The Republic of Costa Rica is in the midst of a dramatic transition from a small,
Central American nation known for its bananas and good coffee into a gateway for
international commerce between Latin America and the rest of the world and a well
traveled, if not over traveled, tourist destination--and rightfully so. Costa Rica is a highly
attractive country filled with beautiful mountain ranges, undisturbed beaches and friendly
natives or Ticos. In addition, Costa Rica offers a highly educated work force, a stable
economic and political environment, and exceptional communications and transportation
networks--especially in comparison to its neighbors, Panama and Nicaragua. All of these
national characteristics, and others, have been fueling a movement of multi-national
companies, American retirees and tourists from around the world into Costa Rica, in
order to benefit from these treasures. One may adequately predict that Costa Rica,
specifically the capital city of San Jose and the coastal regions on both the Pacific Ocean
and the Caribbean Sea, have the potential of becoming the Silicon Valley and Ft.

Lauderdale of Central America. That is to say, the major U.S. and European firms in
the personal computer and software industries, along with retirees and tourists, will
continue this trend of moving into Costa Rica for the next twenty five years and maybe
This trend and its longevity present geographers, environmentalists, politicians
and economists with a seemingly insurmountable task of preventing the destruction of
Costa Ricas environment, culture, society and natural resources while facilitating the
expansion of both domestic and international businesses and economic growth. Facing
the challenge of achieving sustainable development in Costa Rica is not specific to the
public servants and scholars mentioned above, but also requires the intellectual input,
physical effort and cooperation of every Tico and foreigner living or working in the
county. Although there are many issues concerning sustainable development in Costa
Rica requiring a wide range of solutions, the growing tourism industry and preventing the
destruction of the environment through ecotourism should be the foremost priority of
Costa Ricas policy makers and environmentalists. Ecotourism is an alternative to mass
tourism that is educational, conserves the environment and benefits local communities.
In other words, ecotourism should incorporate economic development as a fundamental
element of conservation.1
Costa Rica is situated on the Central American Isthmus and is bordered by
Nicaragua to the North and Panama to the South totaling 239 kilometers in border
territory. The Central American country consists of 51,000 square miles, of which only
440 are water due to the extensive mountains dominating the majority of the countrys
area. These mountain ranges, peaking at 12, 529 feet at Cerro Chirripo, provide Costa
Rica a wide variety of climate zones ranging from cloud forests to rain forests to coastal
plains. The coastal plains in the East and the West stretch for 1,290 kilometers
combined; The Pacific coast is twice a long as the Caribbean coast. Land use--6%
arable, 5% permanent crops, 46% permanent pastures, 31% forests and woodland, 12%
other--suggests the dominant interests of Costa Rica are agriculture and preservation and
reflects a general disagreement over land use addressed later. The national park system,
operated by the government, protects 14 percent of the national territory and is one of the
main attractions for tourists.2
Guanacaste is the northwestern province of Costa Rica and the home of numerous
developed and undeveloped (national parks) beaches and cattle ranches, the most
expansive tenant in the region. Many of the Pacific beaches are isolated and are not
accessible by road creating a challenge to many of those who flock to them to enjoy the
excellent surfing conditions. The Gulf of Nicoya is an ideal location for sea kayaking,
sport fishing and birdwatching along its undeveloped bays and coastal stretches. Many
tour companies offer expeditions to these areas by boat and plane illustrating the
potential of over development in a region already dominated by cattle ranches and coffee
There are four major mountain ranges that form the central corridor of Costa Rica
minimizing the amount of flat land to just the sea coast. Three of theses ranges have
actively erupting peaks. The Cordillera de Guanacaste extends 65 miles southeast from
Lake Nicaragua and houses the active Arenal Volcano at 6,000 feet. This volcano
erupted in 1968 and 1985 killing few in the sparsely populated region (54 percent of the
countries population lives in urban areas).4 Lake Arenal, popular for its ideal
windsurfing conditions, was formed by a rift separating the Cordillera de Guanacaste and
the rest of the mountain ranges to the southeast. Like the Cordillera de Guanacaste, the
Cordillera de Tilaran has many rivers draining into the ocean that are completely
inaccessible by road but remain enticing to adventuresome travelers seeking wild thrills.
The massive Cordillera Central, housing two active and two potentially active volcanoes,
remains a constant threat to the cities of San Jose and Alajuela and frequently reminds
their citizens of the threat with dustings of volcanic ashes. These volcanoes, although
potentially devastating, have provided the rich, fertile land required to produce one of
Costa Ricas largest exports, coffee. Enclosed by the peaks and volcanic craters of this
range is the Central Valley where two thirds of Costa Ricas population resides at 2,500
to 4,900 feet in elevation.5 The largest of the mountain ranges is the Cordillera de
Talmanca with the highest peak in the country at 12,529 feet. This range stretches
southeast from Cartago all the way into Panama and leads into the Caribbean Lowlands
on its eastern side. The northeastern Lowlands are sparsely populated but the foothills
are populated by many farms and small villages along the Caribbean coast which lead
into the developed region of Limon toward the south. The Limon region was originally
settled because of its accessibility by water and land. It has been converted primarily to
agricultural lands for banana plantations, which continue to expand causing concern
because of deforestation and excessive use of agricultural chemicals.6
Despite having the appearance of a mountainous land mass of an inhibiting
transportation network inconsistent with industrial growth, the San Jose, Desamparados,
Puntarenas and Limon regions of the country offer very accessible transportation
networks while the remote regions offering seclusion and adventure to travelers are
accessible by air if not by water or a dirt roadway. There are 35,600 kilometers of
roadways and highways, of which 5,945 km are paved; 950 kilometers of railroads; 115
airports with paved runways and 28 without; 730 kilometers of navigable waterways and
six seaports that comprise Costa Ricas transportation infrastructure.7
The Democratic Republic of Costa Rica constitutionally prohibits armed forces
and therefore devotes a vast majority of its resources the education and health care
sectors which have produced a very well educated and healthy society. Ninety four
percent of the entire population of Costa Rica is literate and only 8.3% of the population
has had no formal education. This highly educated, higher skilled population offers
multi-national firms a huge incentive to capitalize on a stronger work force than Costa
Ricas neighbors through direct investment projects. In terms of a healthy society, the
life expectancy is 76 years for all Ticos and the infant mortality rate is 13.3 per 1,000 live
births.8 Health services are readily available to most Ticos and foreigners which serves
to comfort most travelers and retirees settling in Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican economy depends primarily on tourism and the export of
bananas, coffee, sugar, timber and other agricultural products to generate a gross
domestic product $19 billion in 1996. In 1995, the agriculture industry accounted for
18% of GDP, industry accounted for 24% of GDP and services accounted for 58% of
GDP reflecting the countrys dependence on tourism. Economic growth has fallen since
1994 from 4.3% to 0.9% in 1996; inflation has begun to fall recently after a jump up to
22.5% in 1995; unemployment in 1995 was low at 4.2% and 5.5% in 1996 however,
there is a problem with underemployment in the labor force.9 Much more so than recent
trends, the political and economic history of Costa Rica calls the attention of many firms
exploring foreign direct investment in the region mainly because of stability--very few
Central American nations can boast about political and economic stability.

