Costa Rica has been widely commended as a model for ecotourism as sustainable development. However, the following academic study by Ana Isla illustrates that what is promoted as "sustainable development" in Costa Rica does not really redress environmental degeneration, nor does it solve the problems of debt and poverty. Under the regime of international donor agencies, corporate environmental organizations and local elites, conservation and ecotourism programmes rather disposses and impoverish communities and abolish local people's rights. According to Isla, the goal of these projects is not the protection and conservation of natural environments, but the commercial exploitation of biodiversity and related traditional knowledge. The new technology of bioprospecting vandalizes nature and becomes an instrument of underdevelopment. Isla's analysis, based on this well-researched Costa Rican case study, can probably be applied to many other parts of the Third World that are rich of biological resources and targeted by ecotourism development.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia




By Ana Isla, PhD.


This paper looks at a case study of the interactive socio-economic-ecological impact of land management and ecotourism on local communities resulting from commodification for sustainable development. It argues that the concept of sustainable development, articulated as a new framework for international donor and NGO practices, increases poverty among communities in these areas as a means to restructure capital accumulation.

Since the late 1980s, the commercial banks and the multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), who previously provided loans, have been replaced by an inflow of private portfolio funds and debt swaps. Debt swaps are financial mechanisms to repay debt by handing over ownership of national industries, public enterprises, bank assets, and nature. Particularly since 1988, capital accumulation relies on debt-for-nature investments. Debt-for-nature investments are the core sustainable development mechanisms of choice for the IMF, WB, UNESCO and large environmental corporations.

Further development of debt-for-nature investments was one of the major outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in 1992. Since then, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) under WB management has established funding of numerous NGOs involved in debt-for-nature swaps to "protect" the global environment.

This paper documents the Canada/Costa Rica debt-for-nature investment as a process of sustainable development. It is a bilateral debt-for-nature investment, signed on May 1995, that implements the Latin America Official Development Assistance (ODA) program. 

Since Costa Rica’s debt was priced very low in the secondary market, Canada took steps to obtain Parliamentary approval to reduce the portion of the debt owed to Canada by 50 per cent. A Costa Rica/Canada Trust Fund for Biodiversity (FIDEICOMMISSA) was created to receive Costa Rica’s payment in local currency (colones), the equivalent of CDN$11,355,809.50.

The Canadian and Costa Rican governments are not allowed by the designers of the policy to receive the debt titles directly - they must be donated to NGOs, which become the government’s creditor. The FIDEICOMMISSA funds created by the Canada-Costa Rica debt-for-nature investment, issued under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU 1995), were channeled to the Arenal Conservation Area (ACA), directed by the Canadian World Wildlife Fund (WWF-C) and the Costa Rican National Institute for Biodiversity (INBio).

Article No. 9 of the MOU specifies funds for the ACA as follows: Half of the resources [CDN$ 5.6 million] will be dedicated to specific activities leading to the strengthening and consolidation of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), and specifically to the ACA, in the areas of human resource training, scientific research, and the management of areas for their sustainable use, in accordance with appropriate technical and scientific criteria. Resources for the second phase of the ongoing Canada/Costa Rica bilateral project, the Arenal Conservation and Development Project (short: Arenal Project) will be allocated from the SINAC portion of the funds.

The WWF-C is the creditor NGO using the debt-for-nature investments. Since 1991, the WWF-C has established in one of the eleven designated Conservation Areas (CA) of Costa Rica the ACA-Tilaran as a model of environmental management - the Arenal Project. The Arenal Project is also a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) project. Carried out by the WWF-C and the Ministry of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica (MINAE), the Arenal Project is based on a covenant between the MINAE, CIDA and the WWF-C.

The CDN$5.6 million of debt-for-nature funds controlled by the WWF-C has been disbursed as follows: $2.7 million for the Arenal Project to support the ACA-Tilaran model of management and to assist in the dissemination of the model to other CAs; and, almost $3 million for Investment in Strategic Projects to finance projects, particularly micro-enterprises, in the whole country.

Article No. 10 of the MOU allocates the remaining half of the resources [CDN$ 5.6 million] to INBio, which is the debtor NGO using debt-for-nature funds. The funds went into INBio’s Biodiversity Prospecting Division. The main objective of this division is the systematic research of new sources of chemical compounds, genes, proteins, micro-and macro-organisms, and other commercial products of interest. The division identifies opportunities to obtain profits from products and services of added value which originate from biodiversity resources.

