Costa Rica's National System of Conservation Areas


The Ramsar Convention's 7th Conference of the Parties will be held near San José in May 1999, and over the next 24 months Costa Rica will be the focus of a good deal of Ramsar attention. To make a good beginning, here is a brief description of a promising new organizational structure for Costa Rica's environmental conservation efforts, which ends with the question of whether the "Costa Rican model" would be suitable for export to other nations. For several technical reasons, I've had to omit nine figures and maps that were appended to the physical copy of this paper we were given, but luckily the text makes good sense without them. -- Web Editor.

Managing Beyond the Borders:
The Costa Rican National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC)

Christopher Vaughan
Universidad Nacional, Costa Rica

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez
National System of Conservation Areas, Costa Rica

Main Points: National planning can contribute to successful management of conservation areas by facilitating the coordination of resource and development agencies, involving the civil society and participation by private land owners in conservation decision-making, and by supporting decentralized and flexible regional planning. Stable, long-term funding is essential so that national planning can be implemented.

Protected natural areas have traditionally been viewed as islands, independent of and protected from their surroundings. However, natural areas both affect neighboring lands and are impacted by external ecological, physical, cultural, and social influences. If protected areas are to survive in the long-term, they must be managed complementary to, and not isolated from, the general landscape, and must include human influences and needs. Integration of protected areas into regional development plans as multiple-use areas is necessary to obtain maximum sustainable natural resource conservation and production without losing future use options. The case of Costa Rica's attempt to integrate protected areas into regional land-use programs is explored here, and the management challenges of such an approach are emphasized.

Few countries worldwide can boast of Costa Rica's recent success in wildland conservation and management. Two decades ago, the country was faced with one of the world's highest population growth rates, a huge international debt, land-hungry rich and poor, the world's highest deforestation rate and a legal system that promoted deforestation. However; visionaries changed political and public opinion, received international financial and political support, and established a world-famous wildlands conservation and management system, which in the late 1980s included 29% of the national territory (14,500 square kilometers) in 78 protected national and private areas.

Before 1995, the majority of these protected areas were managed by four separate government institutions: the National Parks Service, the General Forestry Direction, the Wildlife Service, and the National Indian Affairs Commission. Several private organizations, including the Tropical Science Center and the Organization for Tropical Studies, also owned private reserves. Although wildland areas often shared borders, each institution managed their areas independently, with little effective coordination.

By the beginning of this decade, it was apparent that the existing wildland system was not accomplishing its principal objectives of maintaining ecological processes and essential natural systems in undisturbed ecosystems/communities, restoring natural processes in disturbed communities, preserving biological diversity, and providing for sustainable use of species and ecosystems. Twelve major problems made it difficult to achieve these objectives:

  1. An overabundance of legislation and institutions in wildland management existed, posing problems in defining institutional jurisdiction and priorities;
  2. Size and shape of protected areas could not guarantee perpetuation of biological processes and biodiversity conservation;
  3. Increasing pressures from human activities inside and around protected areas (banana development, cattle ranching, fire, uncontrolled ecotourism, poaching, firewood collection, and deforestation) were causing both biogeographical insularization and local human-related management problems;
  4. Limited existing scientific information promoted species and ecosystem protection through isolation, rather than active management through restoration and development of biosphere reserves;
  5. Budget and human resources were unstable and even decreased in some years, while wildland surface area and institutional responsibilities increased;
  6. Local communities were increasingly hostile to wildland policies, partly because residents had never participated in wildlands decision-making;
  7. Centralized decision-making from the capital city of San Jose had inhibited local area management;
  8. Forest reserves, protected zones and wildlife refuges were not managed as such;
  9. Monitoring of natural and socioeconomic processes was insufficient in the protected wildland areas;
  10. Private property in the national parks amounted to about 7% of the total area;
  11. An existence of development policies which created competitive use of the soils and the forest cover was ceding to agriculture, livestock and urban uses; and
  12. Lack of a national environmental policy and the tendency for sectorial policies within the executive branch..

Thus, the disjunct wildlands system and its biological riches were increasingly threatened by human populations wanting to exploit resources to improve their standard of living. Management of the wildlands system was uncoordinated between institutions, which had neither sufficient human and economic resources, nor innovative programs to guarantee the systems' long-term survival. Biological conservation principles, such as minimum reserve size and active management through restoration ecology, were not being applied.