In the midst of a volatile and explosive trend toward globalization, many
international companies have found in Costa Rica what they had expected to find in Latin
American giants such as Argentina, Brazil or Mexico: Good location, a strong and
academic labor force, low cost of living, low operating costs, adequate infrastructure,
strong telecommunications network, economic stability and political support. The
election of Miguel Angel Rodriguez Echeverria as President of Costa Rica in April of
1998 has been a huge factor in recent deals between the government and foreign
companies. Within days of his election, Rodriguez met with prominent business figures
to discuss the nations economic future. The new President announced a modernization
and privatization plan calling for reduced inflation and increased employment by
increasing investment, tourism, infrastructure and small businesses.10
The most significant recent development in Costa Rica economy is the
announcement by Intel, the Pentium processor manufacturer, to construct a $300 million
Pentium Chip complex in a suburb of San Jose. The significance of this project extends
well beyond the benefits to the local economy: The new plant will employ 2,000 locally
hired skilled workers to assemble and test the microprocessors designed by Intel in
addition to the jobs created to build the new facility. Furthermore, Intels move to Costa
Rica is expected to induce as many as forty of the companys international suppliers to
follow suit and move into the San Jose region, creating even more jobs and concentrating
the technology industry in the countrys Central Valley.11
The Central Valley of Costa Rica is now in the middle of a very exciting
transition as more technology and communications firms establish a presence in the
Silicon Valley of the Latin world. Large multi national firms such as Acer and
Microsoft have joined forces in Costa Rica to offer customer support to its worldwide
clientele. Acer is currently operating a $20 million, 350-employee facility while the
cellular phone company, Motorola, has a deal to build a $15 million, 950-employee
facility in the San Jose region. Other direct foreign investment projects contributing to
Costa Ricas high tech profile have been negotiated by DSC of Texas, EMC
Technology, Seagate and Hewlett Packard. The DSC project is of particular interest
because of its location within the Metro Free Trade Zone which allows the firm to avoid
tariff payments on everything but the final product and illustrates the governments
willingness to help promote economic development and investment.12
Costa Ricas stable business environment is also attracting real estate speculators,
venture capitalists and retirees primarily from the United States and Europe. Many are
moving to Costa Rica to enjoy the beautiful climate and scenery of the coast. Some
move to retire while others move to open a bed and breakfast or a small farm. But the
real estate market still remains somewhat uncertain because of land laws and problems
with squatters legally assuming ownership of land after five years of occupation.
However, this problem does not seem to prevent many people from offering and seeking
opportunities in Costa Rica. Within five minutes of searching on the Internet, I was able
to locate a web site offering thirteen properties including commercial centers,
restaurants, bars, gated residential communities, beach front cottages and undeveloped
plots of jungle all for sale and/or development.
In addition to the already existing banana plantations, coffee fields and cleared
grazing land, the emerging real estate and technology markets are raising concern about
Costa Ricas precious environment. With an area of only 51,100 square kilometers, there
are serious limitations as to how much development, real estate or agricultural, can be
sustained before Costa Ricas biodiversity is permanently destroyed. But before
exploring the issue of sustainable development, one must also consider the exploding
tourism industry and how ecotourism can play a large role in preventing Costa Ricas

