Pura Vida: Costa Rica’s Culture of Conservation

12 May 2012 Pura Vida: Costa Rica’s Culture of Conservation

PuraVidaPart documentary, part sound-collage, this story explores Costa Rica, considered one of the “greenest” countries in the world, and its national efforts to conserve natural resources, protect nature, and promote biodiversity.

First aired: Spring Semester, 2012 ·




[tropical music]

We stepped outside after a nine-hour journey from our home in Boston. You know that movie, the Jungle Book? That’s what it looked like. Costa Rica. As our bus climbed up the mountains, the dense tropical forest bordering the winding road ?? to a valley of vegetation shrouded in fog. 

We were in Costa Rica to understand biodiversity in its richest context, to find out what conservation looks like in a country with so much to protect. Why do they do it? How do they do it? As we spent time researching with Dr. Lee Dire, an ecologist who specializes in caterpillars, we realized biodiversity isn’t as simple as the number of individual species in a forest. It’s about the intricate relationships among them, starting with something as seemingly trivial as caterpillars.

Who didn’t find a caterpillar? 

This is our second day of looking for caterpillars and I really wish I could find…

I haven’t seen any caterpillars…

It seemed to be evading me pretty successfully…

It’s not because you’re bad caterpillar-finders, it’s because it’s hard to find caterpillars out there. First day in a rainforest, I found this caterpillar that was everywhere, and I asked the head naturalist “what is this?” and he was like “oh, nobody knows what that is.” And I was appalled, I was like “nobody knows what that is?” Right then, I thought, “well, in my free time, I’m gonna read about caterpillars and figure out what those are.” I have always been interested in biodiversity, whether it’s the ecology of diversity or the evolution of diversity, of how we meausure it, genetic diversity, and functional diversity are two other categories of diversity. Interaction diversity encompasses all those dimensions. When we’re making statements such as “ecosystem services are provided by high-diversity ecosystems,” we’re really talking about interactions because we’re talking about pollinators, pollinating our agricultural crops, I think that most people do not have a good understanding of diversity, of how it evolved, of how complicated it really is. 

The people were warm and welcoming, they talk to you, and let you into their home. It was like being home. It simply felt right. There was this feeling of hopelessness, the feeling they had in La Montana, the rainforest, for Costa Rica. 

Tribreasted rim. He’s actually responding, can you listen to?

People like the colorful birds, they like the difficult ones. The brown ones, they have loud mating calls. 

I feed them at home for toucans and other birds. So I give them papayas and bananas every morning. I sit in the dining room and I have breakfast. If I don’t feed them once, they get into the kitchen, searching for food. 

I don’t mind myself being in armchair, in my backyard, watching the live passage of.. No, I will be with my binoculars, birdwatching.

Well, what I’m seeing is huge climate change, this is affecting whole species of birds. Like when I was a kid, I used to go to the trail and see many, many birds. Now just a few of them, and that is because there is not enough food for them.

We weren’t the only ones who wanted to explore Costa Rica’s natural beauty and ecosystem. Staying with us in the ??? Biological Reserve in Costa Rica, were tourists from all over the world, taking part in one of Costa Rica’s most well-known conservation efforts: ecotourism. 



We’re going to see the volcano.

You try to basically make tourism work ecologically.

I will hike.

…with nature. 

It’s probably going to be a lot wetter.

Lots of different animals.


I think it’s just being one with nature 

Lots of tree frogs

Lots of tourism so more of the eco and less of the tourism

Can’t even remember all of them. I saw a tarantula one time. 

More like sustainable tourism.


It’s also going to have a lot more fauna.

Going to the jungle or reservs

Being mindful of the environment. 

[singing in Spanish]

Ecotourism. Noun. Definition: tourism in exotic, often threatened natural environments to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. 

Ecotourism seemed like a great way to protect the rainforest that surrounded us. It provided the people living near the forest with the financial motivation to preserve and appreciate its diversity. We saw the people around us benifitting, like an Indigenous artist and his French fiancee who made and sold pottery.

[woman shaping pottery]

It’s a bit difficult to ?? if you’re not working with tourists.

It’s hard because I could survive, but it would be day-by-day. What I earn today would be spent today. 

He’s been at this hotel for seven years. They gave him the opportunity to show the tourists how the ?? culture works and where they come from and…

A shopkeeper in town. 

Tourism helps a lot, with the conservation of trees. Tourists like you come here and help us and the planet. 

An employee of ?? Biological Research 

For Costa Rica, it’s good because as a country, we can exploit ecotourism. We can teach people that one can work, but at the same time, one can demonstrate what the country has without harming the environment. That’s something that Costa Rica can teach the rest of the world. 

And Alex Martinez, owner of a ?? hotel called Andrea Cristina.

Tourism is fun because it’s giving you a good practice of living. I don’t sell drugs, I don’t sell anything, I just sell my service.

He compared jobs in ecotourism with those of banana plantations.

Only have a few cheap paying laborers, three or four in the morning because they have to be there before six o’clock on the plantation. Maybe pregnant ladies and everything else. You think that’s better than tourism?

And Carlos Chaveria, director of the ?? Biological Reserve, told us more about the industry as a whole.

The case of the computer companies, the money, it is made by the companies. In the case of the ecotourism, because how the money is distributed to different levels, more people is involved. We said that for one job in tourism, there is at least four people that get benefits from that position.

At ???, we got a chance to talk to Willie, who works as a guide and educator for ecotourists. 

To me, I think that one of the biggest problems we have is in fact tourism.

Wait, what?

[reversing tape]

one of the biggest problems we have is in fact tourism.

