very strong from outside investors. The natives are looking with nearsighted eyes. The long-term profits would be greater if they maintained the farms that now exist.

Due to the monetary incentives, Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the Americas. Ironically, Costa Rica has some of the most comprehensive conservation laws in the world. ) One of the more recent developments is the Development Agreement that was signed between the US and Costa Rica. The Costa Rican Sustainable Development Agreement was implemented on September 30, 1994. This bilateral agreement essentially proposed the use of economic incentives to achieve environmental goals. Sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity are three of the issues covered in the agreement. The one shortcoming with its policy is that it protects only the areas designated as National Parks. Roughly 11% of the country is National Park, the rest of the lands are in immediate danger. In these parks, logging is disallowed, the land is maintained and subsidized. There are International groups that lobby for increased conservation such as EDF (The Environmental Defense Fund) but to date, they are not having much success.

As stated above, Costa Rica has attempted to take the necessary steps to promote conservation and battle the enormous forces which lead to deforestation. However, it has done little to protect the 89% of the country that is not National Park. Perhaps some of the policies that are currently in position with respect to the Parks need to be expanded to a national level, or at least a regional level.

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