Trading Green for Green: the Complexity of Costa Rica

NB: Although published in 2019 here, this article was first written in 2016. Although some of the dates for carbon plans have shifted, the situations and underlying complexity remains.


The monkey screams and leaps onto my backpack. It knows to grab the straps of the unattended bag. My husband Josh spins on his heel so they face each other only inches apart. The beige-faced monkey dart his eyes over Josh’s tan face. Curled lips reveal yellow teeth as it guards its prize with a hiss. Josh opens his arms wide to both sides and yells. They pause in space together, two primates separated only by a bag and a few million years of evolution.

Poised and ready for the unsuspecting tourist.

The monkey seems to weigh its odds, then swivels, breaking the intense second of pause, and with one springing hop, leaps into the trees overhead. The jungle turns into a cacophony of banshees as branches bend and leaves shake under a troop of savvy thieves.

In a moment, the bandit returns with a complete family size package of Oreos. That’s right, Oreos. It crouches nonchalantly on a branch and tears into the plastic with fangs designed for crabs and seeds. It breaks open the packets of four cookies like a nut, using delicate fingers to smash the plastic into the tree as an Oreo-package-cracking tool. It opens the two halves and licks out the white filling , like it had been watching Oreo commercials. But what happens next makes my jaw fall open: it scrapes the sugary filling clean, then drops the two cookie pieces to the jungle floor. It doesn’t watch them fall.

The thief eating its cookies high in the forest canopy.
Checking for any last icing before dropping the cookies to the forest floor.

I laugh out loud under the leafy shade of Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This forest robber presents as a wild animal to the tourists, but snacks selectively on junk food. Amid one of the most lauded parks in Costa Rica, I find myself hoping this isn’t a woodland of diabetic capuchins.

Full of refined sugar, it’s time to lie around.

Costa Rica created a wildly successful brand for itself as the ecotourism destination in the last thirty years. Between national parks and private reserves, conserved land takes up twenty-five percent of the country. In 2010, Costa Rica pledged to be carbon neutral by 2021. As a lifelong traveler dedicated to climate research and sustainable conservation, that should make me an advocate.

Instead, I arrived skeptical. I just didn’t see how the hype could be real, like charming monkeys that reveal themselves to be refined-sugar-driven thieves. Turns out, some of my skepticism was justified. But Costa Rica would also reveal unexpected treasure beyond anything I could have imagined.

What’s Real in Costa Rica

For the past three years, Josh and I have been sailing our boat, the 1978 39-foot sloop Oleada, on the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America to learn how local people adapt to climate change. Until we arrived in Costa Rica, we saw patchworks of agricultural land and sprawling beach development. But when we sailed into Costa Rica, we gawked at a forest so green it appeared black. Uninterrupted jungle tumbled into the sea, the first intact forest for 4,000 nautical miles. This is Santa Clara National Park, jutting into the Pacific from Guanacaste province, which is known for its culture of cattle and cowboys, as well as a large chunk of land set aside for wildness.

Witch’s Rock in northern Costa Rica, flanked by steep cliffs covered in deep green vegetation.

The first national park in this province led an international trend in the mid1980s. University of Pennsylvania biologist Daniel Janzen proposed that parks could only survive with “happy people” living around them. When Guanacaste National Park set its boundaries, Janzen, who worked in Costa Rica for decades, invited local ranchers and their cattle to remain in the park, and they were trained and paid as park staff.

This ended up as one of the guiding principles of ‘ecotourism,” which emerged in the 1970s with the worldwide environmental movement. Standard tourism ignored the needs of local people and environments by disregarding pressures on the land, coast, and sea, while profits funneled to foreigners. But the new ‘eco’ version strove to include the wellbeing of local people and natural systems.

Costa Rica has returned a majority of its land to forests, which benefits birds like these Fiery-billed Aricaris.

Thus, this “Rich Coast,” named by Christopher Columbus when he stumbled onto the Caribbean shore in 1502 for the metal riches he (mistakenly) thought he would find within, has come to honor its golden biological resources.

