This country regrew its lost forest. Can the world learn from it?

CNN  — 

Pedro Garcia nurses a plate of seeds on his lap. “This is my legacy,” he says, tenderly picking up the seed of a mountain almond – a tree which can grow up to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and is a favored nesting spot for the endangered great green macaw.

Aged 57, Garcia has worked on his seven-hectare plot, El Jicaro, in northeast Costa Rica’s Sarapiqui region for 36 years. In his hands it has turned from bare cattle pasture to a densely forested haven for wildlife, where the scent of vanilla wafts through the air and hummingbirds buzz between tropical fruit trees.

Garcia has restored the forest – home to hundreds of species from sloths to strawberry poison-dart frogs – while also cultivating agricultural products from pepper vines to organic pineapple.

This makes him self-sufficient but it does not turn a profit. Instead, Garcia relies on ecotourism – he guides biologists and ecologists around the plot for a small fee – and payments for ecosystem services (PES), a scheme run by the Costa Rican government that rewards farmers who carry out sustainable forestry and environmental protection.

Pedro Garcia and his wife Adilia Villalobos are passionate about looking after nature.

Garcia is one of many Costa Ricans who have powered a mass conservation movement across the tiny Central American country. While most of the world is only just waking up to the importance of trees in battling the climate emergency, Costa Rica is years ahead.

“It is remarkable,” Stewart Maginnis, global director of the nature-based solutions group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), tells CNN. “In the 1970s and 1980s Costa Rica had one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, but it managed to turn that around in a relatively short period of time.”

Costa Rica is the first tropical country to have stopped – and subsequently reversed – deforestation. Can the rest of the world follow its lead?

When Costa Rica lost its trees

In the 1940s, 75% of Costa Rica was cloaked in lush rainforests. Then the loggers arrived, chainsaws in hand, and cleared the land to grow crops and raise livestock. While there is ongoing debate about the extent of reduction, it is thought that between a half and a third of forest cover had been destroyed by 1987.

Soon after this all-time low, the government took a series of radical actions to convert the country back into a natural paradise. In 1996 it made it illegal to chop down forest without approval from authorities and the following year it introduced PES.

Today almost 60% of the land is once again forest. Cloud forests envelop the country’s mountain peaks, thick rainforest lines the beaches of the south and dry forest sweeps the northeast. This rich landscape is home to around half a million plant and animal species.

But the country’s reversal is in stark contrast to the rest of the tropics, where deforestation rates are soaring. In 2019, tropical regions lost almost 12 million hectares of forest, according to data from the University of Maryland – equivalent to 30 football fields a minute. Nearly a third of that loss occurred within older, carbon-rich primary forests.

Other countries have made ambitious commitments but “if restoration is only replacing losses from ongoing deforestation, then it may be better than nothing, but it’s a bit of a Band-Aid,” cautions Maginnis.

The money motive

Costa Rica’s success is underscored by economics. It paired its ban on deforestation with the introduction of PES, which pays farmers to protect watersheds, conserve biodiversity or capture carbon dioxide.

“We have learned that the pocket is the quickest way to get to the heart,” says Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s minister for environment and energy, adding that people are more likely to take care of nature if it provides an income.

Elicinio Flores was 22 when a government scheme granted him a 10-hectare plot of land in Sarapiqui. When he arrived in 1976, it was “untouched,” he says.

“There were no paved roads, no access to drinking water. It was difficult because you couldn’t make a living from the forest then,” he tells CNN.

Elicinio Flores walks through his patch of rainforest daily, proud of what he has  preserved.

Working with neighboring families, he cleared the trees and created open pastures divided by fences, where cattle now graze on dusty grass.