In the recent BBC film A Life On Our Planet (on Netflix), David Attenborough gives an account of how things have changed over 93 years of his life. He speaks of witnessing the dramatic rise in population and atmospheric carbon, and steep fall in biodiversity. Viewing these changes from the prism of a single lifespan was dramatic and disturbing, for it bared the reality of how swiftly and thoughtlessly we homo sapiens have decimated forests, depleted species, polluted rivers and extracted materials without a care for the delicately balanced ecosystems we inherited, or for the future of our own species, let alone others. There’s hope, he added, if we act swiftly.
He gave examples of a handful of countries that are doing things right. One of them is Costa Rica, with its astounding reforestation and commitment to sustainable living. I had long wanted to visit the tiny, middle-income Central American country, which has a land mass of 0.03% but preserves 5% of the world’s biodiversity. On my recent travels, I saw the lush, mountainous Eden covered in green trees as far as the eye could see.
Trekking through the forests, I met a tamandua, coatis, sloths, peccaries, agoutis, capuchin monkeys, monarch butterflies, scarlet macaws, wondrous helicopter damselflies and a host of other creatures. All manner of tortoises nest on the Atlantic and Pacific shores and the whales come to the deep bays with their young. Every morning, I woke to the call of howler monkeys at first light, and tried to sleep through the unbearably-loud croaks of my arch-nemesis, the masked tree frogs, at night.
This country too saw rampant deforestation in the early 1970s and 1980s, and only 15% of forest cover remained. Today, however, 24% of the land comprises national parks. The figure rises to 52% if private reserves, corridors and wetlands are included, and the plan is to increase forest cover to 60-65% in the near future.
Costa Rica has been fortunate. It has been led and run by a series of people with amazing foresight. In 1949, the army was disbanded, and the money saved spent on health and education. The government launched a PES (Payment for Ecological Services) scheme, giving money to farmers who set aside around 70% of their land for forests. A highly literate society has united to solve its problems peacefully and organically. While it helps to have a manageable population (five million), plenty of sunshine, rain and coastlines, what’s admirable is how quickly society as a whole understood the need to live responsibly. Cutting down mature trees requires permission and harming wildlife is illegal. There are cautionary “CRUCE DE FAUNA” road signs everywhere, with images of monkeys, tapirs and jaguars reminding drivers wildlife could be crossing the road.
Going beyond the usual notions of conservation and social welfare, Costa Ricans are practising “considered living” to the extent that they could become a template for the rest of the world.
One such idea surfaced during a chat with Lapa Rios lodge manager Maureen Montenegro, who mentioned that as part of the CST (certification of sustainable tourism) campaign, the country’s tourism board had begun to rate hotels and lodges in leaves rather than stars. Five leaves is the highest accolade, achieved by practices such as minimising impact on the environment, water and electricity conservation, reducing emissions and pollutants, hiring local staff, showcasing the skills of indigenous tribes, creating knowledge and sharing information.
Hotels, lodges and tour operators work hard for their badge of honour, and are inspected every two years.
I took a good look around. Design and comfort had not been compromised. The sweeping views of the rainforest marching right into the Pacific Ocean were magnificent. The architecture, with pointed roofs and open terraces, was like a shaman’s hut. Every aspect had been thought through. The wood came from reforested farms. The palm-leafed thatch was actually recycled plastic that would last decades and then be recycled again. The large mesh windows allowed fresh air to circulate and kept out the insects.
The lodge owner, Roberto Fernandez, told me of his passion for rewilding. Both his (Five Leaf) lodges, Lapa Rios and Pacuare Lodge, have been built on pieces of land that were cow pastures and turned into mature forests over 30 years. Both are surrounded by hundreds of acres of primary forest where research is being done on the flora and fauna. Camera traps have been added, researchers and students are collecting images and data on pumas, ocelots and other species.
At both the lodges, I saw the solar panels and mini water turbines that produce electricity for the entire operation. Filtered spring water is further cleansed by ultraviolet light. The guides, chefs, white-water rafting and zip-lining pros and most other staff were all local.
If it wasn’t for covid-19, I would have had a chance to hike to, and interact with, the Cabécar tribe in its village. But I did get to see their handiwork everywhere—in the attractive ceiling lamps of bark, the lanterns of dried vines, and the bed backs crafted with tree-husk.
The ingredients for the delicious meals were all locally grown. A fisherman would bring in fresh catch.
Everyone in Costa Rica seemed to come together like a leafcutter-ant community working for the greater good of the colony. They all wished me and each other “Pura Vida!” Nowhere else in the world has a traditional greeting been supplanted by a wish for a pure life. They get a Five Hug rating from me!
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world.