An Innovative Approach

A new approach to Costa Rican wildland management was devised by the Costa Rican National Parks Service, working with several NGOs and professionals. By 1989, the concept of Conservation Areas began to develop without legal backing within the Ministry of the Environment (MAE). Called the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), it seemed the best option to achieve the aforementioned wildland objectives, to evolve within modern Costa Rican society, and to overcome the many limitations of the existing wildlands system. SINAC would consolidate protected areas conservation and management, while orienting wildlands toward satisfying the socioeconomic needs of the local communities, and other national and international interests. Biological conservation concepts would be incorporated in this new system, especially paying attention to minimum population sizes, restoration ecology, and long-term monitoring.

But in 1995, two events occurred which changed radically the orientation of SINAC. First, there was strong political support from the incoming government to consolidate SINAC along "sustainable development" lines. Second, two dynamic Costa Rican professionals with strong environmental and public and private administrative backgrounds were hired to administer it. In several months' time, SINAC's original wildlands management approach evolved to a mandate involving natural resource management at a national landscape level! One of the first steps in this direction, taken in late 1995, was the merger of the forestry, wildlife and wildlands agencies into SINAC to facilitate national planning and executive processes directed towards sustainable natural resources management. This was a transcendental decision because these three agencies within MAE carried out similar functions in wildland and wildlife management, but were administratively and operationally united due to a bureaucratic administration with its inefficient management and overlapping of functions. As an example, many professionals became "paper pushers" and vertical administrative structures involved up to 17 decision-making levels (i.e., the nursery operator in the forestry sector had a chain of command involving 17 "bosses upon bosses"). Worse, this situation was occurring in triplicate among the three agencies, with three general directors, separate legal departments with a total of 17 lawyers stationed in San José, three personnel management offices, accounting for all three agencies, and all in a totally centralized system. SINAC has one director in charge of biodiversity, one lawyer in San José and one lawyer in each CA who lives with, experiences and resolves legal problems in situ and not by telephone.

A second major step was to promote participation of the civil society in SINAC evolution. In general, local communities were never consulted about changes greatly affecting their lives, such as prohibiting their use of a resource (hunting, firewood extraction, etc.). This resulted in misunderstandings and hostility towards conservation efforts. SINAC promotes participation of all groups, public and private, national and international, who share the common objective of preservation, restoration and protection of ecological equilibrium and biodiversity. Eventually SINAC aspires to have the civil society be in charge of most aspects of management, concessions, and research, with the state involved in facilitation and sharing financing matters with civil society. SINAC now functions as a technical organization decentralized from MAE with a legal mandate which permits a great amount of flexibility in carrying out its mission.

SINAC Structure

In its original form (and the earlier version of Principles of Conservation Biology), SINAC consisted of three managerial components: central office headquarters, Satellite Areas, and Conservation Areas. The central office headquarters was the administrative body responsible for managing, regulating, guiding, auditing, and consolidating the conservation and satellite areas. It also set guidelines, long-term objectives, and policies for SINAC with the Minister and Vice-minister of MAE. The Satellite Areas were dispersed protected areas not belonging to any particular Conservation Area due to their geographic isolation. They also were not integrated from a technical or administrative point of view into any Conservation Area.

The nine Conservation Areas were a group of contiguous or clustered wildlands that are placed in one of several management categories depending on their characteristics, regional influences and participation of local inhabitants. The Conservation Areas included one or more core or nucleus areas, consisting of one or more existing wildlands such as national parks for biodiversity conservation, plus surrounding buffer zones for sustainable development activities. Governmental wildlands (forest reserves, wildlife refuges, and protected areas) or private lands adjacent to the core areas served as buffer zones where, depending on the management criteria, rational, sustainable uses of natural resources are promoted, including controlled timber or firewood extraction, wildlife management, and ecotourism. The establishment of Conservation Areas fitted nicely into new governmental policies of regionalization. Each Conservation Area had a regional commission with local community members working8 with conservation area staff responsible for its own administration and management.

