Lessons on political willpower from Costa Rica and Peru

Eromo Egbejule
By Eromo Egbejule
West Africa Editor of The Africa Report

Posted on Monday, 20 May 2019 17:29, updated on Tuesday, 21 May 2019 13:26

Municipal workers clean up a beach in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate (

Can African countries copy the modus operandi of a small country like Costa Rica, which has few mineral resources but earns forex from agricultural exports and ecotourism?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the tiny Central American country of Costa Rica had the highest deforestation rates in the world and only had about 21% of its landmass as forest cover. Three decades later, it has more than doubled its forest cover to an impressive 52% – one of the best postings globally – and is still pushing towards a target of at least 60% over the next few years.

This reversal  – without an army (since 1948) to forcefully implement its radical reforms – was possible because of purposeful leadership and strategic actions, as I learnt last week at the Good Growth Partnership conference in Peru.

The government began an aggressive policy of generating government-protected areas that it was strict in implementing, Kifah Sasa, the United Nations Development Programme’s sustainable development and resilience officer in Costa Rica told me in the town of El Sauce, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.

  • “In 1996, it issued a forestry law that makes land-use change illegal. So landowners cannot clear their land if it has forest,” he explained. “If a bare land regenerates and has dense vegetation loosely considered to be a forest, it cannot be chopped down.”
  • It also instituted a tax on hydrocarbons. The tax revenue in turn is used to enable five-year payments to farmers to keep forest cover or to take on agroforestry systems.
  • In addition, instead of having conventional coffee plantation without shade, farmers were encouraged to switch to agroforestry systems and so get improved quality of coffee as well as payments for the shade – a surefire way to propel farmers into being protectors of the environment. It successfully reversed deforestation.

The Americas, particularly the range of countries that house the Amazon forest and Andean mountains, have been particularly susceptible to climate change as mankind continues to exploit more and more of nature’s resources.

Across the Atlantic, vast parts of West Africa and the Sahel region are also victims of massive deforestation, despite claims to the contrary by climate-science deniers.

  • According to the World Economic Forum, almost 90% of the area’s coastal rainforest has already been destroyed and deforestation has doubled in the Congo Basin since 1990.
  • This is unwittingly playing a huge role in other related conflicts including pastoralist crises from central Nigeria towards Mauritania –that arise as sedentary populations and nomads battle for diminishing resources – and insurgencies from northern Nigeria towards Central African Republic.
  • With forests in Asia fast diminishing, corporations and loggers have moved focus to South America and parts of Africa, engaging in illegal logging practices.
  • Reports also show that the destruction of tropical forests in West and Central Africa leads to a corresponding decrease in rainfall in southern Europe and parts of the US.

But unlike in Costa Rica, for example, there is little political willpower to make a positive difference.

  • In December 2015, a total of 195 countries signed the historic Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
  • A year later, 143 countries – 33 of which are in Africa – ratified the agreement in Marrakesh. Seven countries in West and Central Africa (representing 13% of the world’s total tropical rainforest area) also pledged a shift to sustainable production in oil palm. Nigeria was conspicuously missing.
  • Last May, I was present in Lagos as eight African cities further pledged to reduce carbon emissions in the same timeframe; but signing and trumpeting agreements are one thing and implementing them is another. Since then, I have been in Lagos, Abidjan, Accra and there are no clear signs of progression towards this goal in these cities. Perhaps it is time to learn from our brothers across the Atlantic?

Copycats for change?

Peru – Latin America’s fastest-growing economy last year, with a 4% GDP increase – is also taking steps to copy the good work Costa Rica has done.

  • President Martin President Martin Vizcarra was present at the opening ceremony of the Good Growth Conference and also took time out to fly into the heart of the Amazonian jungle to meet us in Chuzatca, a community that just two decades ago was drowning under a reign of violence from the Shining Path Maoist movement, the homebred Marxist-leaning MRTA and narco traffickers from all across the Americas.
  • Vizcarra’s ministers of environment and agriculture – I was pleasantly surprised to see that they are both women – told myself and other journalists in a press conference later that the Peruvian government was increasingly involving indigenous people in its policymaking and also using sophisticated software in tracking illegal land use.

Costa Rica, which managed to reduce its carbon footprint while growing the economy and boosting ecotourism as well, has also taken the daring step of pledging a total de-carbonisation of its economy by 2050.

  • Approximately 95% of its energy matrix is already renewable – hydroelectrics, geothermal power, etc. – and fossil fuels are only used sparingly if dam water levels are very low.
  • For 300 days last year, Costa Rica was 100% powered by renewable energy only.

Since 20% of total government revenue comes from hydrocarbons, it now has to find a fifth of its income in the next coming years from another revenue source. This is extremely interesting that it is risking its income to develop a sustainable economy that ensures healthier lives for its citizens.

Can African countries, especially those with plentiful natural resources and huge potentials for solar and hydroelectric power generation, do this, rather than focus on seeking rents that are eventually misappropriated? Can they copy the modus operandi of a small country like Costa Rica, which has few mineral resources but earns forex from agricultural exports and ecotourism?

  • Côte d’Ivoire and landlocked Ethiopia might be close to copying from that handbook. Between 2016 and now, officials from both countries have visited Costa Rica and Guatemala on visits fostered by the UNDP and a coalition of other groups like Conservation International, studying with policymakers and research agencies about how to improve crop quality and forest protection.

It is the way forward and African governments must now embrace this concerted approach, embracing strategies from abroad.

A healthy partnership and long-lasting solutions

“You need political will from presidential level to ministerial level and then everyone else to want to make those changes so that the agroforestry sector becomes sustainable […] that’s not always there,” Andrew Bovarnick, head of the Green Commodities Programme, which organised the conference, told me.

To build trust, mechanisms that can go on in spite of political change are needed. Also important is realising that companies, governments and civil servants have different cultures of work and different priorities. While governments are focused on elections, votes and public policies, companies are focused on profit, brand reputation and markets. Companies often work on a quarterly basis because they have to report to their shareholders and they are used to making changes much quicker while government takes a lot longer so theres often a real issue in difference in expectations. Both have to align, says Bovarnick.

This is key in West and Central Africa, where there are more tropical rainforests. It is therefore important that governments there must be willing to engage the private sector more and be broad-minded enough to work out technical solutions that outlast leadership changes.

A few years ago, Bovarnick and his colleagues set up a cocoa trading platform in Ghana and it was running for two years involving farmers, stakeholders. “It was beginning to create the space for multi-stakeholder collaboration, and then a new government came in,”, he recalled. “They had a new director of the cocoa board who’s not interested in an inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue and he basically put the platform on hold. So for four years whilst he was in power, that was it. Then he changed and a new person came in and now they are more collaborative again.”

This is again why Costa Rica is the example to follow. Since 1994 when it amended its constitution to include the right to a healthy environment as a fundamental human right, it has had six presidents. All of them have pursued the same vision with a single sense of purpose prioritised over selfish political legacies and that, dear African leaders, is the way to go.

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