Someone so involved in ecotourism had reservations about it?

People think about tourism, they always think about developing, so the developing could be a knife of two blades. One in which could create benefits for people, but the other one could basically create harming to the environment. 

It turns out, the more people we talk to, the more we realize how complicated ecotourism as a method of conservation actually is. 

They start thinking of ecotourism, but they try to sell tourism, really. There are a lot of ??? in Costa Rica, and they are but are many others who are just ???ing

Anywhere where there is human activities, there will be an impact. 

I don’t think it would make that much impact, like, if you compare ecotourism with banana or pineapple crops. Completely different way, you know. Ecotourism, it has the key to protect the forest.

Because even a nice industry like tourism, it can die. 

Tomorrow, space tourism comes up. Probably not that many people would like to come here to Costa Rica because that’s not where space tourism will be at. 

If the tourists want to come, if the tourists want to enjoy our nature, it’s going to be here for them. 

If there are more foreign people coming, eventually, Costa Rica will be losing most of its culture. 

So that’s a lot to think about. All the complexities of implementing ecotourism have not been ironed out. But despite these differences in opinion, ecotourism exists to motivate the conservation of nature, and no matter who we spoke to in ??, that relationship they have with nature is really apparent. 

But that relationship has changed throughout the years. Betto, an assistant researcher at La ?? Biological Station, remembers a time when most people didn’t realize that nature was disappearing. 

For example, when I was younger, I would travel throughout the country and see rivers and waterfalls that no longer exist. It’s things like that which people are starting to notice.

Many of our tour guides, ?? was one who actually experienced this change in awareness himself.

I was killing birds when I was actually a child. Yeah, I was a boy. Now, I’m a bird watcher right now. I love birds. You don’t see kids with thes kind of things right now, I always spend one hour telling them why they had to do that. I tell them my story.

With changes like these came a shift in formal education. Willie, for example, reflected on what he was taught as a child.

Back in time, I don’t remember getting classes about ecotourism, about ecology, about environmental issues, about things like that. We’d be getting classes about agriculture: how to cut down a tree and then cultivate something there.

In an elementary school in town, the principal said that things are different now.

We only work with recycling. Then later in middle school, we work more directly with the land. This includes painting trees and everything related with nature. In my opinion, it’s very good because they’re learning from the very beginning to conserve the land, to be more productive rather than to destroy the little we have left. 

The people in Costa Rica told us stories about standing up for their beliefs.

Actually we have a problem in ?? San Carlos. There was a big company who wanted to look for gold in that area.

They marked everything, everything. It was a mine without end. 

The whole country, we were against all that. Even with the ??

It was no secret: the mine was a total disaster. 

Some people, they were walking from San Jose, to San Carlos. Driving, it’s like four hours. They were walking from San Jose to San Carlos to protest for the company. So we didn’t want the whole company.

The judges decided to move the license permanently.

So we protected the country.

But this was just one town in Costa Rica, which lies amidst rich biodiversity. Nature isn’t necessarily viewed in the same way throughout the rest of the world. A lot of the population lives in cities, where people’s relationships with nature often seems to be a bit different. 

There’s nature in Boston?

I think we have a zoo.

There’s a couple pigeons.

Yeah, where is the nature in cities?

It’s so strange how we’ve designated nature areas in the city.

Yeah, like last week, I was in New York, and my walk felt like this: building, building, pavement, building, and then I finally arrived at a patch of artificial green. But it’s only perfect if you want to sit in the park and drink Starbucks.

But think about it. 

So you buy your coffee.

[ding of a shop’s bell]

And that money that you just handed over?

Gets transferred from Starbucks to the people who are growing it.

In the 50s,

When the international demand for coffee grew, 

Most of the people living in central ?? coffee produce.

And as a result of the production of coffee and other good, in 1977, Costa Rica had 

less than 40% of our forest covered. 

So if you and the rest of your city want more coffee, a bigger plantation, less forest, and less biodiversity.

And that’s true for medicine, wood for our houses, milk for our cereal, glass for our windows, cotton for our t-shirts, cell phones, helicopters, space shuttles, satellites, lamp shades, cars, airplanes, 

[sped-up list of items continues]

Just because it’s not next to you doesn’t mean you don’t have a strong connection to it. It provides you with what you need to survive.

Sometimes, what is right was not so apparent. 

The problem is us. The majority of the people. 

We always want to enrich ourselves.

??? and everything. Big cars. Cadillac, it’s just glamorous.

But you can’t eat gold. You can’t breathe gold.

For example, if I want to drive the latest car, I would ??? land to someone. But that someone would come and go.

People with money look for the best places to cut down forests and make their house have a nice view.

And it’s all about money.

But in Costa Rica, we saw that it wasn’t just the goods that made forests valuable to people. People had a personal connection to the forest, and over time, as attitudes about nature changed, that connection changed too. Jose Mirandez, an organic ?? farmer in ??

a local whose family used to own part of ??

Both saw major changes in how people viewed the environment through the years.

My father ? 60 years ago with his own forest. Those times were hard. There were no roads and bridges to 

Part of ?? is in what used to be mine, and what used to be ours. 

My father came to clear the forest to make this farm. This was ideal 60 years ago.

It used to be a stable. We had a stable because we had livestock. We had cattle here. This was all stable. It was a stable and nothing more. 

Now we’re doing the opposite. We’re ?? the population so we can ??. We want to live in harmony.

They started planting trees in all of that with time, it turned back into a forest. That’s how it is now.

Conserving nature is really a complex issue. Different people see it in different ways.

And yet everyone has a connection to nature.