What Canada can learn from Costa Rica

Under the Harper government, Canada is falling way behind global sustainability leaders
Photo: Trish Hartmann

Travel has a way of showing us not only that the world is incredibly beautiful, but also that our reality isn’t the only reality. Things are done differently, and often much better, elsewhere.

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During my recent trip to Costa Rica I gained first-hand knowledge of a country that is leading the way in demonstrating how socially responsible government legislation and ethical choices can create a stable, prosperous, and progressive nation.

For starters, Costa Rica permanently abolished its army in 1949, and in recent years has routinely called on other countries to shift military spending to fight global warming. Demilitarization has served it well. The country has high standards of living, high growth rates, economic stability, low crime rates, and a literacy rate of 95 per cent, which would put some parts of Canada to shame. Three years ago, Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to ban recreational hunting with a unanimous vote from Congress. An exception was made for Indigenous peoples who rely on hunting for survival.

Three years ago, Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to ban recreational hunting with a unanimous vote from Congress.

But most importantly, Costa Rica is lauded for its progressive environmental policies. It’s the only country to meet all five criteria established to measure environmental sustainability (fifth in the world in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index) and aims to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021, which is quite feasible, considering 95 per cent of its energy production already comes from renewable, non-polluting sources.

The country channels funds from a fuel tax and energy fees to pay for nature reserve management and biodiversity protection, while landowners are paid to preserve forests and plant new trees. Because of such policies, Costa Rica managed to reduce its deforestation rates from some of the world’s worst in the ’70s and ’80s to almost zero today, clearly demonstrating that nature is resilient, if given a chance.

While visiting the country’s stunning national parks, I was astounded to discover that over 25 per cent of Costa Rica's national territory (160 protected areas, of which 26 are designated national parks) is protected by the National System of Conservation Areas, which means it is completely off limits to development and harmful exploitation.

As I walked around the lush green rain forests of Manuel Antonio National Park, I was treated to the sight of three-toed sloths, red-eyed tree frogs, and the white-head capuchin monkey. I marvelled at Costa Rica’s ability to protect its flora and fauna and reverse a trend that seems to be taking over the rest of the world.

And this hasn’t been done devoid of reality. It’s simply the result of a smart plan that ensures the country’s economic viability and prosperity by opting to place the emphasis on non-destructive and ecologically sound industries, instead of mining, logging, or foresting. While ecotourism still has critics and doubters, it’s still ultimately about low-impact and socially responsible travel, direct financial benefit to local communities, and environmental sustainability.

By protecting their natural resources, Costa Ricans are managing to cash in on ecotourism at little or no expense to their environment, while making it profitable to be conservationists.

By protecting their natural resources, Costa Ricans are managing to cash in on ecotourism at little or no expense to their environment, while making it profitable to be conservationists. The short-term and long-term financial benefits of environmentally friendly policies have created a strong environment lobby in Costa Rica, allowing for political support and considerable influence in shaping government conservation initiatives — something we in North America can only dream of.

Contrast this with what has been going on in Canada in the past decade and you’ll be mortified at the stark difference in priorities. In 2010, while Costa Rica won the Future Policy Award for pioneering legal protection of its natural wealth, Canada was given the Dodo Award for failure to evolve, which is painfully appropriate since Canada’s once-celebrated record of environmental science research and climate change policy have indeed gone the way of the dodo bird.

There are currently negligible federal constraints on greenhouse gas pollution from Canada’s oil and gas sector. The Harper government has not met key commitments, deadlines, and obligations to protect Canada’s wildlife and natural spaces, according to a damning 2013 report by Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.

In fact, the Harper government has fast-tracked the approval process underway for large oil and gas pipeline projects, and aggressively pushed for the Keystone XL pipeline, raising concerns that generating profit and garnering favour with Albertan voters (the Conservatives’ base is in oil country, after all) is taking precedence over environmental concerns.

Scientists, Aboriginal communities, and conservation groups have decried many of the Harper government’s amendments as environmentally irresponsible, while recent amendments made to the Navigable Waters Protection Act have been harshly criticized by environmentalists as part of a broader move to weaken environmental legislation. Documents obtained through the Access to Information Act show that the pipeline industry had considerable influence in some of these worrisome changes.

A few years ago Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan tabled a report that, according to the Canadian Press, stated “the federal government’s knowledge about greenhouse-gas emissions and oil sands pollution is so spotty that key decisions are made without fully understanding the environmental consequences,” resulting in a "disjointed, confused and non-transparent" approach to climate change.

While countries like Costa Rica are leading the world in sustainable and smart environmental protection, it’s sad and scary to see that our government has opted for short-term corporate gains over far-sighted ethical environmental legislation and long-term benefits for Canadians.

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