A Brown booby catches a ride through the storms on our bow.
Where there’s moisture from thick vegetation, storms build. These cells mushroomed alongside us as we raced from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.

“Well, we have laws that protect the coast,” my friend Wilson Rojas tells me matter-of-factly, as if laws equaled enforcement anywhere else we had sailed. (They don’t.) Wilson grew up in a rural town near the Pacific coast, and despite his father’s insistence that he never learn English, he taught himself. After years in the hotel business, he started his own shuttle company. There is no hiding that Wilson adores his job as he cheerfully chats from the driver’s seat.

Wilson and his family aboard Oleada, Prism in the background.

Wilson echoes what we hear from nearly all Costa Ricans: environmentalism pervades the national consciousness. Because of Costa Rica’s push to court ecotourists, it’s part of the country’s “self-identity,” as Chris Wille from the Rainforest Alliance puts it—from the taxi drivers to President Luis Guillermo Solís. I’ve never seen so many people puff up their chests when talking about preserved land.

In this way, ecotourism’s definition as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people” seems to line up with Costa Rica’s national pride.

Booted by Ethical Traveler

Yet Costa Rica has struggled in the past with the realities of ecotourism, and it does so again now.

Tourists and kayaks in the water in Costa Rica.

In the mid-1980s, Costa Rica’s Institute for Tourism (ICT) offered incentives to investors to develop this newly branded version of travel. However, most local people with limited funds couldn’t apply: the incentives only worked for hotels or lodges with twenty rooms or more. Large international hotel chains popped up along the coast and cashed in on the budding green reputation of the country, but their build and practices supported neither the local economy nor natural environment. By the early 1990s, experts estimate that foreigners owned 80 percent of the coast.

Yet many families were still able to move into ecotourism as the industry expanded at seventeen percent per year in the first half of the 1990s. From butterfly farms to restaurants, horseback rides to a few cabinas, local families could nose into the tourism trade and benefit from the boom.

Alonso’s family has owned a ranch near the popular tourism destination of Quepos for multiple generations. However, for fifteen years he has lead horseback tours of the surrounding rainforest. He convinced us to eat termites and sample the local vegetation. The quality of guiding and service in Costa Rica is unparalleled, and guides seem to genuinely enjoy their role introducing tourists to their country’s landscape.

Beginning in 2009, Costa Rica was named one of world’s ten best ethical destinations by Ethical Traveler, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization founded in 2003 by travel writer Jeff Greenwald. The organization recognizes countries in the developing world that strive for and implement those original concepts of ecotourism: human rights and environmental preservation. (Ethical Traveler also added animal rights to the qualifications for their ranking in 2013.) Costa Rica has mostly remained on the list. But in 2014 and again in 2015, they didn’t make it. And again in 2015.  Despite hosting Greenwald in the country, Costa Rica was excluded again in 2016.

The Trouble with Turtles

“You’ve never had a turtle egg?” Oli looks at me incredulously, and I’m pretty sure I return the look. It’s like asking me if I’ve ever hunted an elephant. Nearly all species of sea turtles are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.) Between snaring fishing nets, plastic masquerading as food, and the illegal trafficking of turtle meat and eggs, sea turtle populations worldwide have declined by an estimated ninety-five percent.

“Well, turtle eggs taste just like iguana eggs.” Oli turns down the corners of his mouth and shrugs, implying that I’m not missing anything.

I’ve never had an iguana egg either. Do they taste like chicken eggs? Oli contorts his face and tells me that, no, they’re gross. More…slimy.

Oli, Josh, and I have become good friends in our short time on the central coast. Oli’s enthusiasm for life is as infectious as his smile. Both he and Josh share a love of naturally-built treehouses and simple living, and he’s in the process of building his own octagonal treehouse. We are mutually inspired by each other’s lives, and I feel like Oli treats us like family. He rarely has an afternoon or day off from his job at a high-end villa. But he’s told us that hise has a  lifelong dream ofis sailing the world, so today we catch him for a sail after work, his first-ever trip on a sailboat.

