Sustainable to the Core
A recent visit to Costa Rica brought home to me the notion that sustainability is local and relative. My husband and I flew to San Jose for a few days of vacation and stayed at an organic coffee plantation located northwest of the airport.
The landscape is incredibly lush and the temperature mild. Buildings are erected without heating and cooling (at least in the higher elevations). A trip through a coastal rainforest along the Pacific was very steamy, but I could certainly adapt to a lifestyle without air conditioning. The inn where we stayed had its own gardens and greenhouse and the chef picked fresh fruits and veggies just steps from his kitchen. The restaurant was located on a covered terrace that provided shelter from the daily rainfall. Average annual rainfall in Costa Rica varies from a low of 40 inches to a high of 240 inches. So, fresh water is abundant.
All that water provides a clean energy source in the form of hydroelectric power that is supplemented by geothermal electric generation (from several volcanoes – some that are still active) wind and biomass (as a byproduct of its large farming industry). This means that dirty power is not a barrier to the country's sustainability.
Crisscrossing Costa Rica, a pattern emerged revealing how Costa Ricans build communities. Each village was laid out as a series of houses and businesses crowding narrow streets that served as a shared venue for cars, buses, pedestrians of all ages and dogs. Most town centers had a church, a school and a soccer field. And we were told that most families have a garden tucked in the back of their compact lots. Packing these structures into tightly woven centers left abundant open space for farming - the economic engine for the country.
We toured the countryside hiking or driving up and down mountains to the summits of volcanoes, through cloud forests and rainforest, past terraced hillsides overflowing with produce of every variety. Accompanied on our hikes by a naturalist, we were informed that Costa Rica has the more species of birds than anywhere else in the Americas or in Europe.
A climate that needs no intervention for comfort, abundant fresh water, locally available food, healthy populations of flora and fauna, and clean energy sources results in a recipe for balance. Now think to where most of us live and our constant work to find comfort in our climates, buy locally available produce (seasonally), find sources of clean energy, and preserve open spaces for biodiversity. If sustainability is about minimizing humanity's impact on our natural resources and living within our EcoMeans, I think Costa Rica is as close to perfect as I've seen.
One exception is that the country does have an issue with trash. While many places were pristine, the streets in San Jose were full of litter, as were the banks of the Tarcoles River, a place we explored to see waterfowl and crocodile. If I were to write a sustainability plan for Costa Rica, it would be short; "Please don't be a litter bug.