Harnessing Natural Capital for Sustainable Development: Lessons from Costa Rica, ‘’the Living Eden’’.

I spent last week at INCAE Business School in Costa Rica for the Global Network Program in Advanced Management. The program allows students from top MBA programs across the world to go to other business schools in different countries and learn from amazing professors, professionals, and industry experts, even as they cross-pollinate ideas among themselves. What we discovered about this little tropical country in Latin America nearly blew us away. Costa Rica is unquestionably a shining example of what tropical countries like Nigeria should be doing differently to enhance the environment and the lives of their citizens. So, what’s the big deal about Costa Rica?

By the 1970s and 1980s, Costa Rica had lost around half of its forest cover owing to illegal lumbering and bad farming practices. However, at a certain time, some private organizations, people, communities, and governments came together and chose to do something different and unexpected that would astound the entire world. As a result, Costa Rica initiated a comprehensive policy reform for forest management. Policymakers took advantage of the fact that economics and finance are excellent drivers of efficient policies that ultimately benefit everyone in the long run. As such, Costa Rica adopted the PES (Payment for Environmental Services) model, which pays landowners and farmers to help protect and manage forests. In this model, every participant (farmers and landowners) receives an average of $64 per hectare only for protecting the forests. It will amaze you to know that Costa Rica has paid about $500 million to landowners in about 20 years, preserving more than one million hectares of forest and planting around seven million trees. What other wealth distribution mechanism could be better than this? Interestingly, the funds for these incentives were raised by taxing fossil fuels and directing the earnings to environmental sustainability initiatives. But it did not end there!

This paradigm shift ushered in a new Costa Rica in terms of economic development and living standards. Costa Rica quickly became a premier ecotourism destination, attracting over three million people each year and generating an average of $1.5 billion in tourism revenue. This industry accounts for around 5% of GDP and employs approximately 200,000 people (Costa Rica’s population is slightly above five million). Ecotourism generated more than $3 billion for the country alone in 2019. In 2023, Costa Rica received the Earthshot Prize which was established by Prince William to promote global sustainability. Today, the nation of Costa Rica is known as the ”Living Eden,” and a visit will convince you that it is truly the Garden of Eden on earth. As a tropical country, Nigeria (and other African countries) has a lot to learn from Costa Rica.

As Nigerians grapple with the burdens of economic crisis and harsh exchange rate volatility, I think this is the time for the government to look inwards. It’s time for policy makers to task and tax their brain on how Nigerians can be empowered by leveraging the available natural capital that nature has endowed so freely to the nation. It’s time for Nigerian leaders to understand that oil is not the only source of wealth for Nigeria. Just imagine if the proceeds of the petroleum subsidy removal are excellently and righteously redistributed towards ecotourism and conservation for the next three years. What would be the resultant effect? The poorest of the poor in the rural areas will be strategically empowered, the ecotourism sector will boom, Nigeria will attract huge foreign exchange inflows, employment will be created, Nigeria’s Social Progress Index (SPI) ranking will soar, and most importantly, the environment will breathe very well knowing that without the forests, the planet earth cannot breathe. Lately, the heat wave across Nigeria has become unimaginable because cities like Lagos and other places lack enough trees and green cover. Such an issue has its natural solutions hidden in forests.

Therefore, reflecting on the significance of the International Day of Forests that was commemorated on the 21st of March, I would like to encourage policy makers in Africa (particularly in Nigeria), to look around and begin to explore the vast socioeconomic abundance and wealth deposited in forests. This might be the escape corridor from the continent’s extreme poverty and unnecessary economic turmoil that the people have been trapped in for many years now. It’s time to explore the local knowledge in forest management. Also, it’s important that we design a co-benefit and co-management system that will benefit the communities and the people as we invest massively in forestation and conservation. Today, the global ecotourism market stands at over $200 billion, and with the right policies and actions, a country like Nigeria may capture about $10 billion dollars of that market. There’s no need for endless suffering while swimming in the ocean of abundance supplied by Mother Nature. This time, Nigerian leaders and African leaders must think and act differently. If Costa Rica can achieve it, Nigeria can, and Africa can too. This is our chance!

George Aniegbunem

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Writing from the Yale School of the Environment Connecticut, USA.

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