Oli enthusiastically takes the wheel, mostly hiding his seasickness.

Despite spending plenty of time at sea in small boats, the motion of the swell rolling under our keel turns Oli uncharacteristically pale and quiet as he slowly sinks into his seat. But before the sea manages to silence him, he tells us about his father, who hails from the city of Limón on the Caribbean coast. He used to eat hundreds of turtle eggs a year. They’re purported to be an aphrodisiac, a performance enhancer for men (a claim scientific research roundly negates.) Oli talks about this openly, giving us a glimpse into a normally forbidden topic.

“It was a huge part of the culture over there.” More quietly, he murmurs, “Still is.”

Sea turtles have been protected by the national legislature in Costa Rica since 1966. But eating sea turtle eggs is a bit like the machismo associated with playing football in the US:: it would take generations to removea cultural norm from the lexicon., and pIn the same way, eEating turtle eggs, despite protections and dwindling numbers, isare part of a revered coastal culture.

In the last decade, another ominous issue has melded with turtle eggs: the complex world of drug trafficking. Turtle eggs are relatively easy to collect, and at one dollar each, a few nests filled with a hundred eggs areis easy pickings for poor fishermen out of work. Many of the eggs now pass through similar trafficking circles as heroin and cocaine.

This confluence of illegal eggs and drugs came to a tragic head in 2013. Jairo Mora, a 26-year-old volunteer, walked Costa Rica’s Caribbean beach at Moín, near Limón, to protect turtles and turtle eggs from nighttime poachers. Mora was part of a new generation in Costa Rica, young people raised with environment, instead of turtle egg-eating, at the center of their culture.

Crime-ridden Moín beach is a nesting ground for critically endangered Leatherback sea turtles. These turtles may live over 100 years, and they don’t keep track of the political climate or crime scene when they are ready to have babies, and often return to the same beach where they hatched. Despite mounting danger in patrols, the headstrong Mora refused to be cowed, and he developed a local reputation for his fierce defense of the turtles.

For the 2013 nesting season, police stopped protecting Mora and his volunteers on their nightly beach walks, leading journalists to suspect that the local government, police, and drug traffickers had reached a new level of coziness. In the company of four international volunteers, Mora walked his typical patrol on the night of May 30th. When driving away from the beach, his car was overtaken by five masked men. The four volunteers eventually managed to escape, but Mora’s body was found the next morning on his beach, naked and beaten.

Until March of 2016, three years later, no one was convicted. The international environmental community was outraged at the suspiciously slow action and poorly conducted trials. The government’s lukewarm response, inaction, and floundering, led experts to suspect ties between drug traffickers and local and national government.

With Mora’s disgustingly tragic case, a harsh spotlight shone on Costa Rica in a new way. Yet Mora’s fierce pride feels reflected in conversation with Oli and Wilson. Even as a vision of utopian jungles and beaches slips away, individual Costa Ricans have the grit—and an ingrained foundation in conservation—to stick up for their country’s principles.

No Sharks

We haven’t seen a shark from our boat since Mexico. Normally, we see them as a a fin cruising at the surface. It’s not like Jaws: they often don’t appear to be in any rush, just hanging out at the top of their world. Sometimes we can see their tails languidly swishing side to side. Sharks are at the top of the food chain, a so-called apex predator that plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of their natural ecosystems.

We are only one boat, so I can’t know with certainty why we haven’t seen them: warmer waters from El Niño driving their prey offshore, lack of food from overfishing—or is it just fewer sharks?

On our trip, we have seen many fishers with sharks in their boats. More disturbing, finless bodies of sharks clutter certain docks and beaches we visit, left to rot.

The fishers on the central Pacific coast in Costa Rica feel forgotten in the tourism boom, and many struggle to survive. In Quepos, the head of a fishing cooperative led a protest in 2016 calling for more government attention.

A typical fishing boat waits out a downpour in a protected cove near Quepos.

