Steve Blevins

Steve Blevins
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA
November 05
Steve Blevins teaches medicine at the University of Oklahoma. He enjoys reading, music, and travel. He is interested in American and European history, French literature and culture, and music for piano and chamber ensemble.


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SEPTEMBER 14, 2009 8:35AM

Costa Rica: A Model of Environmental Stewardship

Rate: 29 Flag


  Environmentalism is a daunting preoccupation:

  • Global warming threatens the planet
  • Pollution threatens our health
  • Dependance on foreign oil threatens our economy and our national security

So we recycle, plant trees, and use public transportation. But we're still discouraged because the world isn't getting greener.

That's when it's time to consider Costa Rica, one of the world's great environmental success stories.


If the "green" revolution has a Cinderella story, it's Costa Rica. 

Costa Rica is the only tropical country to have reversed deforestation. It is the first country to have set a goal for achieving carbon neutrality (by 2021). Despite having a population less than Boston, it is a global leader in the effort to curb climate change. Its government is advising dozens of countries, including China, on how to go "green."  

But Cinderella stories always begin unpleasantly. In the 1940s, Costa Rica was the poorest country in Central America. The average income was $200/year, infant mortality was 10%, the government was unstable, the population was expanding, and the army accounted for one-fifth of the national budget.

Then things changed. 

Inspired by the American example of democracy and free enterprise, the people of Costa Rica peacefully took over the government. They wrote a constitution, abolished the military, built roads, and brought electricity to the countryside. They established social security, comprehensive health care, and universal education. They guaranteed a minimum wage, maximum working hours, and job security.


The result?

Forty years later, Costa Rica was the wealthiest country in Central America (Panama excepted). Life expectancy had risen to U.S. levels; infant mortality had plummeted; and literacy, electrification, and clean running water were near-universal.  


But a mistake had been made along the way: Costa Rica had allowed 80% of its rainforest to be destroyed. (The rainforest had previously covered almost the entire country.) Ultimately, the economy fell with the trees. 

That's when citizens rose to the challenge.  

They debunked the old myth that "wild" lands have no value. Instead of exploiting natural resources for economic gain, they established a national park system. The government assigned economic "worth" to forests, freshwater reservoirs, and scenic landscapes. It began paying farmers to preserve forests, plant trees, and use land responsibly. The program was funded mainly by a gasoline tax.  


The result?

Today tropical forests cover half the country. Forest fires and illegal logging have plummeted. The air is fresher, the water is cleaner, and the economy is booming. Ecotourism, the nation's leading industry, is a billion-dollar-a-year business (in a nation of only four million people). 

Costa Ricans are rightfully proud of their success. They have reversed  deforestation, which results in more greenhouse gases than all the world's cars, trucks, trains, and planes combined.


Twenty years ago, no one cared about Costa Rica. Now dubbed "the Switzerland of the Americas," Costa Rica has become a must-see destination for serious travelers, especially Americans who like the U.S.-friendly atmosphere.  

Thanks to smart public policy spanning decades, Costa Rica has risen from an impoverished Spanish colony to one of the most prosperous nations in the Americas.  

So if you're blue about the pace of the global greening, just relax and go on a nice vacation. I've got a great destination for you.   



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How does one go about "peacefully" taking over a government? That's a neat trick if you could pull it off.

Nicely done, Steve Blevins. As Liz Lemon would say, "I want to go to there!" Considering what a fun time we're having just discussing getting some kind of health care reform, we might want to try a different tack when it comes to these kind of environmental measures... First, we need big oil or whatever to glom on to the idea, then we can come up with a patriotic sounding name for a "grassroots" movement, then frame it as anti-big government... ummm... I need more coffee... my Monday hurts... Costa Rica, Dude! Rated for landscapes so beautious they look like backdrops in a photo booth, and for lots of smartiness too!
that looks sooo lush and peaceful.