Today (July, 1996), SINAC administers all biodiversity in Costa Rica. The 10 Conservation Areas have evolved into territorial units (state protected areas, private property and urban zones) governed under the same development and administrative strategy where the private, local and federal activities related to management and conservation of natural resources are interrelated and solutions based on sustainable development are sought jointly with the civil society. The reforms selected were based on surveys, over 50 workshops of SINAC's 700 employees using participatory methodologies, and short courses during a six-month period in the second semester of 1996. Among the conceptual reforms which have been implemented are included:

  • decentralization - during the transformation process, the human, economic resources and decision-making are being transferred to the Conservation Areas, to improve efficiency in the processes, regional services and authenticity directed to the service to the customer;
  • democratization - implies that the civil society is taking an active, direct and thus decisive role in the decision-making process in SINAC. When the evolution of SINAC is complete, the civil society will manage the system and the state will act as a provider and financier;
  • processing - the institutional framework will execute processes aimed at fulfilling the vision and mission of SINAC. These are groups of activities which consume resources and provide a product or service to a customer. From the above, we derive a vision, mission and proposition, defined by SINAC's employees:
  • vision - constitutes a well-organized and consolidated system which offers an efficient service to the client (society), aiming at responsible management and conservation of the natural resources, and contributing to improve the quality of life of Costa Rica's inhabitants;

    mission - is to consolidate SINAC, integrating and planning it with other MAE dependencies so the authority and competence is delegated towards the regions and ample participation is given to the civil society in decision-making, thus offering quality and efficient service to its clientele; and

    proposition - administering and promoting sustained natural resource use in accordance with the economic and social development of Costa Rica while including an elevated degree of civil society participation.

In such an ambitious project, we note the following advancements in SINAC in three years' time (compared to the first edition of Principles of Conservation Biology):

  1. consolidation of the technical and administrative structure of SINAC;
  2. establishment and execution of an extensive information program for SINAC employees to inform them of the objectives, goals and processes to achieve them of the new system;
  3. improvement of the technical capacity of the human resources to achieve SINAC's fundamental objectives;
  4. standardization of the institution as a mechanism to optimize resources and facilitate communication;
  5. definition and utilization of a series of management indicators to evaluate the quantity, quality and opportunity of the services which SINAC offers, and thus optimize productivity levels on a permanent basis;
  6. assurance that each Conservation Area will be self-sufficient economically by the year 2000; and
  7. establishment of an information system for personnel and resource users, on policies, procedures, programs, projects and services which the institution offers; and 8) decreasing the number of employees in the central offices in San José from 40% to 12% of total employees.

Governing Concepts

Many of the principal concepts governing SINAC remain the same, others have been added. These include:

  1. In legal terms, the system is legally supported by the Biodiversity Convention, Climate Change, CITES, Ramsar, and the National Plan of Reform of the State (1994-1998);
  2. In administrative terms, each Conservation Area is managed as a territorial unit (state protected areas, private property and urban zones) governed under the same development and administrative strategy;
  3. Private, local and state activities related to management and conservation of natural resources are interrelated and solutions based on sustainable development are sought jointly with the civil society;
  4. Each Conservation Area functions as a separate entity in technical, financial, and administrative terms;
  5. Local community participation is integrated by incorporating experience and knowledge of residents as members of regional committees and by offering them direct benefits to the community through jobs and controlled resource exploitation in the buffer zones;
  6. Research and planning are integrated as instruments for management and decision-making;
  7. International economic and financial support and new strategies for funds generated by the Conservation Area will be continued and augmented for each Conservation Area to encourage investments that assure long-term financial support and reduced dependence on donations and governmental budgets;
  8. National mechanisms will be implemented to ensure financial contributions from those who benefit directly or indirectly from the wildland system, with those funds used for SINAC management and maintenance; and
  9. Human management programs and training will be developed in each Conservation Area to respond to particular needs for specialization, with priority given to local inhabitants.

An Example of Conservation Area Organization

SINAC united 71 of the 78 wildlands, agroscapes and urban areas within ten Conservation Areas: La Amistad, Arenal, Cordillera Volcanica, Tempisque, Guanacaste, Llanuras de Tortuguero, Amistad Pacifico, Amistad Atlantico, Osa and Isla del Coco. Each Conservation Area has its unique characteristics, administrative body and problems to resolve. A detailed summary of the Osa Conservation Area (ACOSA) is presented as an example of how Conservation Areas function.

The Osa Conservation Area is located in south-southeast Costa Rica and includes an area of 4,104.02 km2 (8.6 percent of the national territory) which corresponds to the cantons of Osa, Golfito and Corredores. ACOSA had a human population of 100,763 inhabitants as of late 1995 or a population density of 26.22 inhabitants per km2. Most of the remaining area of ACOSA is dedicated to agriculture, and large areas were dedicated to banana production by United Fruit Company until the early 80s. Today African Oil Palm plantations, cattle raising and rice planting dominate the agroscape.