On the one hand, corporate environmental NGOs are engaged in genetic and species research; in addition, they have become the administrators of the IMF and the WB project of integrating local governments and communities into the global economy. On the other hand, "national states" involvement in sustainable development requires a more complex intervention in the affairs of local communities. To fit their economic aspirations and activities into the world-system, states are adopting policies, which are responsible for destitution as well as oppression of their citizens.

Both NGOs and "national states" have created the conditions for material expansion and a technically more intense mode of ecological exploitation in the periphery. Thus, the sustainable development movement has initiated a state-led management of the CAs for extraction of genetic material for research purpose and ultimately for commodification; and communities become less able to adapt their local economies to local needs and conditions.

Commodification for sustainable development 

The WB defines sustainable development as the management of the entire cycle of life (humankind and nature) with the intention of expanding "wealth". By expanding the measure of wealth the WB implies the inclusion of natural capital and human resources in national-asset accounting.

Kirk Hamilton (1999), of the WB Environment Department, emphasizes the WB’s concern with "poverty reduction" around the world, particularly in Third World countries, and its attempts to expand the concept of wealth and to develop a method to measure it. He states that one possible definition of sustainable development is the management of a nation’s portfolio of assets. A nation’s portfolio of assets includes built infrastructure, natural resources (minerals, energy, agricultural land, forest), human capital, and social capital. Thus, sustainable development requires not only macro-economic policies, that is, structural adjustment, but also the management of human resource development.

What matters for the WB vis-a-vis sustainable development is how natural capital is managed and whether the rents (profits) from the natural capital endowment are invested in repaying the debt. In the current world economy non-market value found in nature and produced outside the market without wages is not recognized. Yet, this wealth and work is what communities around the world have depended on for their subsistence. The process of "sustainable development" that enhances market production and creates waged employment often at the expense of subsistence activity, leaves populations increasingly dependent on monetary relations for their survival without ensuring people have access to adequate monetary income. The result is a state of generalized poverty without precedent.

This economic perspective put forth by the WB, supported by the IMF, UNESCO, industrialized countries, development agencies and many corporate environmental NGOs, reduces the value of humans and nature to one commensurable measure, that of energy flows in ecosystems expressed as a market cost. Reducing diverse senses of worthiness to the one dimension of market value, conventional economics has side-lined the issues of poverty and ecological destruction. The search for profit and the rate of profit on real capital determines the dynamics and direction of social and ecological activity.

Sustainable development in Costa Rica 

The concept of sustainable development, linking the debt and the environmental crisis, emerged in "Our Common Future" (World Commission on Environment and Development -1997, also known as the Brundtland Report). The framework for sustainable development therefore integrated economic development and environmental management from the beginning.

The Brundtland Report "inspired" the USAID, to organize a conference in 1989 under the name of Conservation Strategy for Sustainable Development, known as ECODES. USAID collaborators included the environmental organizations operating in Costa Rica and the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines (MIRENEM) - now MINAE.

At the ECODES conference, deforestation was recognized as the heavy price imposed by development/ modernization. MIRENEM had shown that Costa Rica, between 1940 and 1977, had one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, accounting for 50,000 ha of old-growth trees every year. Sustainable development through the CA system was proposed to address the deforestation problem.

Deforestation was caused by industrial farming and monoculture expansion. The agricultural area to produce coffee, banana, sugar cane, and cattle ranching led to apply the highest rate of fertilizers use in Latin America. Commercial logging, particularly the timber industry had enormous impacts. In the process of extraction, a large number of trees and plants, without market price, were destroyed. 

Land invasion and agricultural legislation promoted tree clearing as a mechanism to enable access to land property titles. The legislation which most affected deforestation included the Law of Private Possession  No. 139, the Law of Land and Colonization No 2825, and the Agrarian Development Institute (IDA) No 6735.

The CA model was introduced to manage the country’s wildlife and biodiversity. But "protection" of natural resources through central management is very expensive, because it requires acquisition of land, hiring of personnel for "protection and control” of the areas, and training of staff in fields such as administration and infrastructure. These are expenses that the Costa Rican government is unable to provide. Thus, Costa Rica’s private and public conservation projects rely heavily on international aid and have received the majority of their funding from direct donations by international entities or from debt-for-nature investments.

In terms of land ownership, a little-recognized problem is land concentration. Traditionally, US multinational corporations enclosed Costa Rica’s land and converted it into cattle ranches and banana plantations. Parallel to this process, the local business community, which was supported by the state, enclosed land for use as coffee plantations. To support coffee production, the formation of a class of small and medium farmer (campesino) land property owners was crucial.

