Lessons from Costa Rica: How to Protect Forests with Better Bureaucracy


Roshan Khan

October 2, 2020

View of monkey in Costa Rican rainforest looking through a telescopic camera viewer

In 2019, I studied in Costa Rica, which gave me a passion for land-use and rainforest conservation, and inspired me to join Rainforest Partnership. It made me excited about topics that may sound dull to other people, like forest management. I started asking questions like, what  government agencies are responsible for it? Who should be held accountable for deforestation? How do you know which agencies deal with mining, agriculture, forestry, and energy? It turns out that this is not a simple question. 

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, sheds light on why this matters in a webinar by Initiative 20x20, titled The Future of Land Use and Climate Action in Latin America. RP is a technical partner of Initiative 20x20,  which is a country-led effort seeking to change the dynamics of land degradation in Latin America and the Caribbean by bringing 20 million hectares of land into restoration and conservation by 2020. 

Rainforest in Costa Rica
Photo by Roshan Khan

Learning from decades of progress

In his keynote address, Minister Rodriguez explains how Costa Rica was able to successfully reverse deforestation and promote land restoration. First, they banned land use change. This means that forested land can be used to harvest timber or other products, but cannot be turned into anything other than forest. 

Second, they did something people have tried and failed to do for years: they actually implemented the concept of payments for environmental services. They phased out certain subsidies and put a tax on fuel that was used to reward people for protecting the environment. One example of this is paying cattle ranchers the amount they would earn from raising cattle to not raise cattle. By creating these positive incentives, the country addressed a significant market failure: the old economy was not placing value on a healthy environment, so the existing incentives encouraged its destruction.

And third, they used soil-quality research to map degraded soils and healthy soils, which boosted agricultural productivity and benefits to farmers and the country as a whole.

However, this was not a complete solution. Successful forest conservation is impossible on a large scale without one more unique idea. The unfortunate reality in most countries is that several agencies work on the same land, with little collaboration or coordination.

Rainforest in Costa Rica by Roshan Khan
Photo by Roshan Khan

“We began understanding that it was not enough just to concentrate on the market failure in creating positive incentives...we found out that we needed to redesign the institutional framework.” -Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Minister Rodriguez saw that tackling both market failure and institutional failure was the only way to achieve climate goals: “In many countries, the forest service is within the ministry of agriculture. And that will never help us to achieve our restoration and conservation goals, because a forest service has proven, in a ministry of agriculture, that their only aspiration is logging. They don’t manage the forest in an integrated fashion; that was the case in Costa Rica.”

When Bureaucracy Becomes Exciting...

Ten years ago, Minister Rodriguez did a comparative research project on the government structures of different Latin American countries. His hypothesis? The rate of deforestation in a country is probably related to where the forest service is located. His results suggest that this is true. Countries with a forest service within the ministry of environment had lower  deforestation rates.

Costa Rica understood this, and merged their national park service, wildlife service, and related agencies into a broader institution. By ending division in the government on how they manage natural resources, they were able to avoid the conflict between the agendas of the ministers of environment and ministers of energy, mining, and agriculture—to stop the disconnect between “green” activity and “business as usual.”

Minister Rodriguez advocates for politics that understand agriculture and environment as concerned with the same land and the same stakeholders. An institutional platform for collaboration between the two is extremely important. This way, the country is able to solve problems without competing on how they produce their food, produce and use energy, and where they live. Instead,  they have the proper institutions and a process based on science. 

“Because it can be done. It has been done in Costa Rica, it can be done elsewhere, and it must be done.” -Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Hope and impact are the core of Rainforest Partnership’s approach. And like Minister Rodriguez, at RP we know that hope can come from strategy. We know that conservation is complex, and that’s why we are highlighting this clever, inspiring, and impact-oriented solution. 

Deforestation can be stopped.

“I’m extremely happy that we have been able to achieve the targets set a few years ago in terms of this global restoration effort,” Minister Rodriguez says. “Because it can be done. It has been done in Costa Rica, it can be done elsewhere, and it must be done.”

Bureaucracy is not an electrifying subject, but political institutions must never be left out of the picture. The first step to making change is understanding the power structure which currently exists—incentives, purposes, and patterns of organization. Then you can rearrange and restructure.

Recently, people have started paying more attention to diversity and inclusion, asking companies and communities, “who has a seat at the table?” But, in terms of creating effective land and resource-use policy, I propose one further question: “where are the tables located in the room, and how much do they talk to each other?” Let’s get the tables in the same room so that everyone can talk to each other and achieve some real progress.