To provide greater coverage of ACOSA and offer better service to civilians, four offices have been established at the largest towns of the region: Puerto Jimenez, Rincon, Palmar, and Rio Claro. The new focus by MAE in ACOSA and each of the other Conservation Areas is founded (or justified) under three major sectors: Promotion, Control and Protected Areas. The goal of the Promotion sector is to establish and execute a process which facilitates and promotes the responsible management and active conservation of the natural resources by private enterprise, in order to integrate them sustainably into the economic and social development of the area. Policies include the foment of the conservation, management, utilization and control of forestry resources, and improving the stages of production forestry cycle.

The Control sector focuses on the promotion and execution of programs of natural resource control in ACOSA. The greatest work ahead is to coordinate protection activities with the persons in charge of the operational centers, similar institutions, and NGOs in the region. The functions of this sector are to work both inside and outside of protected areas in ACOSA. Also ACOSA will train employees and civilian groups so they will be able to protect natural resources in the region.

Finally the Protected Areas sector focuses on management actions in the protected areas. It includes all the aspects related to the development of controls and actions in biodiversity and other landscape elements which exist in ACOSA. Actually, this area is being restructured and consolidated at all levels. There is a program of training sessions between the technical, administrative and field personnel to achieve this end.

ACOSA includes approximately 160,000 hectares in 10 national wildland areas on the Osa Peninsula in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica. It contains the last remaining large tract of lowland, humid tropical forest in Mesoamerica's Pacific coast and protects an immense amount of biological diversity and endemic species. Rainfall varies from 3-4 meters per year on the coasts to 5-6 meters per year in the highest points (600 m). On the Osa Peninsula alone, there is a national park, one forest reserve, one mangrove reserve, one wildlife refuge, two indian reserves, all created in the last 20 years.

The enormous biological richness of the Osa Peninsula has interested scientists for many years. Over 500 species of trees have been identified in Corcovado National Park, with more than 100 species/ha found in some areas. The Conservation Area is home to 140 mammal, 367 bird, 117 reptile and amphibian, 40 freshwater fish, and at least 6,000 insect species. These include endangered large mammals such as the jaguar, cougar, ocelot, and tapir, and one of the largest populations of scarlet macaws in Mesoamerica.

Corcovado National Park, the first wildland area created on the Osa Peninsula in 1974 and the cornerstone for the ACOSA, resulted from a land trade with a multinational company, publicity created by the international scientific community, and relocation of several hundred inhabitants from the park area. However, this park was not large enough to protect natural ecosystems on the Osa Peninsula. Exploitation of untouched wilderness increased in the middle 1980s for three reasons:

  1. the opening of a year-round highway into the peninsula permitted access for the first time to loggers and squatters;
  2. gold deposits found in Corcovado National Park and its expanded areas created a conflict between the government and gold panners; and
  3. abandonment of lands controlled by banana companies elsewhere in southwest Costa Rica caused high levels of unemployment and an exodus to the Osa Peninsula, considered the last frontier in southern Costa Rica.

These colonists had little understanding of the limitations of land use on the peninsula. Poor soils, steep slopes and high precipitation imposed severe limitations on yields for farmers who practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. Farming destroyed forests and watersheds. Uncontrolled hunting, small to moderate gold mining efforts, and small-scale timber operations also detrimentally impacted biological communities on the peninsula.

ACOSA was established in 1990 to avert an ecological disaster while allowing for sustainable human presence on the peninsula and elsewhere in southwest Costa Rica. Regional planning is ongoing. ACOSA works with local community organizations and NGO5, focusing on finding ways to encourage environmentally sound economic alternatives for the lands surrounding the core areas. At present, the Conservation Area, in cooperation with the Forestry Directorate, National Parks Service, and Mining Directorate, serves as the coordinating agency for formally organized programs in agroforestry, research, ecotourism, protection, land organization, environmental education and mining.

Funding Strategies - A Key to Success

As a fundamental part of the decentralizing process which guarantees the independence and autonomy required for the operation of the Conservation Areas, it is transcendental to have a funding strategy. Over a decade ago, the norm was that some small national parks and biological reserves (Carara, Manuel Antonio, Poas) had large sums of money because of the numbers of tourists entering them paying entrance fees, and this subsidized the operating costs of other parks. It also created a difficult situation in promoting activities which generated income for their self-sufficiency. These same circumstances prevailed during the first years of the Conservation Areas. The rest of the financial resources needed to finance the Conservation Areas came from endowments, trust funds and donations (40%) and government funds (30%).