These land grabs by foreign and local businesses deeply divided Costa Rica in terms of land control and power. Excluding the owners of one hectare, 83.4 per cent of the land owners with less than a 100 ha control 1.12 per cent of the national territory, while 0.71 per cent of the owners with more than a 100 ha  own 70.3 per cent of the country’s territory.

"Sustainable development" aggravated these unequal relations by intensifying earlier destructive enclosure of the land to save representative samples of biodiversity under SINAC. SINAC has divided the country into eleven CAs under the supervision of MINAE. MINAE took the right to land ownership away from small and medium farms and placed it into the hands of the government in order to promote the race for biodiversity inventory and species prospecting.

Community effects of commodification for sustainable development

-The Arenal Project practice-

In 1991, the Arenal Project, of the WWF-C, CIDA, and MINAE, elaborated the first step of a management plan (General Land Use Plan, hereafter referred to as the Land Plan). The Land Plan regulated land access and use in the ACA-Tilaran. 

The ACA-Tilaran involves 250,561.5 ha. From this total, the Land Plan document recommended protecting of 116,690.2 ha. Of the 116,690.2 ha of protected area, 76,707 ha (37.54 per cent of the ACA) were selected for a research program and declared "nucleus areas". Architects of sustainable development argue that ACA’s territory is one of the most biologically diverse area in Costa Rica. The Land Plan’s biology section identified 4,283 species of flora and fauna in the nucleus area which represent 36 per cent of the natural wealth of Costa Rica.

As research centres are organized in the so-called nucleus areas, these areas are off-limits to rural communities unless they are part of the taxonomist program. Enclosed reserves of genetic material and forested people are put under pressure by the commercial interests of industry and corporate NGOs.

Since 1994, the ACA-Tilaran has supported three research organizations projects:

1. INBio, the Costa Rican NGO, is involved in parataxonomy and chemical prospecting. It searches for new pharmaceutical and agricultural products from plants, insects and other biological samples in three biological stations: San Luis de Monteverde; Cerro Chato; and Quebrada Guatuso.

2. ACA-MINAE, in partnership with INBio, are involved in two research projects:

a) Biodiversity Resources of the ACA-Development Project, financed jointly by the WB and INBio; and,

b) Development Knowledge and Sustainable Use of Costa Rica’s Biodiversity (ECOMAPAS), financed by The Netherlands in partnership with INBio and SINAC.

3. The WWF-C, in partnership with the Asociacion Conservacionista Monteverde (ACM), collects material and researches flora and fauna. Since 1996, using its own Land Plan, the WWF-C is bioprospecting in ten areas of the ACA-territory. In the first phase, the areas included were: San Gerardo (Tilaran), La Tigra (San Carlos), Arenal Volcano (National Park), Alberto Manuel Brenes (Biologic Reserve) and Tenorio Volcano (National Park). In the second phase, after a detailed inventory of flora and monitoring of soil regeneration, the generation of products originating in the areas of biodiversity will be attempted. In the third phase, an additional five ACA- nucleus areas will be added: San Bosco de San Carlos, Miravalles (Protected Zone), Cano Negro (National Sanctuary of Wildlife), Juan Castro Blanco (National Park), and Curena Curenita (Forestry Reserve).

The Land Plan of the Arenal Project affected the resources of 108 communities in the area, which were neither informed of nor included in the decision-making that changed their lives and livelihoods. The secretive approach of the Land Plan eliminated the communities’ rights to use the land biomass included in the nucleus areas, and undermined local livelihoods.

Land enclosure has transformed community members into criminal intruders. The newly declared private land in ACA’s territory is patrolled by seven park guards that are organized in one Police Control Unit. They are trained in how to handle firearms and equipment and to counter land invasions. When the Police Control finds community members breaking regulations stipulated in the Land Plan (that is, not paying fees or intruding on designated research areas), the park guards confiscate anything the individual may have obtained on the land (eg. fish or game) and whatever tools were used, and then reports the offence to the office of the public prosecutor.

Community members’ intimate knowledge of and connection with the land was ignored. This separation of people from nature has created a sense of disorder, alienation, fragmentation, and uncertainty among the poor members of the community. Some of them still manage to live a traditional lifestyle and work in quadrillas (a group of individuals working together for hunting purposes). For the hunters from San Carlos, the only reason they are seen as enemies is because they do not have the money to pay the fees the new laws require. In this way, animal protein is removed from most community members diets.

The amount of food provided by hunting and fishing was estimated by the hunters of San Carlos to account for almost half of their families’ daily needs. But now, hunting and fishing for survival needs have made them criminals, even though, they argue, they are less harmful than outsiders who can pay the required fee. As traditional hunters, they know that a tepezquintle bears offspring twice a year. They also know that its reproduction rate naturally outstrips the rate of growth of the trees they depend on. Community members are resisting bans on the hunting of tepezquintle and other animals.

