Howler monkeys screeched behind me as a graceful toucan, its enormous bill aflame with all the colors of the rainbow, swooped down over the rainforest canopy. This is why people come to Costa Rica.
It is arguably the world’s most eco-conscious country. Much of its territory is inside either a national park or a protected forest. Hunting is forbidden. Mining and logging are strictly regulated. Hundreds of former farmers have been paid to turn their farms into forest preserves. More than 95 percent of electric energy comes from renewable sources. Costa Rica aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country. As for possible oil and gas deposits, the longstanding mantra is “Leave it in the ground.” The sprawling park I visited this month, Corcovado, is said to be among the most bio-diverse places on earth.
Yet today there is disquiet in paradise. Costa Ricans complain about high prices, inflation, unemployment, and the corruption of the entrenched political elite. They understand the value of their country’s eco-friendly image, but many agree with a guy I met who told me, “For us, the economy is more important.”
Last year, taking advantage of this anti-establishment mood, a populist outsider who had never before run for office, Rodrigo Chaves, swept into the presidency. One of his first acts was to cancel an inter-city light rail project, saying it would be too expensive. Then he pulled Costa Rica out of a 2018 environmental treaty that requires governments to consult environmentalists when shaping development projects. He even mused about exploring for natural gas, which would break a longstanding taboo.
“Costa Rica is open for business,” Chaves proclaimed. Protecting the environment, he said, would proceed “at the pace that global conditions allow, not sacrificing too much of the current well-being for a distant future.”
Chaves, a former World Bank economist, cannot reverse his country’s decades-long commitment to high environmental standards, nor is it clear that he wants to do so. Congress is dominated by his opponents. Tourism is a mainstay of the national economy. Two generations have passed since Costa Rica embarked on its remarkable journey toward environmental sustainability. Over that time, most citizens have absorbed their country’s eco-consciousness.
Chaves seems to thrive on criticism as he scorns those who offer it. He denounces the press, which he says is controlled by “self-appointed feudal lords.” After it was revealed that his aides had paid Internet trolls to attack unfriendly journalists, he admitted that it was “a mistake” but said no one would be punished. A leading environmental group, the Green Bloc, has lamented his “authoritarian drift.”
“The world looks to Costa Rica as the international leader,” reasoned one environmentalist, Sam Goodman, who helps direct a group called La Ruta del Clima. “A lot of that may be in jeopardy. We’re definitely going to see some backsliding, but it’s unclear how significant the backsliding will be.”
Successive Costa Rican presidents have embraced the environmental ethos. The most militant eco-warrior among them was Carlos Alvarado, who was in office until Chaves succeeded him in May. Alvarado’s government formed an alliance with Denmark called Beyond Oil and Gas, which seeks to ban new drilling projects worldwide and to set a date by which all fossil fuel extraction will end. He was also a leading proponent of the 30x30 initiative, which seeks to ban economic activity in 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. In recognition of these and other efforts, Costa Rica was awarded the 2021 Earthshot Prize to Protect and Restore Nature, global recognition that further raised the country’s environmental profile.
This month, former president Alvarado published a commentary in the country’s leading newspaper headlined “Costa Rica Must Continue Leading.” It did not mention President Chaves by name, but it sounded like a warning.
“Decarbonization is ethically correct for future generations and strategically correct because it brings concrete benefits to our people,” Alvarado wrote. “This agenda is not and should not belong to one political party or group.”
Like many prophets, Alvarado left office without much appreciation. Visitors like me, who drop in to immerse ourselves in Costa Rica’s jaw-dropping beauty, want the country’s leaders to make environmental protection an absolute priority. Costa Ricans themselves, however, also want to be able to afford meat and gasoline.
It is an endlessly difficult balance. Convincing people to respect their environment may be easy, but persuading them to accept short-term sacrifice is hard. The new president, who wants nothing to do with “the façade of international awards” and says he’s uninterested in “the applause given to climate-change policies of previous governments,” seems highly popular. His brusque pro-business style appeals to many Costa Ricans who are tired of the old political establishment.
Costa Ricans seem genuinely proud that their small country has become a global leader in conservation and sustainable growth. They also, however, want to be able to afford good lives. President Chaves assures them that he will “not sacrifice the present for the future.” Voters responded to that message. It disquiets some environmentalists. As long as monkeys continue to howl and toucans continue to soar, though, I’ll keep returning to a country that is closer to an eco-paradise than any other.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.