To protect nature and boost economy, Cambodia must follow Costa Rica’s lead

capuchin monkey, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey in Costa Rica. Over the past 30 years, the country has doubled its forest cover while growing its economy, largely through development of nature-based tourism. (© Conservation International/photo by Ashton Jones)

Editor’s note: In order to adequately protect the species and ecosystems that form the backbone of a healthy planet, their value must be better integrated into the global economy. As scientists and policymakers gather in Cancun to discuss how to achieve this, Conservation International’s (CI) Carlos Manuel Rodriguez shares how a recent policy exchange between two countries helped spread the word about how to do it.

On the mountain slopes of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, a group of Cambodians got their first glimpse of a flock of great green macaws perching in a nearby tree. More than 50 birds, representing as much as one-fourth of the total population of this endangered species, ate fruit and socialized as our group talked with Juan Campos, a Costa Rican farmer who over the last decade has improved his agricultural practices and now protects his forest. What caused this change? Campos now gets paid for the water his forested land produces, given its location uphill from a hydroelectric power plant.

This jungle-friendly farm provided the perfect backdrop for the purpose of our visit: showing Cambodian leaders how my home country has managed to transform its economy from one dependent on smallholder agriculture into a healthier one built on protecting and sustainably using nature.

As CI has excellent government relationships in both countries, we saw an opportunity to facilitate a learning exchange through which Cambodian policymakers could learn about Costa Rica’s journey and chart a path for setting up a payment for ecosystem services (PES) model in their own country. In September, I and CI Costa Rica hosted Cambodia’s minister of environment, as well as nine high-level delegates from the country’s conservation agencies. During the four-day visit, the delegation visited privately owned forests that are generating significant ecotourism dollars; they also learned about a range of forest-based activities that Cambodia could emulate to support its own growing ecotourism market.

Although the two countries are separated by an ocean, distinctive languages and different types of rainforests, there are many reasons that Costa Rica can serve as a useful model for Cambodia.

Tree roots in forests of Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Tree roots in the forests of the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. (© Trond Larsen)

Both countries have vast stores of natural wealth.

Although it contains only 0.5 percent of the world’s land area, Costa Rica hosts more than 5 percent of its biodiversity — the highest concentration of biodiversity per land area on Earth. However, not long ago the country lost much of its unique forest due to years of bad rural development policies — a common occurrence in most tropical nations nowadays.

However, due to strong political wisdom and innovative policies, Costa Rica was able to stop deforestation and increase forest cover. Today we have twice the forest cover we did 30 years ago, and Costa Rica’s US$ 2.5-billion ecotourism industry depends on the country’s system of protected areas.

Located in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot that includes much of Southeast Asia’s tropical forests and provides habitat for everything from clouded leopards to giant freshwater fish, Cambodia has close to 50 percent remaining forest cover, and as of this year has one-fourth of its surface designated as protected areas. (Catch a rare glimpse of Asian elephants in Cambodia’s Central Cardamom Protected Forest below.)


Although Cambodia has seen strong economic growth in recent years, it remains one of Asia’s poorest countries. Finding ways to securely protect the nation’s unique and valuable ecosystems will help ensure the long-term feasibility of economic activities such as nature-based tourism, agriculture and fishing.

Hydropower is important to both countries.

Thanks to its many rivers and high annual rainfall, Costa Rica currently generates about 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower; in fact, according to a conversation I recently had with an official from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, in 2016 the country used 100 percent renewable energy for more than 300 days.

Under the country’s national PES scheme, hydroelectric plants pay water license fees to the Costa Rican government, which include a levy dedicated to PES. The funds are then redistributed to the upstream farmers who commit to keep a certain acreage of forest standing. The farmers benefit from the easy source of income, and the hydropower plant benefits from the trees that improve water provision, prevent erosion and keep turbine-clogging silt out of the rivers, thus extending the life of the dams.

Cambodia’s growing hydropower industry could be well positioned to set up a similar system that would ensure vital ecosystems are protected in order to benefit both nearby communities and electricity users further away.

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Costa Rica’s government was once resistant to the re-shaping of its economic system.

When I served as Costa Rica’s minister of environment from 1998 to 2006 (during two presidential terms), not everyone in the government saw the same value in nature — particularly my good friends the ministers of agriculture and finance. Some conservative economic sectors felt threatened, and it’s true that Costa Rica practically banned logging of natural forests, as well as drilling for oil and gas and mining of gold and other minerals.

But ultimately the approach of using Costa Rica’s biodiversity and ecosystem restoration as a driver for economic growth prevailed. Getting to where we are today wasn’t easy; it required making many mistakes, learning by doing, reconsidering ideas and repeatedly making new attempts. In the end, the idea only gained traction when I was able to provide concrete evidence of the monetary benefits that could come from protecting nature.

Right now, Cambodia has a high level of interest in developing green growth strategies to protect the nearly half of its original forest cover that remains — and its primarily rural and poor population is primed to benefit from PES.  Cambodia is where Costa Rica was 25 years ago. Costa Rica’s experience shows that even if Cambodia’s efforts move slowly, they can still have the same result.

Bird-watcher at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica

Bird-watcher at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. (© Shelby Childress-Riha)

Costa Rica’s economy is thriving thanks to conservation.

Nature — and particularly national parks — have become the backbone of our economy. Today Costa Rica brings in more money from ecotourism than what is generated by our top exported crops (bananas, pineapple and coffee). Over time, the nation has come to understand that conserving protected areas is as important and productive as agriculture, fishing and energy. This realization has generated better political collaboration between the country’s environment and agriculture agencies.

An improved understanding of the benefits of nature has also extended beyond Costa Rica’s government, into the private sector. The small private park we visited with the Cambodians pays surrounding landowners to keep their lands forested, providing park visitors with sweeping emerald vistas well beyond the boundaries of the park itself. It also trains and hires many local people as guides. This was an important revelation for our Cambodian visitors, who are struggling to pay for the management of Cambodia’s extensive protected area system. The fact that the private park was actually in the buffer zone of a national park, but reportedly better managed than the core zone of the national park itself, made an impression on them, illustrating the power ecotourism has to generate forest management revenue outside of the national budget.

This type of PES would be one of the easiest kinds for Cambodia to emulate; as the nature-based tourism industry grows, private operators using the parks could pay communities living in and around national parks to participate in forest protection or contribute to the government’s protected area management budget as an investment in the future of their operations.

Sunrise in Cambodia's Veun Sai forest

Sunrise in Cambodia’s Veun Sai forest, a region that is attracting a growing number of tourists hoping to spot wild gibbons. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

Costa Rica reached its current success through 25 years of hard slog. For the country to open its history books and share lessons learned with Cambodia represents a tremendous opportunity for Cambodia to avoid some of the same problems and jump ahead. Of course the countries have their differences, some of them significant. However, what they have in common is a wealth of natural assets and the chance to do what many developed nations failed to do: engineer successful economies based on the protection, rather than the destruction, of their national heritage for the benefit of all people.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is CI’s senior vice president for global policy. Thanks to Virginia Simpson for her help with this piece.

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