A bottom-up perspective on environmental conservation and local development in Costa Rica.
OSA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA. In the existing contrast between environmental conservation and local development, local people are often not taken into account. However, The conciliation between these two lies upon the local people.
Living off the forest
Eulalio is waiting for me at the beginning of the path. He greets me with a smile as white and broad as his hat. We ride horseback for over an hour up in the primary rainforest; it’s still very early in the morning and the wildlife of the most biologically intense place on Earth surrounds us.
Suddenly the rainforest turns into grassland: 60 hectares clear-cut with chainsaw and fire. This area was way wider when in 1965 Eulalio’s family obtained rights to possess no-one’s land through deforestation and created their ranch. Now the whole area belongs to the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve (RFGD), a buffer protected area that surrounds the Corcovado National Park. Eulalio and his family live out of farming: rice, beans, cattle and few pigs. However, his livelihood has been notably affected by the Reserve’s regulation. «I cannot use my land the way I need it – he sighs – I left some area back to the forest, because it is not worth to work it anymore, but they [the Ministry of the Environment] pay me peanuts as compensation for forested land».
In the RFGD only a restricted range of extractive activities is allowed, limiting to a great extent economic possibilities; «If I leave any fallow land, I am not allowed to farm it anymore because they consider it as reforesting land. This way I have to keep it clear all the time and the soil loses nutrients and harvest is poor».
Many stories resemble Eulalio’s one. Traditional livelihoods in the Osa are based on natural resources exploitation, but they have been limited by environmental conservation. Those who possess land can play the card of (low) Payment for Environmental Services; those who do not have land or a land title often just bypass the law and base their livelihood on illegality.
Conservation VS development
Since the ‘70s, when protected areas was created in the Osa, local people have been displaced and/or limited in their economic activities. All this is happening in an area that has been traditionally affected by one of the lowest development levels in the country, namely for lack of economic opportunities, employment and public services. In its latest report, the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy classifies the Peninsula’s development index among the last quintile and shows a clear relation among protected areas and low development index. Is it then really impossible to reconcile environmental conservation and local development? Many attempts have been made in this direction, but the results have been alternate and the population often has not been actively involved.
Still, human activities are considered the main threat to the Peninsula’s biodiversity richness: urbanistic and touristic expansion go on runaway, forested areas are cut and cleared with fire to make space for monocultures namely oil palm. Animals are hunted illegally and gold mining activity is perpetrated within protected areas.
If it is certain that economic development entails trade-offs to environmental conservation, it is also true that lack of any economic alternative leads to illegal and unsustainable extractive activities.
Also, while environmental conservation in the Osa seems to be rooted both in governmental institutions and NGOs, this doesn’t seem to be the case of local development.
“Of course protecting Nature is important! But they get their pay check at the end of the month, while we are left with nothing”