Costa Rica's President: It's Not Easy Staying Green

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Paul Souders / Corbis

From the ubiquitous T-shirts sporting a red-eyed tree frog clinging to an Imperial beer bottle, to the best-selling postcards featuring the flamboyant poison-dart frog holding court in the rainforest, Costa Ricans today identify with frogs the way Russians relate to bears. That's because Costa Rica over the past generation has built a reputation as one of the world's greenest countries. It so jealously guards its environment that 26% of its territory is under national park protection, its eco-tourism sector is a $2 billion-a-year cash cow and its forest cover has actually doubled since the 1980s — thanks to more trees per capita being planted there than anywhere else. "Cutting down a single tree in Costa Rica is cause for scandal," says Pedro Leon, head of the administration's Peace With Nature Initiative.

Lately, Costa Rica has further ratcheted up its green ambitions, pledging to become one of the only developing nations to make itself "carbon neutral" — a zero net-emitter of carbon — by 2021. (Maldives is the only other developing country to set that goal.) Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they call themselves, believe it's attainable largely because 95% of their country's energy production already comes from renewable, non-polluting sources. As a result, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is jockeying for a global leadership role on climate change. Arias was one of five keynote speakers to address the U.N. Climate Change Summit on Sept. 22, calling on the world to shift military spending to fight global warming — to "save our species from the real enemy."

But while Arias wins kudos abroad, many Ticos at home are starting to question whether the President is a real friend of their eco-image and the carbon-neutral campaign. His commitment to protecting national parks has come under fire from conservationists. Worse, they say, he recently lifted a ban on open-pit mining. The move is likely to result in the largest such gold mine in Central America, Las Crucitas, to be operated by a Canadian-owned firm, Infinito, and will require clearing 125 acres (50 hectares) of forest land. It also has environmentalists in Costa Rica and Nicaragua warning of a cross-border eco-catastrophe in the event of cyanide leaks into the San Juan River. (Cyanide is used in recovering gold.)

Infinito insists there is no such danger. But critics say Arias' decision betrays his international rhetoric and reflects a worrisome trend. His environment minister had to resign earlier this year over a mining-related scandal. Luis Diego Marin, regional coordinator for the Costa Rica-based conservation group Preserve Planet, calls Arias a "hypocrite," insisting that behind Costa Rica's green facade today is "tremendous disorder." Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, a political rival and environment minister under Arias' predecessor, Abel Pacheco, and vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International, says Arias "has been neither serious nor coherent on the issue of the environment."

One oft heard concern is that Arias seems to believe Costa Rica can "plant its way out of the carbon-emissions problem," as environmentalists frequently complain. Rather than attack emissions more aggressively at its industrial and automotive sources, eco-advocates fear Arias simply wants to plant more trees in order to create what they call a deceptive net-zero emissions balance.

That might make Costa Rica technically carbon-neutral, but it would still leave venues like the capital of San Jose "choking" with factory pollution and Central America's notoriously black bus exhaust, says Roberto Jimenez, a Yale MBA who recently started the activist group "If there is a country in the world that can [achieve carbon neutrality], it's Costa Rica," says Jimenez, but he warns that the country's emissions "continue to grow unchecked." The Arias government is toying with the lofty idea of building a super-modern, solar-powered monorail system in the capital to acheive carbon neutrality by 2021, but so far Costa Rica's carbon output has increased more during the first three years of Arias' presidency than it had in the previous 10 years combined, environmental groups note.

A key factor, say Arias' critics, is that the 69-year-old leader is part of Costa Rica's pre-environmental generation — from a time, before the 1980s, when Costa Rica actually had one of the world's highest deforestation rates. Today's greener Tico cohort came of age after Arias' first presidency in the 1980s, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end Central America's bloody civil wars. "Mr. Arias has definitely remained in the past century," says Rodriguez, whose Social Christian Unity Party is a liberal counter to Arias' more conservative National Liberation Party. He argues that while Arias' talk is visionary, his walk is still "conservative and traditional."

Others, including those close to him, wonder privately if fighting climate change is less a conviction for Arias than a vehicle back to the international accolades he enjoyed a quarter century ago. They point out that his conservation kick was greatly influenced by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth., and wonder if Arias was motivated more by the message of the film, or the worldwide praise Gore received as a result of championing the cause.

Arias backers like Leon, who as the director of Arias' Peace With Nature campaign is in charge of green projects from national park endowments to getting climate change into school curriculums, admit there are some "inconsistencies" in the government's actions. But he insists Arias is "sincere" about the environment and deserves credit as a "world environmental leader." Leon adds that "making peace with nature," like making peace between ideological enemies a generation ago, is a "a logical sequence to Arias' career." But with little more than a year to go in his second, environmental presidency, a growing number of Ticos feel Arias still needs to get more in touch with his inner frog.