"If ACA-MINAE stops selling licences for hunting to the rich who can pay, I will stop hunting, because I will see that it is not just the poor who have to conserve wildlife. I can live happy if this inequality stops. If they permit hunting to the rich but bother the poor I cannot be happy. I can see rich hunters drinking in bars, while in their station wagons dogs bark and dead tepezquintles hang in baskets. They are openly showing-off their hunting. But if I have a tepezquintle in a bag, MINAE takes it from me, and if I do not confront them, I also risk losing my dogs, because, I do not have a car and I am walking. That is the reason why we [the hunters] do not stop hunting. Why is it that those who have money can hunt and those who are poor must become "conservationists". As a poor man, I believe that laws are only for the rich who can afford to pay, thus, I do not have to obey" (interview, Summer 1999).

Hunting is not the only prohibited activity for poor members of society, but fishing is as well: "We fish with arbaleta [spear] in Embalse Arenal. We believe that this is the only legal fishing, because I choose the fish I want. I won’t fish a small fish, I will fish a big one. MINAE disagrees with our methods. MINAE prefers the use of fishing poles. With that instrument, I cannot differentiate which fish is adult or young. Because we do not pay fees, fishing is also prohibited for us, thus, we must hide from the control unit. We need to be careful going in and out in order to avoid the guards. All this work means sacrifices, but we do it to live. This is the heaviest job in the world, because I do not use oxygen tanks, I just use my lungs. This is a really hard job" (interview, Summer 1999).

Hunters and fishermen strongly defend their rights to the land and water resources on the grounds that they have being doing this forever without harm to the land. Deforestation is significant in the lives of everyone, particularly on poor hunters. In their view, deforestation threatens wildlife and water run-off, source of their livelihood.

-INBio’s Practices-

In 1994, INBio was granted rights to state-owned land to sell bio-diversity to industry. INBio established a partnership with the MINAE to collect samples for interested industries from the CAs. In the partnership agreement, INBio and MINAE assume that CAs are common goods in the state’s hands. By the same token, local communities rights were disregarded.

Since 1994, INBio’s Inventory Division collects material from the CAs under MINAE administration. In exchange, INBio has taken responsibility for the support of SINAC. INBio supports the CAs by looking for customers to purchase CA resources; by promoting the use of scientific knowledge in the management of the wild lands areas; by the generation of financial “opportunities”; and by the promotion of corporate ecology in the territory planning.

The tenth clause of the agreement stipulates that in cases of bioprospecting research, INBio must contribute at least ten per cent of the original budget to support the management and conservation of the CA. Part of the tenth clause states that if the research results in successful discoveries, any royalties awarded to INBio will be shared 50/50 between INBio and MINAE for the management and conservation of land administered by MINAE.

To organize the extraction, exploitation, and control of biodiversity from the CAs, INBio designed four divisions:

• The Inventory Division generates properly identified reference collections and field guides, provides electronic identification services that add knowledge of the organisms’ natural history, and documents their distribution throughout the national territory.

• The Information Dissemination Division aims to disseminate information on diverse processes taking place in INBio with respect to the commercial possibilities of conserved wild lands, as well as training CA staff, producing hard copy field guides and other types of biodiversity literature, and holding national and international workshops.

• The Information Management Division develops software about the biodiversity; and,

• The Biodiversity Prospecting Division searches for new chemicals and genes. It focuses on systematic research on new sources of chemical compounds, genes and proteins produced by plants, insects and micro- and macro-organisms that may be of use to pharmaceutical, medical, and agricultural industries.

INBio’s bioprospecting begins in the CAs with the biological samples brought by parataxonomists. It appropriates local knowledge about some of the attributes of the native plants and animals to initiate most of the prospecting work by hiring the daughters and sons in the rural communities as parataxonomists who initiate the collection. A MINAE worker stated: "… As a rural person, the parataxonomist brings intimate knowledge of the ecosystem. In the work process, she/he acquires information of the protected area and becomes an information generator" (interview, Summer 1998).

Manipulation of the ecosystems for the exploitation of genes is thus initiated in INBio’s laboratory and then further developed through experiments in the installations of INBio’s partners in the pharmaceutical, medical, and agricultural industries.