With depleted fish stocks from overfishing and waters warmed by El Niño driving away many of the high dollar pelagic species like tuna and dorado, some of the younger fishers have fallen prey to drug traffickers, who increasingly using the Pacific coast to run cocaine to the US. The traffickers pay up to $25,000 for one run, and the fishers, who know every nook of the coast, serve as lackeys. Last year, seven Costa Rican men with no previous criminal records were arrested for drug running on the Pacific coast.

But for those who haven’t made the cut into tourism and aren’t willing to risk the drug trade, one of the most lucrative fishing practices is driven by the quest for another supposed aphrodisiac from the sea: shark fins.

Costa Rica not only bans shark finning, but requires that the fins be partially or fully attached to the shark carcass in most fisheries. However, there is no ban on shark fishing. Fishers throughout the coast know the high market value of just one fin, around $120. For someone living off $200-300 per month, the average take home pay for fishers in the Quepos area in 2016, one fin can make a huge difference.

This economic struggle echoes all the way up to the top authorities. In 2015, President Luis Guillermo Solís said his government would lobby shipping companies to unravel current shark fin shipping bans, and “work to weaken shark protections.”

With these pledges, Costa Rica falls further away from its “green” reputation.

Profit from Every Dwindling Drop

“Costa Rica will be carbon neutral by 2021,” the taxi driver states, emphatically slapping the wheel as his car chugs up a steep hill. I can’t help but smile, since nearly every driver we’ve met states this with the same assuredness they seem to feel about the country’s land conservation and their nation’s reputation therein.

A pristine beach in Manuel Antonio National Park. Rangers were keeping people off the sand because two crocodiles were spotted earlier that day in the surf.

However, at the Conference of Parties (COP) climate talks in Paris, Costa Rica quietly backed off this claim, saying instead it would meet that goal by 2085. Costa Rica’s transportation sector uses seventy percent of their country’s total petroleum, and this accounts for forty percent of the country’s total emissions—so their decision is driven in part by this sector.

I think about this from the passenger seat of Oli’s Suzuki Samurai as we roar past miles and miles of African palm oil plantations to get to his house. Oli can’t afford to own property in Manuel Antonio where he works, so he commutes forty-five minutes per day and lives miles away from the coast, behind a sprawling oil palm plantation.

We drive a terrible, rutted dirt road through a maze of monocrop oil palms to finally emerge at the foot of the Tarrazú mountains. On Oli’s only day off he’s offered to show us his farm, a quarter of an acre of remarkable self-sufficiency. His octagonal house, made with local teak and twenty feet off the ground, hovers over his well that he naturally filters with charcoal, sand, and gravel inside the cylinder. Chickens and ducks waddle around us, and pigs snort through the organic garbage.

Oli’s homestead at the foot of the mountains.

“100 percent grasshopper fed,” Oli grins, picking up a chicken thoroughly annoyed by the disturbance from her cozy roost. I nearly cried with delight when he sent me home with a dozen eggs.

Oli proudly shows us his one solar panel and a battery. He only needs it for his water pump and two lights. But most people don’t live like Oli: they are connected to the national electricity grid.

Costa Rica gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric dams, some geothermal energy, and limited wind and solar. In 2015, Costa Rica claimed to meet one hundred percent of its energy needs from these sources for a record 113 days.

The timing of this event hints to the lack of sustainability of this feat. 2015 was an unusually wet year for the country (thanks to a climate change-fueled El Niño), which provided extra water for the dams. These ‘renewable’ days only happened in the wet season. The rest of the year, to fuel the difference in demand as dams lose their power, Costa Rica relies on one of the dirtiest types of energy: imported coal.

According to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the government-owned energy company, dams typically provide seventy percent of Costa Rica’s power needs. In September, Costa Rica inaugurated the largest dam in Central America, the $1.4 billion Reventazón dam. Reventazón is Central America’s second largest public infrastructure project in history, only surpassed by the Panama Canal. Once all five turbines are powered up, it will be able to generate 305 megawatts, enough to power 500,000 homes. The 130-meter-high dam floods nearly seven square kilometers and has created an eight-kilometer-long lake.

