Notes from the Field: Learning from Costa Rica’s Ecosystem Services Program (Part 2)

by Elliot Cooper, Assistant International Program Coordinator

FUNDECOR Action Area

It is now Thursday, February 23rd and I’m sitting in the open air reception area of the hotel where I have just spent the night.  We are in Sarapiqui, on the north side of the Cinterón de Volcanes, the Volcano Belt, and have already spent three days in the region.  We spent a full day yesterday in Sarapiqui, and the two previous were spent in San Carlos (a different county south west of us) basing out of Ciudad Quesada.  Today will be our last full day out in the field, as we are going to meet with one more intermediary counterpart organization that helps provide the value chain services that neither FONAFIFO, nor the farmers who wish to participate in their Payment for Environmental Services (PSA) programs, could go without.

The morning is overcast and humid.  Natalia and I head to the hotel lobby to meet up with the Director of Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Cordillera Volcánica Central (FUNDECOR).  He takes us through a very thorough PowerPoint describing every last detail of the work that FUNDECOR is executing, leading to three really interesting points: First, only 30% of farmers who apply to the Fondo Nacional de Financiamento Forestal (FONAFIFO) Environmental Payment Services program are accepted.  Second, FUNDECOR has implemented its own program that is identical to FONAFIFO’s, but with a local twist, and third, FUNDECOR is able to support its program based on private (mostly corporate) donations.

The aspects of the program being able to support itself from a private funding aspect, when fleshed out, are a fantastic thing: this shows that in the right economic climate, working with the right connections, TWP could feasibly implement (or assist in the creation of and maintenance of) the same systems in one of the countries that we work in.  Of course, it’s not that simple.  There is a myriad of other factors that must be taken into account, layered in the cultural and behavioral norms of any country.  Costa Rica is very fortunate: while the rest of Central America was warring- literally- Costa Rica sat quietly and peacefully smack dab in the middle of it, just as Switzerland did during WWII.  Therefore, it was an easy decision for the World Bank and other international development organizations as to where they should invest their funds, and time.

Click the photo to enlarge

Presently, Costa Rica is saturated with international aid, which is one reason that the country has been able to do a ‘180’ with its deforestation rate.  In 1986, Costa Rica was deforested to 21% (meaning that only 21% of the country’s original forest was still standing).  In 2005, via satellite imaging and GIS mapping, the rate of existing forest had risen to 56%.  The 2010 report has yet to be released (they say that it is coming any day), but it is expected to be above 60%.  This rate has risen so quickly because of international aid, and the behavioral change seen in Costa Ricans, the vast majority of who perceive significant economic value in the natural environment surrounding them.  Of course, this effort is readily backed up by the country’s central government who has proclaimed that they will become the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021 [John Burnett (2008-02-18). “Costa Rica Aims to Be a Carbon-Neutral Nation”. National Public Radio (].

We went out into the field with Forestry Engineer Pamela Sánchez who took us to interview one of the beneficiaries of their payment program, farmer Vicente Homero Rodriguez.  Don Vicente was an amazing story teller, and quite the agile machete handler- as we arrived, he hopped up into a coconut tree, cut down a bunch of ripe cocos, and chopped off just enough so that we could lift them to our mouths and relish the sweet taste of fresh coconut juice.  He told us the entire history of why he decided to apply to be a part of the PSA programs, and what it has done for him and his family.  One of the first things he mentioned was that there previously was no furniture in the house, besides two beds and a crude table.  Now there was a dining room table with six chairs, a couch and two individual comfy chairs.  All of this, along with the plates and silverware, were purchased with earnings provided by the PSA program.

This is exactly what I wanted to know- how are people using the money that they earn?  Ideally, this is exactly what they do- they reinvest it in the economy in a way that not only creates a higher level of well-being for the farmers, but it offers more opportunity for profitability of local retailers.  I assume that most people have the same spending tendencies, as with tax rebates in the USA.

Our visit lasted for just over three hours. We went for a short walk out in his backyard where his wife showed me how they grow and harvest black peppercorns, which are in a lot that could easily qualify for an agro-forestry PSA.  Black pepper (Piper nigrum, from the family Piperaceae) is a flowering vine that loves to climb trees, but can easily be persuaded as to where to go- and grow.  Their peppercorn lot was grown on rebrotes (after cutting down some trees, they grow back.  This is a ‘rebrote’) of Pilón (Hyeronima alchorneoides, from the family Euphorbiaceae) which is a high quality wood used commonly in Central America and some parts of South America.  It grows quickly, at rates upwards of one inch in diameter and 8.25 vertical feet a year.  Outside of this potential agro-forestry lot (of which Dón Victor asked that I put in a kind word to FUNDECOR on his behalf) the family has 18 hectares of forest under conservation and another 10 hectares of workable land.  The family is making enough money in the forest conservation project to pay the bills, but knowing that the program might not last forever, they are growing the aforementioned black pepper and have cattle, chicken, coconuts, beans, yuca, and several other short term crops.  This is another big part of the PSA program: working with farmers to train them to continue after their PSA term ends so that they can continue forward in a manner that sustainably manages their resources.

And with that, everyone wins.

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Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

One thought on “Notes from the Field: Learning from Costa Rica’s Ecosystem Services Program (Part 2)”

  1. Elliot, I would be really interested to know exactly how the PES scheme works in terms of the transfer of payments. What standards of conservation/protection/ non-cultivation do the farmers have to meet before the payment is received? How does FUNDECOR / FONAFIFO monitor and evaluate of the farmers’ ‘conservation’, and how often? Is it cash payments or is it access to funds? How often are the payments?

    I am learning a lot about PES schemes all over Latin America, with of course lots of talk of FONAFIFO. I would be interested to learn more.

    It sounds like you’re having quite an interesting trip! Enjoy, saludos.

    Kristin Lacy (International Intern TWP Spring 2012)

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