Costa Ricas highly educated population not only benefits international
companies seeking low cost, high skilled labor but also benefits the preservation efforts
of environmentalists throughout the country and the world. Most Ticos are well educated
and fully aware of the ecological importance and sensitivity of their homeland and have
been educated in the field of preservation. This has created a political environment
consisting of many organizations, funds and cooperative efforts promoting the
responsible utilization of Costa Ricas land. Through these conservation efforts, the
Costa Rican government can boast about protecting 90 percent of its existing forests and
the largest percentage of land dedicated to national parks in the world. 13 In addition to
the National Parks system, the government plays a large active role in joint efforts such
as Project CARFIX with FUNDECOR. FUNDECOR is an environmental
non-government organization...with funding provided by the US Agency for International
Development, to assist community organizations in the sustainable management of
biodiversity and forest resources in...Costa Rica14 This project is concerned with the
creation of a land management program surrounding the Braulio Carrillo National Park
that will create a buffer zone around the park to minimize adverse affects of
development in the region. Other projects directly address the problems that are arising
due to increased industrial activity such as carbon dioxide pollution. The Costa Rican
Ministry of natural Resources, Energy and Mines has confronted the challenge of
providing alternative energy sources that drastically reduce pollution in an economical
fashion. This has been near impossible considering the high costs of solar powered
electricity generation and other natural energy resources. The Tierras Morenas Wind
Farm Project exemplifies the cooperation of the government and private firms--New
World Power Corp., Energia del Nuevo Mundo S.A. and Molinas de Viento de
Arenal--the three companies working with the government on this project. The project
will construct a 20 megawatt power plant consisting of 40 wind turbine generators. This
wind powered electricity will be located in the province of Guanacaste and is expected to
reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 100,000 short tons per year, a significant reduction
for a small nation with an expanding technology industry.15
On the other hand, many of the conservation initiatives in Costa Rica are
privately funded or involve non-government organizations and private, special interest
associations. Educational and preservation foundations, such as the Bosque Lluvioso
Foundation, are privately funded and dedicated to preserving and restoring forests while
expanding scientific and educational programs aimed at the understanding of the intrinsic
value of tropical rain forests.16 The Monteverde Biological Corridor Carbon
Sequestration is an example of how the US Joint Initiative on Joint Implementation, the
Arenal and Monteverde Conservation Associations and the San Luis Development
Association joined forces to effectively protect the environment. Their common goals,
through purchase and lease agreements concerning 16,000 hectares between the
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and the Gulf of Nicoya are:
1) long term conservation of the Arenal-Monteverde area; 2) improvement of the
socioeconomic status of corridor residents; 3) protection of existing forest and
regeneration of forest on unproductive pasture land; 4) improvement of and 5)
further development of low-impact ecotourism.17
Facing high costs of research and implementation of such programs--the aforementioned
Monteverde alternative energy project is priced at $5,916,22518--many conservation
initiatives are exploring ecotourism projects as an a viable option considering its ability
to generate revenue for funding and profits due to increased tourism in Costa Rica.