what a gorgeous's almost a dream. costa ricans were smart, unlike another american country I don't want to mention that rhymes with view es ay. thanks steve.
Excellent, Steve! I've heard wonderful things about CR, but I knew little of this part of its history. Very cool.
Having spent a considerable amount of time in Costa Rica in the 90's living there part time and developing real estate, I can attest to everything you say. The people are courteous and friendly and the "pura vida" attitude gives CR its well earned laid back feeling. The cost of living is significantly cheaper there and many Americans, Canadians and Europeans (French and Germans in particular) have chosen to settle there permanently and created their own enclaves. That said, there is petty crime not only in the capital city, San Jose but also in remote parts of the country as well as tourist dense hotels. The poverty rate (by our standards) for many is still quite high and as a tourist or resident, one must maintain vigilance, if not private security. Many hard, durable goods are still difficult to come by and certain products and foods require a trip back to Miami if you ever want to see (or eat) them again. Health and dental care can be far less expensive and exceptional (if you can afford it from the private clinics) but the national newspaper used to list all the medical "errors" that took place in hospitals (eg. Went in to deliver a baby and had open heart surgery instead and the like).
Property used to be dirt cheap but has increased in price over the past ten years. And unless you plan on staying put on that land (or home), squatters can easily take over and there is no law that protects you from them if they take up residence in yours for more than 90 days. Which is why Nicaragua is becoming a popular real estate investment - laws against squatting are strictly enforced).
Some of the infrastructure and roads can be downright treacherous and flying within the country on small planes is almost as much of a risk (I used to land on a cow field in a four seater) as trying to fly a plane yourself.
Men still "rule" over women and birth control is frowned upon and abortion (I believe) is either completely illegal or not an option. The Catholic religion rules with an iron fist. It is not uncommon for a woman of 23 to have two or three children from one or two men and he has already moved on and is living with a third or fourth woman who has fathered yet MORE children and left the other women behind. Women still bear the brunt and the burden for this irresponsible, yet seemingly "accepted" behavior. Girls get pregnant at very young ages and by their mid-twenties, their fates are sealed.
In short (and I know this is getting rather long), there is good and bad to be found in Costa Rica as there is anywhere else.
The beautiful, tropical scenery, pace of life, ease with which to establish residency, the lush and verdant vegetation and even the mild change of seasons makes Costa Rica one of my favorite places still. But paradise is what you make it. I could settle there part time, but could not live there all year long.
We went to Costa Rica a year ago last spring. It was beautiful and magical and the country is one hell of an example. To be honest though, I feared for my life. I've never seen such crazy and reckless drivers. But that zip line, that memory is a keeper.
Now here's a model for the USA! So ironic they copied us?

Once upon a time I had a fantasy of moving to C.R.. I think you've revived that now Steve. What a story...
They grow good coffee beans too.
You've revived my thoughts on visiting Costa Rica for an eco-tour. In the last photo, does the lady come with the vacation package?
Very insightful, but screw the vacation, I'm moving!
Once again, you force me to actually *learn* something on OS. ::tsk:: And, what is the resort you recommend...(great post...)
My daughter was there last year. Couldn't stop talking about the splendor of the country. I had no idesa about their environmental and economic success, just that a lot of expats live there. It's now top of my list, thanks to you, Steve. Wanna join me there for a Mai Tai?

As usual, a great piece. I will have to have a visit. I have been meaning to learn to surf one of these days.
Great overview of Costa Rica, Steve! I've only visited CR, but very much enjoyed it.
excellent post, steve. and gorgeous pics. ++ thanks.
This is such a beautiful presentation I have decided to learn to speak Costa Rican so I can live there.
When I can afford a big vacation, I know where I'm going!
OS Writers Retreat/ Meetup stat.
Love the pictures. My sister and her husband were there and didn't come back with any pictures because their backpack containing their camera was stolen out of their rental car on their last day. Some kids set up a road block and told them their tire was flat and reached in and took it... But I'd still like to go there on vacation.
Thanks for this. I have a little hut there, and fantasize about running away when I'm having a bad day. Beautiful pictures, inspiring message.
It's not my kind of climate (I grew up in subtropical heat, and never want to go back--I know; I'm perverse), but what a lovely success story, and a great exemplum of the kinds of things everyone can and should be doing to reverse the damage we've done.
It would be nice if our country could be open minded enough to learn something from one of the "little guys". CR has been on my wish list since I started whitewater kayaking in the 80's. Still haven't gottne there but someday....
Did you know that you can also get an amazing dental makeover for a fraction of the cost in CR? You can and the results are incredible. Unrelated, but good to know. :)
I have had the good fortune of visiting Costa Rica as well, Steve, and was equally impressed with their 'job' of tending to their country. You might also (if you don't already) know that the literacy rate is 93%. I adore it there. We rented a small SUV and just travelled around - the volcano, the rainforest, the beaches.

We visited a serpentarium (I think snakes are neat) and an 18 year old boy spent and hour and a half explaining the snakes with an enthusiasm and love that I have NEVER seen in a 'guide'. This place also tends to wounded snakes, such as those run over on the road. The Costa Rican people bring injured snakes to this place to see if they can be saved. What country brings snakes to be healed? Costa Rica.
Great article. I also like teh Iceland model for going green:
I love Costa Rica, but knew very little about the their environmental revival. Talk about success! Thanks for this.