The Canada/Costa Rica debt-for-nature funds developed the production of extracts by the consolidation of the microbiology lab, and the extraction and fragmentation labs. This process is very expensive but it gives the product additional value. At this stage, there are many similar by-products derived from the original, natural product. They are mimetic products, derived from the biological activity but not equal to the natural, original product. Pharmaceutical companies are interested in mimetic products that can be patented. These are the products that generate economic benefits. It is thus the work of the Biodiversity Prospection Division of INBio to transform the original robbery, of the genetic material, into a property right for corporations, which claim ownership based on the "improvements" they have made to the natural products.

INBio is a private institution that manages the samples of biodiversity and enjoys jurisdiction over the inventory, prospecting, and commercialization of Costa Rican biodiversity. It receives donations because INBio’s science is a response to the needs of a particular form of accumulation. Both the donors and INBio are interested in the commercial exploitation of biodiversity, especially the biodiversity of the rich rain forest. Yet, they do so under the guise of "conservation".

The new technology of bioprospecting has become instruments of poverty and underdevelopment. INBio vandalizes nature. INBio’s science is based on the destruction and subordination of nature as a living organism. Nature is considered dead, raw material. INBio’s inventory division is a cemetery full of tons of inert plants, leaves, dead butterflies, pieces of wood, and micro-organisms, lying all over the floor, the walls, the shelves and rooms, waiting to be fully catalogued. For most of these samples, no technology yet exists that can bio-test all the “potential properties” of the thousands of substances involved in the dead species.

INBio’s Inventory Division initiated its activities focusing on a limited number of taxa  plants and insects (1989), mollusks (1993) and fungi (1996). However, after five years, the output of this exercise was overwhelming and close to two million insect specimens are still waiting to be fully catalogued. In 1996, 428,000 entomological specimens were collected, increasing the reference collection to over 2.9 million insects at the close of the year.

INBio has not only a monopoly on nature but also on knowledge. Since the beginning of the 1990s, rural communities in Costa Rica have became familiar with scientists and their activities. They have witnessed the collection of and the intervention in nature and intrusions into their own lives. Meanwhile, they themselves, and their needs, have been ignored. They were not contacted, nor was there an attempt to engage in honest and frank communication. Information is managed in a restricted way. One MINAE official expressed: "When biodiversity is treated as a commodity, the very sacrificed people always will be the rural community. INBio’s research program fails communities because it is only preoccupied in how many species we have and what to do with them. The knowledge acquired was not multiplied because the goal is to sell bio-diversity knowledge to the international market. The knowledge transfer failed the communities who have taken care of it for centuries".

Biodiversity is a relational category, ecologically and culturally embedded. Local communities have worked as the keepers of nature for centuries. As such, their labour has no economic value, while "scientific labour" is perceived to add value. Within the Canada/Costa Rica debt-for-nature agreement, INBio agreed to organize a conference in 1998 between Indigenous Peoples of Canada and Indigenous Peoples of Costa Rica. Canadians told the Costa Ricans that they could help them to defend themselves and benefit from biodiversity negotiations. The Talamanca Indigenous People answered: “We do not want to know about making business with biodiversity, we are happy living like we are. What we want is just to keep and use the land, with the knowledge our ancestors handed down to us.”

Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica see biodiversity as priceless and, therefore, non-negotiable. Biodiversity is their source of medicine, their source of food, and particularly the source of their myths and traditions. Selling their biodiversity is comparable to selling their culture, and more deeply, their soul. INBio cheapened local community knowledge in order to appropriate it through local parataxonomists. INBio initiates its collection with local knowledge, through the parataxonomist, and it passes it on to the international and national business community.

In INBio’s conservation schemes, a parataxonomist’s work does not add value. Their work is considered an extension of nature’s work. Parataxonomists are considered non-specialists because they have no formal degree, although INBio uses the parataxonomist’s knowledge to initiate every process. As of April 1997, INBio’s Inventory Division had 26 Biodiversity Offices in the various CAs, where some 32 parataxonomists were stationed. They work within a larger network of national and international taxonomy experts.

INBio devalued local communities as ecological authorities. "Scientific" knowledge undermines customary knowledge on the grounds that living knowledge linked to sensuous knowledge and experience are unauthorized. In that way, the knowledge taken from local communities and Indigenous Peoples is not paid. However, biodiversity is not an exclusive product from nature. The activity of the Indigenous Peoples and peasants has bred and improved traditional plants and medicines.

Third World local agriculturalists continue to produce genetic material of great value. Genes are selected, improved and developed by agriculturalists. These materials reflects the creation, inventive and genious of particular types of people. But their work is not recognized as labour, despite the fact that they are the providers and selectors of the biotechnology.

