December 2023 column Forum Naturfotografie


A new column has been published in the German Forum Naturfotografie

English translation:

An unusual country

Heavy clouds wrap the moss-covered trees in wet cotton, shake off microscopic droplets and leave layers of paper-thin water glaze. The water droplets collect and form rows of pearls on well-shaped, red coral flowers. Slowly and carefully, the black stage-curtain is pulled over the ridge and a small glow roams the sky as the lighting master lights up the large lamp. The soundscapes are like the scenography, grand and all-absorbing, a cacophony of howler monkeys and bird throats that all try to reach out to the outside world with important messages to conspecifics and partners. The sound system is solid with stereo, quadro and even more advanced sound effects. But not only the eyes and ears are stimulated. The total experience also includes the raw smell of dripping branches and sweet flowers that make their way into the nostrils. And a cool, moist and fresh wrap is applied to the face.

     It is a dawning morning in lush rainforest at approx. 2,500 meters height, or about the same height as Galdhøpiggen, Norway’s highest mountain. But although the height is the same, there are few other commonalities. At Galdhøpiggen, the glacier creeps over bare bedrock, while here the forest is dense as far as the eye can see over undulating hills, covered by wandering mist in the dawn. Great forests are enthroned in pride that they have never met a saw. Rough tree trunks have tempted the existence in the dark forest for hundreds of years, and some even for more than a millennium. They have become so large and powerful that we only see them as a wall when we meet them at eye level. Such giants are not just simple trees, but entire ecosystems in themselves. The rough bark with all the furrows and slits, all the cavities and branches, everything is covered with myriads of living life. Lichens and mosses grow on and in each other, labyrinthinely entangled, and are in turn embraced by creeping and snaking plants, while arthropods, reptiles, amphibians and insects of all shades crawl and jump and swarm everywhere. And like the raisin in the sausage end: the color jewels with feathers that flutter and fly in between branches and twigs. Here are swooping hummingbirds with metallic colours, red and green macaws, otherworldly, long-tailed quetzals and toucans with oversized beaks.

      We are in Costa Rica, the “rich coast”, the small, unusual country that is part of the Central American landmass. To the east it extends to the Caribbean Sea, part of the cool Atlantic Ocean, while on the west side the beaches are licked by the warm waves of the Pacific Ocean. The nature is enormously varied, from coastal landscapes with large mangrove forests to mountains at an altitude of 3,800 metres. Here, in addition to rainforests and drier forests, there are also seven active volcanoes, crocodile rivers, flushing waterfalls, dry plains and vast cultural landscapes, although the area is not much larger than Denmark.

      This is a country that has not been in the news very often in our part of the world. That in itself is good, because we mostly only hear the negative news. But really, we should be a little more aware of the country, because we often get to know it on our shopping trips. If you have ever eaten a banana, and most people have, it may have just come from Costa Rica. The country was previously the prototype for the unflattering term banana republic. Already in 1878, the first banana plantation was established here, as the first in South America. The vast majority of the new economy in the country was built on the export of bananas and, after some years, pineapples. The owners of the plantations were a handful of companies from the United States, and they exploited local workers and extracted huge profits. A small elite ruled the country, while the poor remained poor.

       While the neighboring countries have not yet completely shaken off this yoke from the past, Costa Rica has developed over the past decades into a modern state with a focus on education and nature conservation. Yes, there is still poverty and other challenges, but compared to e.g. Ecuador and Guatemala, Costa Rica is far ahead. Today, only a small part of the economy is based on the export of bananas, pineapples and coffee. Computer chips, medical equipment and tourism are far more important. Part of the reason for this relative prosperity Is due to an important chess move that the country made 75 years ago: they dismantled the defence forces! Yes, you read that right, there are no green-clad warriors here, no tanks or fighter planes! In addition, they developed a reasonably well-functioning democracy. This is clearly in contrast to the neighboring countries, which up to our days have been characterized by civil war and authoritarian military regimes. This development has freed  resources to instead invest in welfare, education and a good healthcare system, and not least to make the country a world leader in the protection and restoration of nature.      Today, 28 percent of the country is protected, but the goal is to reach a full 60 percent within a couple of decades. While the trend in other countries is for the primary rainforest to disappear, this is no longer happening in Costa Rica. Here, the last primeval forests have been left alone and treeless areas have been planted with natural and varied forest, not production forest with trees in row, which we are usual in our regions. The government has implemented programs that reward conservation of the forest instead of cutting it down. Forestry can be operated selectively in some places, but it is carefully regulated which trees that can be removed, so that the ecosystems are not disturbed. The proportion of forest has risen from 40% of the land area around the turn of the millennium to over 50% now, and the figure is still increasing steadily. There are now over a hundred national parks and other protected areas in 12 ecological zones. And not least, a new milestone was reached in 2012. Then all ordinary hunting was banned! Anyone who is caught for illegal hunting receives a fine of 3,000 USD or four months in prison. What is even more spectacular is that the ban came about following an initiative from the residents themselves. A people’s movement against hunting collected 177,000 signatures in a country of 4.5 million inhabitants that was handed over to the parliament. After a thorough process, the representatives adopted a final ban on all sport hunting in December 2012.

      As if this was not enough, preparations for a carbon-neutral society are well under way. An important piece of this puzzle is, alongside investing in green energy and modernizing the agricultural sector, building up the forests to absorb much more carbon. Official calculations show that the  transitioning to carbon neutrality will cost nothing, but generate a return on investment of up to 110% by 2050!

       How many species are there in the world? Nobody knows. Today, approximately 1.8 million species have been named, but biologists estimate that there may be at least 10 million species on earth, perhaps many more. Every year, around 13,000 new creatures are mapped, the existence of which we have never known before. But there are still millions of creatures that we risk losing without even knowing they exist. It could be a loss that no one today knows the consequences of.

       Many of these known and unknown species are found in Costa Rica. There are probably more than half a million of them here, meaning that the small country is home to a full 5 percent of all the world’s species. As many as 300,000 of these are insects, while 920 species of birds and 210 mammals have been observed. This means that the country is among those with the greatest biodiversity in the world, yes, some even say that it is simply the world’s most species-rich country! Fortunately, the species live safer here than anywhere else on the planet.

      For those of us who are used to a nature where you have to look for a long time to find every single sign of  life, where the forests disappear and hunters can shoot at nearly everything that moves, it is good to know that there is a country where both the government and the population come together to create a society for the good of all living creatures. Pura vida is Costa Rica’s motto and also a widely used greeting among the people. Directly translated, the expression simply means “pure life”, but it embraces much more than that. It also implies a desire for gratitude and satisfaction with life and coexistence with the environment. Perhaps we in rich Western Europe should be able to admit that we have a thing or two to learn from a small country in Central America?