One of the world’s greatest environmental heroes doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Though he has done more to protect the living planet than almost anyone alive, his name is scarcely known. It’s partly because he’s quiet and self-effacing and partly because of a general ignorance about Central America that so few of us have heard of Alvaro Umaña.
This might be about to change. He stars in a fascinating film, now released in the Netherlands and negotiating global sales, called Paved Paradise (disclosure: I was also interviewed). It’s the first feature-length documentary I’ve watched that engages intelligently with the most critical environmental issue: land use. By contrast with popular but misguided films such as Kiss the Ground or The Biggest Little Farm, it recognises that sprawling extractive land uses are a lethal threat to the living world. It makes the case that, unless we count the hectares and decide together how best they should be used, we will lose the struggle to defend the habitable planet.
Paved Paradise tells the story of the most remarkable ecological turnaround on Earth: the transformation of Costa Rica. From 1986 to 1990, Umaña was environment minister in Óscar Arias’s government. Arias received the Nobel peace prize for his regional diplomacy. But the equally astonishing environmental shift Umaña catalysed is less well known.
Until the Arias government took power, Costa Rica suffered one of the world’s worst deforestation rates: on one scientific assessment, its forest cover fell to just 24.4% of the country.
Today, forests occupy 57%, which, Umaña tells me, is close to the maximum: some parts were never forested, while others are now occupied by productive farms and cities. While a small amount of illegal timber felling continues, Costa Rica is the only tropical country to have more or less stopped and then reversed deforestation. It now has one of the world’s highest percentages of protected areas. How did it happen?
Umaña persuaded Arias to let him run a new department (energy and environment) with responsibility for protected areas. He saw that the key task was to change financial incentives. Though cattle ranching was unproductive, as the land could support just one cow per hectare, it was marginally more lucrative than allowing the forest to stand.
His department calculated the opportunity cost of forgoing a cow at $64 a year, so this was the money it offered for protecting or restoring a hectare of forest. He began by reaching out to small farmers and their representatives, in those regions where people were most sympathetic to the idea. The smallest landholders were offered grants, slightly larger ones were offered soft loans, with the promise that if their forest was still standing after five years, it could serve as the loan’s guarantee. The plan was astonishingly successful: 97% of those who received loans protected or restored the trees on their land. As landholders everywhere saw the scheme made financial sense, it became massively oversubscribed.
Needing more money, in 1988 Umaña agreed a debt-for-nature swap with the Dutch government. It would cancel part of the foreign debt if the money Costa Rica would otherwise have spent on servicing it were used instead for forest conservation.
Following a change of government, Umaña became the country’s climate ambassador. He helped introduce a special tax of 3.5% on fossil fuels to help pay for forest conservation.
Soon the tree protectors began to supplement their income. Tourists are now the country’s second-biggest source of revenue: government figures show that 65% of them list ecotourism as a principal reason for visiting. They come to see toucans, green macaws, howler monkeys, jaguars, caimans, poison dart frogs and other resurgent natural wonders. Landholders can also apply for a licence selectively to fell a small number of their trees, some of which are very valuable.
One reason for the programme’s success is its sharing of financial benefits, especially through its world-leading gender action plan. Another is cultural change. In building a new identity around “la pura vida” (the simple life), the government showed that, in combination with economic incentives, national pride can help bring long-established practices such as forest clearance for cattle ranching to an end.
Costa Rica helped to inspire the Bonn Challenge, a global programme to restore degraded and deforested land. It launched the international plan to protect 30% of the planet by 2030, and was one of the two founder members, in 2021, of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (though it has since stood back, following a change of government). These are astonishing achievements for a tiny country.
Compare this record with policy in the UK, which, 37 years after Umaña set to work, is still pissing about with half-solutions and non-solutions, held to ransom by rich and powerful property owners and entirely incapable of making strategic environmental decisions, especially on land use. While Costa Rica’s wildlife is booming, ours is in freefall. The government seems determined, against all advice, to allow this disastrous trend to continue for the rest of the decade.
As for the fuel taxes that could have been used, like Costa Rica’s, to fund ecological repair, the UK government has now forgone a cumulative £80bn in revenue by both abandoning Labour’s fuel duty escalator and giving motorists a special rebate. As a result, our carbon emissions are up to 7% higher than they would otherwise have been.
So why does a rich, powerful nation fail, while a small, much poorer one succeeds? Talking to Umaña and researching the history of this transformation suggests a simple answer: quality of government. When governments are committed, decisive and consistent, things happen. When they are beholden to lobby groups, cronyism and corruption, and delegate responsibility to an abstraction called “the market”, they spend decades flapping their hands while chaos reigns.
Our self-hating state, which parades its can’t-do culture as a source of pride, insisting that government cannot and should not solve our problems, is constitutionally destined to founder. Why can’t we follow Costa Rica’s example? Because a small but powerful contingent insists on failure.
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