INBio, therefore has a monopoly on nature, knowledge, and on profits. INBio has agreements with Bristol Myers Squibb Company, Recombinant Biocatalysts, Analyticom ag, Merck, INDENA (phyto-pharmaceutical company Milan, Italy), Givaudan-Roure Fragrances of New Jersey (to identify and collect interesting odours from forest organisms), British Technology Group, Strathclyde Institute for Drug Research (Scotland) and many others (Mateo, 1996; Gudynas, 1998). In INBio’s first agreement (1991), Merck and Co. awarded INBio a US$1 million dollar research budget to carry out a two-year, non-exclusive collaboration. CAs received ten per cent of the original budget to support their conservation efforts while INBio used 90 per cent for research, certain start-up costs, and the training of four Costa Rican scientists at Merck.

INBio is not subject to public control and information, nor is it subject to parliamentary control. Its negotiations with respect to Costa Rican biodiversity are secret . INBio’s director has explicitly stated that the agreement with Merck and Co. Enterprise is not a public document, according to Costa Rican legislation, and that therefore there is no reason for it to be approved by the Congress. According to Gudyness, this agreement goes against international conventions such as WI, IUCN, PNUMA that claim that public access to information is fundamental in formulating environmental policies.

In sum, the CA system has nothing to do with conservation of the water system or protection of the vulnerable ecosystem from deforestation. It has not altered the tragedy of deforestation. Deforestation is a clandestine economy particularly for agriculture, cattle ranching, rural tourism etc. The official struggle against deforestation under Forestry Law No. 7575 (February 5, 1996), is only useful for the conservation of “small forest plots” for research purposes while deforestation practices continue.

Instead the right of corporations swallow the human rights of local communities. The CAs emerged as an efficient tool primarily concerned with genetic material appropriation to supply raw material to the accumulation centres.

Ecotourism: The Case of Arenal Volcano National Park

The ideology of sustainable development is contained within the limits of the market economy that sees the debt crisis and environmental crisis separate from economic development, and proposes a solution to those crises by expanding the market system. But the periphery experience informs that unequal exchange was established as the basis of investment, particularly in commerce. Furthermore, since the debt crisis in the 1980s, IMF and WB Programs have integrated indebted countries into the global economy. As the implementation of these policies have proven insufficient to integrate and open up dependent economies, new and more subtle forms of management and control are, thus, put into operation.

With the advent of sustainable development, ecotourism has been classified as an export strategy, meaning foreign exchange and investments. Ecotourism is an extension of the commodification of modern life and an integral part of modern consumer culture. It sells the whole country including its biodiversity, culture, and identity. Ecotourism involves the high volume movement of people over long distances, which can have a violent impact on vulnerable species and their habitats. Who are the beneficiaries? Those who have the economic and political power to instil a sense of materialism and consumerism in society, because they are also able to shape tourists’ consciousness, values and tastes. 

What follows is an example of how environmental corporations, by expanding the market system, can radically alter ownership claims and the regulation of forest access.

Every CA in Costa Rica has a godfather; Canada is the godfather of  the ACA, according to the director of the Arenal Volcano National Park. After organizing research centres in the nucleus area, the major marketing achievement of the Arenal Project was the link of tourism with wildlife. The main attraction of La Fortuna and Z-Trece is the Arenal Volcano National Park, which is an active cone at an elevation of 1,633 metres. The volcano has two craters that erupt 24 hours a day, a spectacular show of nature.

Central to the changes in ACA-Tilaran, particularly in La Fortuna and Z-Trece, was the Arenal Project Land Plan’s recommendation to change the Arenal Volcano category. The Arenal Volcano had been designated as Forestry Reserve in 1969 (Law 4380) with five protected hectares. This category was changed to Arenal Volcano National Park, in November 1994, with an area of 12,010 ha (Decree No. 23774-MIRENEN).

The development and expansion of the Arenal Volcano National Park was influential in the transformation of people's livelihood. Entire communities have been forcibly evicted. While the majority of the land around the volcano is not arable or adequate for cattle ranching, small farms had existed in the area. In 1994, this land was bought and/or expropriated by MINAE to expand the National Park.

Peasants who had organized their lives by clearing land for agricultural production and pasture around the Arenal Basin were thrown off the land. The land of some peasants was actually bought at low prices. However, only 54 per cent of the landowners were paid, even though the Costa Rican Hydro Institute (ICE), which was officially in charge of the Arenal Basin, gave MINAE 200 million colones in bonds to pay for the expropriated land. MINAE and its police (Control Unit) expelled the families from the land.

