New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman paid Costa Rica a visit recently, and decided to take the chance to pen a column lauding the country’s forward-thinking environmental policies. His information seems to have come entirely from a conversation he had with former environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, who — I am inferring — painted a pretty nice picture of the environmental situation.
Being on vacation, Friedman apparently couldn’t be troubled to apply the same level of critical thinking to these claims as he does the praise espoused by U.S. politicians when speaking about their own work.
No doubt, Costa Rica is doing a much better job than most of its neighbors in the hemisphere in protecting its natural resources. And many in the private sector, particularly tourism businesses, have stepped up to the plate in making their business practices more sustainable. But then, it pays to be green when you operate in a country known for eco-tourism — a country, it’s worth mentioning, where the vast amount of sewage is untreated and ends up dumped in the rivers (the Health Ministry recently acknowledged it has not had a functioning waste treatment plant for years in the populous Central Valley, which includes the capital, leaving the companies that pump septic tanks to dump their sludge in fields and rivers). Another good amount of waste is piped directly out to the ocean, in some cases at top tourist beaches.
The country’s national park system, when created, was revolutionary and a good chunk of Costa Rica is now under some type of protected status (though the 25% figure he cites is debatable). But these areas are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Manuel Antonio National Park — the second-most-visited national park in the country — is now biologically isolated, as all surrounding forest has been cleared either for agriculture or tourism and real estate development. Its famous populations of monkeys are falling ill or critically endangered, depending on the species. The park was recently threatened with closure when it was discovered that the decrepit and abandoned public bathrooms were seeping sewage into the environment, among other problems.
Friedman also praises Costa Rica’s Payments for Environmental Services program, which is widely cheered, but its real impact has been questioned. While the country has been able to first stop, then reverse deforestation, it is a combination of both sound policies and good luck. The collapse of Costa Rica’s beef exports went a long way towards allowing pastures to regenerate.
The government has also been pushing carbon-neutrality left and right, though most of that work is being done by private businesses while even the Environment Ministry’s offices have yet to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs.
Friedman said Costa Rica “did something no country has ever done: It put energy, environment, mines and water all under one minister.” Roberto Dobles, the President’s second cousin and former telecom exec (telecommunications was also put into the same ministry), was the head of that ministry for the past three years, finding himself on the business side of a series of environmental conflicts (like this one over an open-pit gold mine). In March, he was forced to resign after it became public he signed a mining concession connected to his family and business associates, much to the joy of many in the nation’s environmental movement.
The same Carlos Manuel Rodríguez that spoke with Friedman for yesterday’s column gave me a much more critical view in an interview in January:
What are the greatest environmental challenges that Costa Rica is facing in the coming year?
Rodriguez: Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is the lack of environmental leadership on behalf of the government, which has demonstrated little environmental commitment and a lack of coherence between political discourse and actions. The government has expressed an unconditional support for the economic sector without considering environmental costs. The isolation of the protected areas, the opening to mining and oil exploration… are examples of these circumstances.
While there are many things being done right in Costa Rica, nobody wins when the real story is glossed over, as my friend Patrick put it. This present administration running Costa Rica has taken considerable heat for talking a nice game on the environment but failing to really do anything to back it up, and uncritical praise from such a tall podium like a New York Times column only inflates egos while giving little pressure to enact truly progressive policies.
I would love to see the United States using much, much more renewable energy and putting environmental protection at the top of its list of priorities. But for those of us who see Costa Rica as more than a pretty vacation destination, real environmental commitment here — a tiny country with a lion’s share of the world’s biodiversity — is critical, and it does no good to gloss over reality in order to make a case for change in the United States.