Sustainable living in Costa Rica is not just a theory. There is a strong, daily practice that Costa Rican nationals and relocated expats have of tending to their land, water and inhabitants.
The recent power outage in Central America, however, seems to have thrown into controversy Costa Rica’s renewable power system, which shut down entirely on July 1st due to a downed transmission line in Panama.
Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador all faced power outages. Only Costa Rica’s spanned the entire country, affecting the estimated 5 million people within its borders at the time and the outage here lasted about 5 hours.
From Guatemala to Panama, six Central American countries and 15 power grids are connected by the SIEPAC (Central American Electric Interconnection System) line over 1800 km/1100 miles. This has been the case since the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2004, modeled after NAFTA.
Vulnerability exists in this grid when there are malfunctions in any participating nation, but this was the first blackout in Costa Rica since 2001. Conversely, according to the Regional Electricity Market Manager and Operator, 14 total or partial system power outages have occurred in the last seven years in the five other countries connected in the power grid apart from Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is among most developed in Latin America and despite this major event, the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) was able to restore power by 6pm throughout most of the country. Panama, on the other hand, has had frequent power failures recently due to their internal substations exploding from excessive usage overloading their systems.
People in Panama who can afford to all have backup generators. In Costa Rica, on the other hand, expats in the Southern Zone have had little concern over power outages in recent years and on this occasion, many continued to celebrate Canada Day with friends and neighbors in our multi-cultural Costa Ballena communities, trusting that ICE will come through quickly and efficiently as they always do when local lines go down due to weather.
There was a time once when power would go out with every storm and a downed transmission tower might mean no power for two or three days in some areas. That was 10 to 20 years ago, before international investment was what it is today. Standards have been raised with the successive waves of many hundreds of thousands of expats who have moved over in the last decade, bringing their lifestyle expectations (like consistent, reliable power) along with them. To give credit where credit is due, ICE and the Costa Rican government have since then met these expectations with both grace and style.
Living in Costa Rica is not just about preaching what needs to be done. People who come here are interested in becoming civically involved in the evolution of their communities, and the platform created by the locals over the last half century is one that is seeing a brighter future today.
For the critics, what is being done on the national scale is never enough. People around the world are inspired by the best and brightest in their communities and hope that their governments can be reflective of those highest of values. This is the dream; and in Costa Rica, the best and brightest are doing what is rarely done in other places in the world: pushing the government to be the best it can be.
Renewable energy on the world stage
In the United States, 13.44% of domestically-produced energy was from renewables in 2015. This figure pre-dates Trump and the Paris Climate Accord. Compared to Costa Rica’s 99% national renewable energy production that same year, this paints a paltry picture of how far advanced this tiny nations policies have been ahead of the world leader, for which it was recognized at the Paris Climate Conference. Even progressive Canada reports only generating 66% of the nations power through renewable resources in 2017.
Costa Rica manages this incredibly high figure because the nation’s policies are reflective of the attitude of the people to retain as much nature as possible while working with nature to continue growing the economy, which is largely supported by the eco-tourism industry.
The origins of eco-tourism in Costa Rica
Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve in Nicoya was created in 1963 and developed to promote and support teaching, research and environmental education. This campaign was started by Olof Wessberg, an expat from Sweden who knowingly or unknowingly began the first major conservation project in the nation.
Up until the 1960s, the now reserve was being depleted of the natural forest to be used as farm and pasture land. Emphasis in those days was placed on economic development through the increase of agricultural production, a trend which began with the United Fruit Company in the 1880s. Little concern was paid to the conservation of natural habitats in those days.
Olof and his partner, Karen Mogensen, arrived in Costa Rica in the 1960s to pursue their dream of living in harmony with nature. They worked to reforest their newly acquired farm near Montezuma with native tree seeds in the Cabo Blanco area nearby. At the time, this region was an oasis amidst the vastly desertified land that was being used for low-yield pastures and agriculture. The couple sought to protect this natural jewel by buying 3,100 acres of land and turning it into the first protected area in all of Costa Rica.
Strong national investment in nature reserves and protection
UNESCO’s International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme met in early June of this year in Paris to add Costa Rica’s Savegre Reserve to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves. According to the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), this reserve is home to 20% of Costa Rica’s flora, 54% of the country’s mammals, and 59% of the birds. This area is home to some 50,00 people who primarily subsist on either eco-tourism, agriculture or aquaculture.
This designation was made possible by the hard fought efforts of the people in this region. In 2015, President Solis signed an executive decree that banned dams from the Savegre River for at least 25 years, thus protecting this networked region that stretches from Manuel Antonio to the Costa Ballena. This is the fourth designation of it’s kind in the country, although it is the first to include coastal marine areas.
International investment on the rise
Announced earlier this year, Discovery Communications Inc. is set to license its name for a $1 billion eco-tourism park in Costa Rica. The 810- hectare adventure park will be located in the province of Guanacaste and due to open in 2020 near the city of Liberia. The focus of this park is on biodiversity and conservation, bringing Costa Rica’s efforts further onto the world stage.
This is likely one of the largest investments in Costa Rica in the last ten years, which, according to President Solis, “follows our vision of sustainable development and respect for communities outside the Greater Metropolitan Area.”
The idea behind uniting the country with a prestigious international brand is that “it will boost tourism and competitiveness, will generate employment and is part of our tradition of sustainability, renewable energies and environmental respect,” he said.
A melting pot of care
Costa Rica is a country that is proud of its rich heritage in green activism while accepting that it is still being developed. International expats, who come to enjoy the pristine nature and relaxed atmosphere, bring with them plenty of concern and care, along with knowledge of environmentalism. The idea on most minds is to grow the nearly 27% of the landmass is national parks and reserves and to protect the habitats of the roughly 5% of the world’s total biodiversity that Costa Rica is home to.
In addition to the initiatives involving the protection of ‘the nature out there’, Costa Rica’s policies towards civil rights have been no less progressive. Especially when compared to our nearest neighbors, the democratically-elected governments of Costa Rica are continually working on achieving the highest civil standards set by the first world.
Although gay marriage is not yet legal (a bill was introduced into government in 2015 and is waiting to be ratified), same sex unions are legally recognized and the courts have deemed that the outdated constitution holds no baring over such matters. And despite being a largely Catholic nation, the attitude of the people here is open-minded and accepting, leaving the door open for policies to grow quickly with the times.
This is a nation with no military, and spending that would traditionally go to the military is instead allotted to health care and education. This means that access to health care is universal in Costa Rica and the literacy rate is one of the highest in the world.
How was it that Costa Rica developed these green initiatives? This is a nation of people who care and who are inspired by nature to live in harmony with the land, water and inhabitants. People who live and visit here donate money and time to organizations that are fighting to keep what they have and striving to achieve more. These are a people who combat food deserts and promote permaculture lifestyles. These are politicians who support policies that keep air and water clean
The recent debacle of JP Sears talking about Costa Rica showed the strength of the national pride. It’s easy for us as expats get caught up in how things are done differently here. However, if you learn how to deal in to the different rather than fighting it, you will find the keys to new ways of living.
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