In Costa Rica’s Supreme Court (Division IV of the judicial system) an injunction reports heavy losses by campesinas/os who lived in the Basin area of ACA-Tilaran. They lost land, pasture, houses, dairies, and roads. Former property owners have become hut renters (ranchos) or slum inhabitants (tugurios). The personal effects of the campesinas/os, such as cars and small electrical appliances, were taken by the commercial banks when they could not afford to repay their loans acquired for economic development. When in desperation, some of them returned to their land to plant yucca, beans, corn and other subsistence foods, they were declared to have broken the law and some of them were thrown in jail.

The Arenal Volcano National Park’s operation has internalized the market in three ways:

• by selling oxygen produced by the trees of the parkindustrialized countries promote trading credits and compensation for the oxygen that the forested areas produce;

• by marketing biological diversity - there is a biologic station in Cerro Chato, located within the National Park, where an INBio parataxonomist is making an inventory of the park’s species; and

• by collecting entrance fees between January and July 1998, Arenal Volcano National Park collected 17,000,000 colones (CDN$95,000).

The marketing of Arenal Volcano National Park as an ecotourist centre by the Arenal Project was done in association with some hotel and restaurant owners. The Arenal Project launched tourist promotion programs, hotels, internet advertisements, etc. that exploit the Arenal Volcano image on all printed materials. Thousands of tourists visit the Arenal Volcano National Park and its hot springs each year. In 1996, the daily number of tourists in La Fortuna was 500 in low season, and 1,500 to 2,000 during high season.

Ecotourism excluded the original inhabitants. While recreational activities in natural settings used to be free for everyone, the Land Plan converted nature into expensive resort areas with limited social access. The protected areas only remain open to tourists who can afford recreational activities. User fees were applied to land falling within the Protected Areas designated by the Land Plan. In the past, most families would spend their free hours walking in the countryside, climbing hills, swimming and fishing, or having picnics. Close to nature, families and neighbours were brought together.

In 1998, the director of Arenal Volcano National Park explained the sustainable development work done by the Arenal Project: "In February 1995, the National Park began to charge fees. In the beginning, nobody wanted to pay fees. To make them pay fees, we closed the volcano’s four entrances, leaving open and controlling one entrance. The entrance fees provided washroom, garbage collection and walking paths for tourists. When the area was not controlled, people used to take advantage of the resources of the area, resources they did not pay for. ACA made the people wake up to see that they have a resource that belongs to them and that these resources need conservation. ACA told the people that they should press for payment for the use of its resources."

To increase fees in the Arenal Volcano National Park, a look-out point was built, more walking paths were opened, and better water and electric services were provided. A visitor centre and administrator’s house were also built. The director also states: “Before the category changes, the Arenal Volcano had already been sold as a product of the area, but to sell the Arenal Volcano National Park was a different thing. We received a donation from the Arenal Project of two million [colones] to sell the image”.

According to the director, the market success of the Arenal Volcano National Park could end because the daily fumes and lava activities of the active volcano, around which ecotourism is organized, have been progressively reducing. That preoccupation resulted, in the words of the director, in a proposition to expand ecotourism to the Arenal basin. Thus, to do so, communities again were assaulted. The park management dug a ditch to stop community recreation use, and developed a camping trail, fishing programs, and tour for bird watchers.

The Rio Fortuna Waterfall, in the hands of the Association of La Fortuna, is another important area for ecotourism lost by the community. A donation of 1,000,000 colones from the Arenal Project, funded the building of a 70 metre-path that links the bottom of the waterfall with the visitor centre, which charges fees.

Communities also lost the Tabacon river’s hot spring. This spring is highly regarded as medicinal; it has been privatized by Tabacon Resort, which is an international private consortium with the involvement of some "national" capital. Tabacon Resort has built 11 swimming pools, using the hot spring water, at the very foot of the Arenal Volcano.

Sustainable development produces an irreparable loss of diversity in species. Tourism increased deforestation to build cabins and resort centres. Deforestation as a legal activity is fostered by government policy  "You pay your fees, you fell the tree.” Forest conversion into resort centres, endangers wildlife habitat by provoking mudslide, biotic impoverishment, and species forced migration. A Tabacon Resort’s worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, "Before building the swimming pools, we carried hundreds of frogs out of the area. After five years of activity, the frogs disappeared and the toucanos do not stand in the trees any longer. Massive use of chemicals to clean swimming pools, washrooms etc. left chemical residuals that force the animals to leave the surrounding areas."

As ecotourists want to have the experience of solitude, "ecotourism" packages are manufactured to take them to distant and unspoiled areas. Plastic and paper garbage disposed by tourist resorts in isolated areas increase water contamination in distant frontiers in levels never imagined. As species’ nest have been invaded by ecotourists, species reduction is becoming another negative consequence.