In conclusion, there was a financial dependence from one Conservation Area to another, with a dangerous percentage of the economic resources depending on international sources and the central government.

The reigning general principle is that the Conservation Areas should be financially self-sufficient and also that all income generated in each area should be maintained totally in those Conservation Areas. In this way, the parameters of the strategy for financing the Conservation Areas consisted of the following:

50% of the funding would be produced by:

  • general entrance fees to wildland areas;
  • research permits, royalties from commercial products (medicines, agricultural products, industrial products, etc.) as a result of research in biodiversity prospecting;
  • charging for environmental services (water for human consumption and energy production, projects in carbon fixing, etc.);
  • income from concessions, licenses and use permits, administration or services;

15% of the funds would be produced by:

  • international aid (GEF, BID, ASDI, NORAD, USAID, NGOs, etc.);

15% of the funds would be produced by:

  • interest from investments from endowments, trust funds, and debt swaps (all the Conservation Areas have constituted endowments to obtain funds and produce financial resources which guarantee their long-term stability); and

20% of the funds would be produced by:

  • the General Budget of the Costa Rican government and is financed by congressional decision.

This strategy for financing the Conservation Areas seeks, as earlier mentioned, the autonomy, independence and operational security in the long term, healthy competition in loaning services between Conservation Areas, and the most important: sustainable use of biodiversity for the well-being of the Costa Rican society.

Success or Failure?

Although human and economic resources are scarce, SINAC seems to be working. The basic administrative infrastructure is in place in the administrative body and most Conservation Areas. Environmental education, agricultural and scientific research, and environmental monitoring have begun in all conservation areas. Costa Rican wildland areas are increasingly popular for foreign and Costa Rican ecotourism and scientific use, with a 43% increase of visitors with ecological interests between 1991 and 1992. These visitors are attracted because the natural beauty and tropical biota of Costa Rica are accessible and the country is safe for travel due to the stable political system and well-developed infrastructure.

Nationally, there is a strong commitment from government agencies, NGOs, local development agencies, and national development organizations and conservation groups to continue and fortify the SINAC. Many projects have been implemented with support from local communities near or within the Conservation Areas. International support for Costa Rica's conservation efforts has been strong, and the SINAC initiative comes at a time when the world is looking for new approaches to wildlands and surrounding human community management. One of the most important concepts that we are dealing with and as mentioned throughout this paper is the idea of charging the resource user for the natural resources contained in each Conservation Area, water. The pace at which progress has been made is remarkable; this nationwide coordination project, complete with infrastructure and funding, has occurred in three years.

Given the support for this project at local, regional, national, and international levels, Costa Rica's track record in conservation, and the technical and scientific capacity of SINAC, the project to consolidate the SINAC should be successfully implemented and a model of management of diverse and geographically dispersed lands for long-term biodiversity conservation.

Can the Costa Rican Model be Generalized?

The key ingredients of the SINAC model that make for successful conservation area management are coordination of agencies, involvement of private landowners, regionalized plans, flexible policy, and long-term support. Can these ingredients be transposed to other tropical countries? In principle, yes, but in practice it will be difficult. Few countries give conservation the priority it is given in Costa Rica and few tropical countries have the political stability and level of education enjoyed by Costa Rica.

There is perhaps an important lesson here for conservation management in the U.S and elsewhere. Coordination by public agencies in the U.S does occur, but usually it is due either to the efforts of progressive individuals or to a legal requirement such as the Endangered Species Act. Citizens are usually not brought into the decision-making process and their input is typically limited to commentary on proposed agency plans or, more forcefully, through initiating legal injunctions that block a state or federal action. Regional planning does occur, but is often constrained by federal guidelines. For example, national forest management plans are regionalized but they have to meet federal guidelines for timber harvest. Conservation of biodiversity is not given priority but is simply one of many competing management objectives. Finally, funding and policy often shift with election year cycles. The U.S. and other developed countries could learn a great deal from Costa Rica about how to develop effective national and regional resource management policy.

See also: Vaughan, C. and L. Flormoe. 1995. Costa Rica's national system of conservation areas: Linking local human community sustainability with neotropical biodiversity conservation. Pages 467-473. In D. Saunders, J. Craig and L. Mattiske (eds.). Nature Conservation: The role of networks. Surrey Press, Sydney, Australia.

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