Despite the beauty and diversity of its forests, Costa Rica has the second highest percent of deforested land in Latin America. In 1950, 72 percent of Costa Rica was covered in forest — today it is less than 20 percent.
The reasons for the destruction of the country's forests are many:
· Spontaneous, unplanned expansion of agriculture frontiers, often in response to foreign credit possibilities. For example, in the 1960's and '70s the United States provided millions of dollars in loans to stimulate beef production in Costa Rica.
· Lumbering activity often destroys large areas of forests to extract only a certain few profitable species of trees, leaving the rest to rot.
· There is a rapidly growing population. In the 1960's, the annual growth rate was
3.8 percent, and the population doubled between 1950 and 1970.
· The best agricultural lands have been concentrated into large properties owned by a wealthy minority, forcing poor farmers to clear and work marginal lands for subsistence.
· Old laws have defined clearing of forest for agriculture as proof that the land was being "improved", a requisite for gaining title to the land.
· The government has been unable to enforce the few deforestation laws that existed.
The irony is that Costa Rica is considered a leader of environmental conservation in Latin America and has won a reputation as a conservation‑minded nation.
· Nearly one‑quarter of the country's land is under some sort of official protection in parks and reserves; foreign governments fund a myriad of efforts to conserve the country's natural resources.
· International non government agencies fall over one another trying to implement projects to conserve and preserve forests; the government has a Forestry Directorate and strict forestry laws to manage the forests and prevent poor and illegal use of forest resources.
· Scientific researchers roam the country creating academic studies about environmental problems and proposing solutions; the national government mounts campaigns to consolidate conservation efforts and form a "New Ecological Order."
Why is it then that at least 520 square kilometers of Costa Rican forests continue to be felled each year at a rate unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere?
Nearly one‑quarter of the nation may be protected on paper, but in reality the government is unable or unwilling to enforce the protection, and approximately 20 percent of the land area of the national parks is still in the hands of private landowners who may use it as they please; and there are no funds to purchase this land.
Foreign nations fund reforestation programs that supposedly "reforest" thousands of hectares each year (on paper). Planting monoculture timber plantations of chiefly exotic species, as occurs in most of these programs, does not by any stretch of the imagination recreate natural forests, thus the term "reforest" is a misnomer. Anyone who actually visits the sites of these "reforestations" soon learns that the majority are either planted and poorly maintained, planted and abandoned, or were never even planted to begin with.
International non-government agencies mount projects that sound wonderful and, perhaps, have only the best intentions. However, the projects may not be practical or they may be poorly implemented in the field. Many such projects run into trouble when their plan fails to apply to the real-world situation or falls apart due to the incompetence of project managers or of the people who actually do the field work.
The Forestry Directorate doesn't have the manpower or resources to fully enforce the forestry laws and it is additionally hampered by corruption within its ranks. If permission to cut trees cannot be acquired legally or bought under the table, trees usually can be cut and trucked to sawmills or coastal ports at night.
Academic studies of environmental problems and suggested solutions are many times of use only to other academics and not useful under actual field conditions.
The national government speaks bravely of conservation and preserving ecosystems but it has been largely ineffective in curbing the social and economic motives for deforestation.
Beyond all of this, the demand for wood products continues to increase as the supply decreases. This raises the price of wood products and puts even more pressure upon the remaining forests as Costa Rica's sawmill operators desperately search for timber to meet the national demand.
This is by no means an exhaustive look at the reasons for deforestation and the ineffectiveness of efforts to halt or even slow it. However, it helps to illustrate the deforestation problem and the gulf between Costa Rica's image as a leader in environmental conservation and the reality of its deforestation problem.
After an area has been deforested it is usually put into use for agricultural production, most commonly as pasture land for cattle. The majority of the land presently being deforested is in marginal areas — steep slopes with thin soils that rapidly erode when denuded of their forest cover. This land is not suitable for crops (unless great pains are taken to conserve and enrich the soil, which rarely occurs due to the additional production costs involved) or cattle ranching.
Using such terrain as pasture for cattle or as crop land quickly degrades it. Erosion carries away what little fertile soil remains making the land less productive with each year that passes until the land becomes virtually useless for cattle or crops. It has been estimated that 2.5 tons of topsoil are lost for each kilogram of beef exported.
Even though cattle ranching is destructive and not particularly profitable on marginal lands the amount of pasture land is 23 times the amount of land devoted to coffee and banana production combined while its contribution to the national economy is minor when compared to these two agricultural heavy‑hitters.
Because of deforestation Costa Rica faces a number of challenges:
· Loss of its timber resources
· Alarming erosion rates
· Sedimentation of waterways which decreases water quality and increases the frequency and severity of floods
· The scarcity of drinking water in many areas during the dry season
· Hydroelectric shortages as the deforested watersheds can no longer provide sufficient water,
· Loss of forest wildlife as habitats are destroyed
· Destruction of coral reefs from silt
This leads to climatic destabilization, extinction of plant and animal species and the marring of its scenic beauty.
What Can Be Done?
The deforestation problem in Costa Rica is dauntingly complex, but it can be boiled down to several fundamental causative factors:
1) The country needs the raw material, wood, that its forests produce (and the demand is increasing).
2) It is a highly lucrative business to harvest old‑growth forests (legally or not).
3) Costa Rica's population continues to grow and the inhabitants need more space to live and work (especially the poor, subsistence farmers who need land for their cattle and crops, and also tend to have large families whose sons in turn need more land to work).
4) Other land uses, such as cattle pasture, are seen as more profitable than forestry uses by the great majority of landowners (even if they are not in reality).
The deforestation problem will continue to exist until the essential causes of it are removed or made obsolete. Therefore, Costa Rica needs to learn to not depend solely on its forests for wood products. It must become a less lucrative proposition to harvest old‑growth forests. Population growth must be brought under control, and forestry uses for land (such as timber plantations or proper management of primary and secondary forests) must be recognized as a profitable alternative to traditional exploitive land uses. To do less is to merely treat symptoms caused by underlying factors.
For example, it may seem that a solution to the deforestation problem is to find donors to buy private forested properties and set them aside as preserves — and there are organizations working to do just that. However, this can only preserve certain unique and endangered ecosystems that might otherwise be destroyed. It does little to help end deforestation because it does nothing about the farmers who need land to continue producing or to replace the wood resources that have been removed from the market's grasp.
The Ralmar Ecoforestry Corporation's major goal is to make a contribution in the struggle to decrease the rate of deforestation in Costa Rica and eventually end it. The corporation cannot do much about population growth or removing the profit from the harvest of old‑growth forests. This is largely the domain of the government through education and regulation. But it can have a positive impact in the areas of wood production and the landowners' perspectives of what is and is not proper and profitable land use.