To commodify nature for ecotourism entire communities have endured a radical change. The majority of the poor people in La Fortuna area used to work in agriculture. Agriculture was practised by campesinas/os who own small and medium-sized parcels of land. They were moved from agriculturalist to service providers.

The commerce sector, which includes hotels, rental cabins, restaurants, and tourist attractions, became the number one activity in La Fortuna. This sector employed 240 workers in hotels and tourism-based industries, representing the majority of the workers in any one sector. The salaries paid in the tourism sector are also the highest in the area, US$250.00.

When agriculturalists were moved to ecotourism, small agriculture collapsed. Small agricultural production is devalued; the average salary in 1998 was US$152.00 (i.e., only 75 per cent of the minimum wage in San Jose, which was US$206.00).

Since 1984, the defining role given to the market has deregulated traditional instruments that protected agriculture. Agricultural workers are the worst-paid workers in the country. Thus, the economic transformation taking place in the country decreased the importance of agriculture and further devalued production for family consumption. Agricultural production dropped from 3.1 per cent, during the 1980s, to 2.9 per cent between 1990 and 1997, according to the WB. 

With production reoriented toward international markets and ecotourism, government policies have undermined the food security of rural peasant communities. As agricultural participation at the national level has decreased, while export of goods and services has increased, poverty in the rural area has risen from 24.6 per cent in 1993, to 26.1 per cent in 1994, to 27.6 per cent in 1995, and 27.7 percent in 1996. Of this number, 11.2 per cent live in extreme poverty, while 16.5 percent cannot satisfy their basic needs.

Peasants are compelled to purchase their food stuffs (rice and beans imported mainly from the United States) at prices set according to the vagaries of the international market. In 1990, Costa Rica produced 34,257 metric tons of beans, while in 2000, only produced 16,639 metric tons. Instead the country imported 27,000 metric tons. Grain growing has been reduced because there are fewer agricultural workers.

The Z-Trece community also changed. It is located at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. Z-Trece has an area of 470.55 ha. In this area, the so-called ecotourism boom has produced land concentration. The ecotourism advertisement attracted business men with fairly-deep pockets who set up tourist-resort centers. During the last five years in particular, many of the original owners sold their properties because the land price has risen, and local poor cannot afford the cost of living. Many original land owners have been reduced to living on a tiny portion of the land they once owned or forced to move to San Jose to live in a shanty town.

The process of sustainable development that enhances ecotourism creates low-waged employment at the expense of subsistence activity, and leaves populations increasingly dependent on monetary relations for their survival without ensuring people have enough monetary income. The money these people receive cannot compensate for the loss of subsistence agriculture, or the loss of the few "commons" they relied on to secure their livelihood. Food prices have gone up, and families not associated with tourism cannot afford to buy the basics any longer. “We pay for the products of this country with dollars, like tourists, but we do not earn dollars,” they say.

The range of shops, lodges, restaurants etc., that displace local members renders meaningless the values, traditions and local culture. The government overlook these community anxieties, because the Arenal Volcano’ ashes means foreign exchange and investments, as well as fame in the conservation industry. However, there are some positive sides of ecotourism, such as the improved landscape, electricity on the street, garbage collection, water reservoirs, frequency of transportation.


Commodifying nature for sustainable development, using debt-for-nature investment, encompasses the integration of Costa Rica into the much broader world-system. It has linked the owners of transnational corporations (who have taken the political power in the industrial world), the Third World capitalists (who have capital in the join-ventures), and the corporate environmentalists (who serve as managers).

My findings challenge the assumptions that sustainable development as generally understood will redress environmental problems (ecology) and solve the problems of debt (poverty). This paper has shown that, sustainable development suppress the human rights of local communities and the rights of nature in favour of the rights of corporations, and vulnerable local nature and local people have become connected to the international markets and the world-economy on disadvantageous terms.

Communities have had to surrender their safe local food system and their role as agricultural producers. Thus, local environments and communities are impoverished. Sustainable development aggravated poverty and environmental destruction for the short term benefit of capital. It does not build on local knowledge and strengths that could be valued, supported and fostered and would have to be if poverty and environmental destruction are to be tackled in a conservation strategy that is not flawed.

In Costa Rica, these acts of colonization are called acts of "sustainable development".

This is a shortened version of a paper by Ana Isla, which was presented at the 'Natural Capital, Poverty and Development' Conference, 5-8 September 2001, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, Canada. For the original  paper, which includes a comprehensive list of references,  you may contact the author at  <>. Ana Isla, PhD, is currently working in a Post-Doctoral Research awarded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).