Tiny Costa Rica sits on just 0.03 percent of the Earth’s surface – but, oh, what a 0.03 percent it is! With 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, these mountains, wetlands, and coastal regions are the richest in the world. But these habitats are also incredibly vulnerable: deforestation, development, and pollution threaten Costa Rica’s abundant natural treasures. How is the Central American country dealing with these threats – and how can visitors help?

As valuable as lumber and land is, Costa Rica boasts assets even more prized. There are:

  • 12,000 plant species.
  • 1,239 butterfly species.
  • 838 bird species.
  • 440 species of reptiles and amphibians.
  • 232 species of mammals.

Creatures ranging from massive whales and dolphins to the majestic glasswing butterfly depend on protected forests and conservation areas in order to survive and thrive. To help its wild citizens, Costa Rica has one of the most progressive conservation programs among rainforest countries. One initiative gives landowners $50 per 2.5 acres with the agreement that the land will be protected. Another program, FUNDECOR, helps landowners develop forest management plans that reduce impact on the forest.

More than 90 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity is generated from renewable sources, and the nation hopes to reach 95 percent by 2014. The country has an imprint that is just a quarter of the size of the United States, and, according to Happy Planet Index study, Costa Rica is the greenest country in the world – and the happiest. While deforestation wreaked havoc with the environment, and all is not healed, the country is making significant strides, and its people are supportive. While they pay considerable electricity bills, for instance, they see it as the price for a healthier planet.

Ecotourism is another important factor in Costa Rica’s efforts at achieving greater sustainability and reducing impacts as much as possible. Considered the birthplace of ecotourism, visitors flock to see the myriad of natural wonders – and learn more about the delicate balance that Costa Rica must tread between progress and conservation.

Visitors’ spending also helps protect the parks, beaches, and jungles through which they travel. Travel-related services and lodgings can earn environmental certificates which indicate that they are “eco-friendly,” a big boost since nearly half of Costa Rica’s visitors come for “ecotourism.”

Designated as one of The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations, Costa Rica has not had a stainless past, nor is its present perfect. Man still impacts earth, but the country is taking significant steps to ensure those steps are lighter and do not leave as big an imprint.

Enid Glasgow