The Reventazón dam. Image from Costa Rica Energy Institute (ICE.)

Reventazón disrupts one of the only remaining wildlife corridors for endangered species, including the jaguar, in Central America. Although the dam project committed $1.6 million to reforesting some of the scars, it serves a larger purpose to try to keep the loose sediments of the area from sloughing in and refilling the lake instead of repairing the corridor. The reservoir, roads, and traffic ensure the corridor has been sliced apart. Disrupting this corridor is no small potatoes for a country that hangs its reputation on caring for its wild ecosystems.

In addition, Reventazón makes Costa Rica even more dependent on hydropower for electricity. The country lies within a zone already suffering increasingly severe droughts. Climate models indicate higher temps and lower rainfall for the coming fifty years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that by 2100, Costa Rica’s temperatures will rise by five degrees Celsius, and rainfall will likely decrease by twenty to thirty percent.

This graphic from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows the average surface temperature on the top and average precipitation on the bottom. The left globe for each is the most conservative projection, now considered too conservative, and the globes on the right represent the consensus of models for a more realistic scenario. Dots represent areas where change is predicted to be large compared to natural variability, and stripes represent areas where the projection shows not much change. By 2100, Costa Rica temperatures are projected to rise by 5 degrees C, and rainfall could decrease by 20-30 percent.

And then there’s the business of building new dams—which turns out to have an enormous carbon footprint. Dams are made with rock and concrete. The concrete industry is one of the two largest greenhouse gas emitting industries on the planet.[1] In addition, when massive areas flood, not only does the area lose the ability to take up carbon dioxide, the drowned trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas ten times more potent than carbon dioxide.[2] This is particularly true in the tropics.

By contrast, while Costa Rica accrues foreign debt in a rush to build massive dams, the US removes dams. Many of the removed dams in the US are small to medium size, and updating their energy-producing capacity isn’t worth the expensive bill. Beyond updates, the ‘developed’ world is valuing the natural functions of rivers more, while a ‘developing’ country pushes in the opposite direction. Solar, wind, and geothermal are at the forefront of renewable energy development, where smart grid management and storage can balance the intermittent input of sun and wind. But large buildup of this renewable generation gets reserved for rich nations.

Dams are the low-tech, old-fashioned, high-capital way of the past, the expensive path of progress that has previously sunk entire nations. In the early 1980s, Latin American countries borrowed huge sums of money from international creditors to build industrialization projects, especially infrastructure. Costa Rica finds itself increasingly locked in to uneasy old debt patterns, an echo of the Latin American debt crisis.

Despite these issues, Costa Rica forges forward with their largest proposed dam yet, twice the size of Reventazón. It’s called the Diquís project, and protests have plagued it since the idea’s inception 20 years ago. The dam would flood the homes and land of the Térraba indigenous people and five other indigenous groups.

In 1956, the Costa Rican government granted the Térraba title to part of their traditional territory. However, the title was amended and reduced in 2004 without notice to the people. ICE then approved the Diquís dam, which would create a 27-square-mile lake that would flood ten percent of the Térraba’s land holdings. This includes farmland and over 300 sacred sites of archeological significance, displacing not only the tribe but their cultural heritage.

When dam construction began in 2007, again the Térraba were not consulted. However, with support from the United Nations, the community filed suit against ICE for indigenous and human rights violations, and the $2 billion project has remained (mostly) halted since. But Costa Rica still feels the pressure to build the dam as an international energy market emerges for Central America, one where an interconnected grid means countries could sell their excess power for a profit to other countries. The government wants to exploit the water that they have now—ignoring the future of their water supply and native peoples.

Not only would the dam displace native peoples, it would also alter one of the most productive watersheds and estuaries in Central America. The massive estuaries and mangrove swamps are an important breeding ground for the fish that support the ocean food system in Pacific Costa Rica. This circles back to the conflicts with turtles, sharks, and desperate fishermen.

A storm builds at sunset, complete with a rainbow, at the edge of the Térraba watershed.