The partnership between the Fundacion Cuencas de Limon and the Selva
Bananito Lodge exemplifies the success ecotourism can achieve when combined with
conservation efforts of environmental groups, government projects and private
foundations. The Limon Watershed Foundation is a non-profit organization that was
founded in response to indiscriminant logging in southeastern...Costa Rica and to the
deterioration of water quality in the areas rivers. Since the 1997 establishment, the
Foundation has promoted cooperation between local farmers, agricultural corporations,
government agencies and non-government agencies in curtailing illegal logging and
wood extraction from protected lands.19 The foundation is facing one of the most
difficult challenges of ecotourism and sustainable development: Influencing attitudes
among local farmers, loggers and other natives who depend on exploiting the land to
survive. However, the foundation seems to be managing this conflict of interests well
and has seen increased activity and involvement in the program of local Ticos.

The foundation has yet to prove itself to be successful in reaching many of its
goals simply because it is not event two years old. But with the financial support from
the Selva Bananito Lodge, the Fundacion Cuencas de Limon should be able to: 1) protect
rain forest vegetation along the watersheds of the Banano, Goban, Estrella, and Bananito
Rivers; 2) Educate local residents; 3) monitor and prevent illegal activities in the regions
parks and reserves and; 4) expand the biological buffer zone along the La Amistad
Biosphere Reserve spanning over 1 million hectares.20 The Selva Bananito Lodge was
opened in 1995 by an America family and is situated 20 kilometers south and 15
kilometers inland of Puerto Limon in a secluded rain forest. The 850 hectares borders
the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve near the Cahuita National Park generates all of its
income from tourism. The adverse affects of tourists is minimized by limiting the
number of visitors permitted at any given time, the use of solar heated water, the absence
of electricity and the seven small cabins placed within a small area. Educational rain
forest study programs are offered to students and scientific researchers will soon be
welcomed to the park. Some of the programs highlights include: 1)day time experiments
in the forests; 2) evening discussions about ecotourism, deforestation and forest
management and; 3) a visit to the Agriculture Research Institute (EARTH). The families
1250 hectares of land is devoted to low impact, sustainable agriculture and cattle
management (416 hectares) and forest preservation (834 hectares).21
The management of the Selva Bananito Lodge, its surrounding reserves, the
educational program and financial support of Fundacion Cuencas de Limon has thus far
been successful. This early success is primarily due to the tight control of the families
land, its proximity to government protected forests and its partnership with the watershed
foundation. Many of the problems usually associated with an ecotourism and land
preservation project, such as socio-economic and socio-political challenges, have been
avoided because of the familys wealth and the division of responsibility of between the
two partners. Many of the challenges ecotourism presents were, in fact, characteristic of
a project in Rio Blanco Ecuador.

Ecotourism is an alternative to mass tourism that is educational, conserves the
environment and benefits local communities. In other words, ecotourism should
incorporate economic development as a fundamental element of conservation.22
The case of Rio Blanco, Ecuador offers a vast amount of insight and information
regarding the challenges to the development of a successful ecotourism industry in a
small Latin American village and possible solutions to overcome them. What the project
ultimately reveals is the necessity of local control of ecotourism activities, national
oversight and partial financial support along with careful planning and organization.
The indigenous Quichua community in Rio Blanco is situated in the Ecuadorian
Amazon and was founded in 1971. The economy was dominated by hunting and
cultivation of cash crops such as coffee, rice and cacao but the relatively high population
condensed into a small region has adversely effected the local ecology. High growth and
rising cost of living standards has resulted in deforestation and expanded land under
cultivation. The community has responded to these problems by developing and
ecotourism project to generate income and, according to environmentalists wishes,
substitute the preservation of land for tourism for the destruction of forests for
cultivation. The challenges and conflicts that the Quichua community has faced since
implementation if the project are applicable and relevant to most ecotourism programs.

