By Mario Garita / ISH
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – The increase in forest cover in Costa Rica is a great step forward for the Central American country in reaching its goal to become carbon neutral by 2021.
Costa Rica’s forest cover reached 52.38% of its territory in 2012 – or 2,676,618 hectares – an increase of 0.94% compared to 2005, according to the latest study by the National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO).
Authorities are aiming to increase the country’s forest cover by 287,182 hectares by 2021, achieving the government’s goal it set in 2006 of becoming a carbon-neutral country during the next 15 years, according to the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).
“With this plan, we intend to achieve a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions first of all, then the preservation of our diversity, and thirdly, which we have not put enough consideration into, is to protect our water sources,” Minister of Environment and Energy René Castro said.
The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD +) international strategy, which the country has been affiliated with since 2007, has been fundamental to Costa Rica’s reforestation success.
REDD + encourages reforestation primarily by funding sustainable tree farming projects for the timber industry.
The world loses about 13 million hectares of forest annually. In Latin America, the figure reaches 3.95 million hectares, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC).
The increase in deforestation causes serious social and environmental problems, such as the lack of drinking water sources, reduced crop yields, soil erosion and biodiversity loss, according to State of the Tropics, a global initiative that brings together universities, NGOs and governmental organizations.
Costa Rica is the only Latin American country to reverse this trend, according to FONAFIFO.
“In the 1980s, there was a boom in livestock production and an expansion of crop areas to increase countries’ exports,” said Jorge Rodríguez, FONAFIFO’s managing director. “There was a change in the use of the forest for other uses, which Costa Rica took notice of in . Now, we set an example for the world.”
One of the first effective initiatives the Costa Rican government launched was the Forestry Credit, which since 1987 has allowed companies and individuals’ providing environmental services to request resources to finance their projects.
“In the past, when someone requested credit and had forest land as a guarantee, it would be denied because the land was considered unused,” Rodríguez said. “[With Forestry Credit], that changed and more people have decided to keep their forest land property [and use it as equity].”
A total of 1,064 forest credits have been granted for a total amount of $4,336,978,410 colones (US$8.6 million) since 1987, according to FONAFIFO. One-hundred fifteen forest credits equivalent to $963,748,735 colones (US$1.9 million) were allocated between 2011 and 2012.
In 1996, Costa Rica created the Payment for Environmental Services (PSA) program, in which FONAFIFO pays the owners of forests or forest plantations to protect the environment.
In addition, businesses and other organizations can purchase Environmental Services Certificates (CSA), which serve their corporate social responsibility strategies and whose resources help finance the PSA program, according to Rodríguez.
The REDD+ strategy has invested close to US$200 million in rural areas, designated 58,000 hectares of land in indigenous areas for the PSA program and generated US$18 million through CSA certificates in the past decade, according to FONAFIFO.
Authorities expect to have 7,500 hectares of land reforested and add 100 new farming and forestry companies to the PSA program by the end of 2013, according to MINAE.
The National Forestry Office (ONF) said promoting sustainable timber farming is necessary to supply the industry and reduce the felling of forests, which is critical in achieving the government’s sustainability goals.
“An increase in tree farming is essential to produce the wood required for product packaging, construction and furniture,” ONF Executive Director Alfonso Barrantes said.
The forest industry employs about 16,000 families, generates more than US$284 million annually through the sale and export of timber products from sustainable plantations and contributes to achieving the country’s carbon neutrality goal, according to Barrantes.
FONAFIFO finances reforestation and forest protection projects, the processing of wood extracted from sustainable plantations and the purchase of equipment for the forestry industry.
Government institutions also collaborate with reforestation programs, according to MINAE.
In July, officials from the Ministry of Public Security (MSP) planted 500 trees in the community of Palmares de Alajuela, 40 kilometers west of the nation’s capital of San José.
“We started the project last year, which we have continued, and today, we are planting 500 trees that will protect the aquifers in the region, thereby benefiting area residents in terms of water supply,” said Luis Arguedas, manager of the MSP’s Aerial Surveillance Service.