Mauricio Alvarez, president of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), and Osvaldo Duran-Castro, advocate for FECON, heaped articles in my inbox as they patiently explained to me that this isn’t just the same old story of indigenous people losing out to big money: this cuts to the ecological heart of Costa Ricans. In 1994, Costa Rica amended their constitution to guarantee “every citizen the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment.” Two years later, the constitution was amended again to clarify that the “state is obligated to ensure that protection.” With giant, international-debt-incurring dams, the state not only hurts individual Costa Ricans, it erodes a carefully constructed image of Costa Rica as the ‘success story’ of Central America. Once reputed for its peaceful and democratic past, the country now flirts with turning its back on its own people.

A Changing World

What is the biggest problem facing Costa Rica today?

I ask Wilson and he answers quickly. I can hear the alarm in his voice.

“The narcos. They aren’t in my town so far, but I hear the stories. How they come in and take control and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“We need a military to defend against this.”

The lack of a military in Costa Rica was the heart of national pride a generation ago. But that’s been slowly overtaken by the modern concerns of drug trafficking, which has even infiltrated the established fisheries and environmental conservation. At the center of the powerful Costa Rican pride now is ecotourism. But even that seems to be fading in favor of an international image as a leader in ‘renewable’ energy. Is it at the cost of the old values?

Anchored in a cove near Quepos, we meet a local fisherman-turned-lounge-chair-deliverer. Marcos speeds by our sailboat, throttling his panga through the cove and its uncharted rocks, to drop off and set up twenty plastic lounge chairs, colorful shade umbrellas, three sit-on-top plastic kayaks that he tows behind his overloaded boat, and five inflatable standup paddleboards every day. He’s like the Clampetts on water. He’s imposing from afar with his big gut, bare feet, and curly mullet. We exchange friendly waves every morning until he finally swings by, curious. He’s laidback, and I like him immediately. I pass him a cup of coffee as our boat bob in the swell and his eyes widen.


“No.” I grin and tell him it’s my favorite coffee, grown sustainably in Chiapas, Mexico. He nods approvingly.

That afternoon, he returns with two fresh red snapper, ‘frescito’, the freshest. When I offer him money, he refuses. Snapper are high quality fish that can fetch decent money around here, so I’m touched by his generous gift.

Over the next month, Marcos stops by for coffee when he has time, and we often invite him aboard. We fix a fishing reel for him. He helps us find a new motor. I help him push his stuck boat off the beach one day. It feels like we get to be his neighbor for a moment.

Marcos and his cargo in a typical storm.

Like Wilson and Oli, Marcos embodies what we have come to learn is a piece of authentic Costa Rica: the people. As the the government sometimes bumbles forward into a changing world, this little country still manages to educate locals to take a sincere pride in their pristine rainforests and their country’s international reputation. Groups of Costa Ricans publicly protest shark finning, they fight for indigenous rights, and they will take their only day off to share a beer and show a foreigner how to live sustainably.

It’s a good thing, because an even more amorphous threat hangs over the country’s resources: climate change. At the 2015 Paris climate talks, Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Manuel González warned countries in the developing world: “Big or small, all of you are like Costa Rica: without an army to defend yourself against climate change.”

From the cockpit of our anchored boat, I hear a distinct inhale as a turtle pops its head up, unperturbed and resting in the quiet bay. I think of Jairo Mora, the young turtle defender who I will never meet. As I watch the turtle, my phone chimes and an email from Osvaldo arrives: more data about the dam and an encouraging note of support. A few moments later, Oli texts us to ask if we want any more of his chicken eggs.

In Costa Rica, the defense rises.

Marcos and friend take off from Oleada.

[1] Up to five percent of manmade emissions come from the industry: 50 percent from the chemical process and 40 percent from burning fuel for processing.

[2] Methane disappears faster than carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in tens of years instead of hundreds. However, its acute warming ability could spell quickened land and sea ice melting, a process with a high positive feedback loop (as more ice melts, the faster the remaining ice disappears.) If there is a ‘tipping point’ for global warming, methane is a key ingredient to get us there.

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