Notes from the Field: Learning from Costa Rica’s Ecosystem Services Program

by Elliot Cooper, Assistant International Program Coordinator

FONAFIFO tree nursery
Natalia Arce holds a seedling from one of FONAFIFO's tree nurseries in Costa Rica.

Here I am in Costa Rica, executing the back end of a fellowship granted through LASPAU: Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, affiliate of Harvard University. I am working with Forestry Engineer Natalia Arce, who previously spent a month with us in our Fort Collins office this past fall.
Natalia works in the Payment Department of FONAFIFO (the National Forestry Financing Fund), which is a public-private partnership managed by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment, Energy & Technology (MINAET). I have been charged with the task of learning how FONAFIFO and MINAET function, and how their payment system works, and potentially how we could glean information that we could potentially implement in any of the countries we work in. And, by the way, the system does indeed work. Very well.

FONAFIFO does something that no one else in the world is truly able to do: They administer payments to farmers throughout the country to either conserve existing forest on their land, or to re-forest some portion of their land with one of their well established 5 or 10 year payment programs. FONAFIFO has been in existence since 1997, when it was commissioned by federal law in order to start high level conservation work. Costa Rica’s second largest industry is tourism, and the behavioral change of conservation and reforestation stemmed directly from this industry.

It is important to note that Costa Rica is a very small country- about the size of West Virginia- and has incredible natural features, including “El Cinterón del Fuego” (“The Fire Belt”), a volcano alley of sorts, wet and dry tropical cloud forests, rain forest, and amazing beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean
coasts. Costa Rica has a very well developed national park system, and a very large respect for reducing the amount of pollution in the country through taxation. Although this background information might seem irrelevant to some extent, it is very important to take into full account the cultural and behavioral norms of a country that is able to execute such a high quality system of environmental protection.

As you read this, I am probably in the middle of Costa Rican farm country working alongside a handful of Ticos, listening intently and asking a myriad of questions that will hopefully lead Trees, Water & People closer to understanding all of the working pieces of Ecosystem Service Payment Systems. More to come,