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.
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.”
When Costa Rica lost its trees
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.
“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.
Working with neighboring families, he cleared the trees and created open pastures divided by fences, where cattle now graze on dusty grass.
But in the middle of his farm, Flores decided to preserve a five-hectare pocket of original forest. Despite occupying a small area, it’s a dense and tangled jungle — walk into it and it’s hard to believe there’s agricultural land on all sides.
The scheme allows farmers to generate additional income by selectively harvesting timber from the reforested areas. Flores seeks guidance from Fundecor, a sustainable forestry NGO, to ensure he only fells trees that are not vital to the ecosystem.
Timber sales have helped pay for his eldest daughter’s university studies in sustainable tourism. “I feel proud when I walk through the forest, not only for me but for my whole family,” he says. “When I am no longer here, I know that my children will continue to look after it.”
Eco-friendly culture, ecotourism hotspot
According to Maginnis, Costa Ricans’ deep respect for nature has played a vital role in the country’s reforestation success. Its culture is summed up by the national motto, “pura vida,” which is used as a greeting, a farewell and in many other social contexts.
While its direct translation is “pure life,” “pura vida” signifies much more than that — both a gratitude and a peace with oneself and the surrounding environment.
This respect is reinforced by the country’s booming ecotourism sector says Patricia Madrigal-Cordero, former vice-minister for the environment.
“People come to see the mountains, the nature, the forests, and when they are stunned by a monkey or a sloth in the tree, communities realize what they have here, and they realize they should care for it,” she tells CNN.
“People in Costa Rica receive a lot of money because of tourism and that changes the incentives of land use,” says Juan Robalino, an expert in environmental economics from the University of Costa Rica.
Without the tourists, communities put less effort into preserving the environment, says Robalino. This creates a downward spiral — with less revenue, funding for conservation drops, which leads to less ecotourism.
A model country?
But these countries lack Costa Rica’s long history of environmental policy coherence and consistency, says Maginnis.
It is this combination of political will, environmental passion and tourism that has enabled the country to become a pioneer in reforestation.
Rodríguez, the country’s environment minister, says that while Costa Rica’s basic strategy could be applied anywhere, “principles and values” need to be in place too. These include good governance, strong democracy, a respect for human rights and a solid education system, he says.
The secret to Costa Rica’s success is its people, adds Madrigal-Cordero. “We have created peace, pura vida” she says. “Nature is in our DNA.”