The goal of this project was to improve the standard of living in the Quichua
community while simultaneously preventing further deforestation. This presents the first
and most difficult challenge: How does the community shift its emphasis on agriculture
to a combination of agriculture and tourism? First of all the benefits of the change must
be tangible to every member of the community and they must be retained by the
community. That is to say, the profits and other benefits from ecotourism must not leak
out to other regions or countries. This is achieved by maintaining local control over the
project. If foreign investors are permitted to control the tourism industry in a community,
few local residents will share in the profits.23 In Costa Rica, the Selva Bananito Lodge is
foriegn owned, however, profits are shared by the family and the foundation which
presents successful alternative to complete local control.

Another problem Schaller mentions in his study of the Quichua community is the
lack of government cooperation and inability of locals to obtain national. He sites that
governments may unwittingly hinder local tourism...and too often local people have
neither the political power or business connections to compete at an international level
with mass tourism.24 Interestingly, it may be the national government that can
overcome the shortfalls of their policies and local power by implementing a national
program to promote ecotourism. As mentioned earlier, the Government of Costa Rica
plays a large role in environmental preservation which should serve as an example to
other governments such as that of Ecuador. A simple program that the US Government
has practiced is the issuance of block grants to each state for welfare programs. Block
grants to provinces and local communities for development of ecotourism could be based
on performance which would provide incentive to preserve the ecology and innovative
tourism programs. This would reduce economic leakages--through government
regulation--and reduce economic pressures to clear more land for cultivation.
Furthermore, the government subsidies provided to the ecotourism industry has the
potential of creating a level playing field of competition between mass tourism and
smaller scale ecotourism. The absence of economies of scale in the ecotourism industry
may eventually be the demise of the industry itself because of its economic inefficiency.
However, government subsidies--if the funds are available--can alleviate this problem in
the long run.
Similarly, Schaller argues that Increased demand encourages larger scale
projects to move in, leading to mass tourism, a loss of local control, and the end of any
hopes for ecotourisms sustainanbility.25 His statement is incontestable a solution lies
within the management strategy of a Swiss-Swedish electrical engineering multinational
firm, Asea Brown Boveri. The CEO of this firm recently described his management
strategy for an article published by World Trade Magazine. Three of his main
1) Common values must be established and then shared by every branch of the
company; 2) create links through mentors between like divisions in different
countries and; 3) operations in each country must adapt the companys global
vision to local market and operation needs.26
can be applied to large scale management of ecotourism development through the
creation of an American-style trade association. The establishment of a trade association
representing local communities like the Quichuas and individual owners developing
ecotourism in a nation or region that applied these objectives would almost guarantee the
survival of small-scale ecotourism ventures throughout Latin America. The resulting
objectives of the trade associations management policy would be: 1) Common values
concerning the preservation of cultural identities and maintenance of local control
between each project; 2) Create links between similar communities within a particular
region or country so prevent conflict, inflated competition and to foster the sharing of
ideas and; 3) projects in each country must adapt the global vision of environmental
preservation and sustainable development to the region.
Trade associations and block grants are not the only solutions to the many
economic, cultural, social, political and environmental challenges characteristic of
ecotourism and sustainable development but they do provide an essential stepping stone.
Many Latin American nations are experiencing the growth in industry and tourism much
similar to Costa Rica and there are numerous projects like the Selva Bananito
Lodge/Fundacion Cuencas de Limon and the Quichua ecotourism development project
throughout the region. Hopefully they will all contribute to the preservation of their
natural resources and diverse ecological systems while developing their economies and
much needed industries.

Ecotourism and Sustainable
Development In
Ryan Langan
Geography 141
Professor McGrath
December 2, 1998
Geography Essays