San José: What do you get if you abolish your military and invest in people and the environment? The world’s greenest, happiest nation. In 1949, Costa Rica took the extraordinary step of doing away with its army and instead, ploughing money into education. The result is a well-educated populace with improved levels of healthcare, life-expectancy, child mortality, literacy and gender equality.
Unlike its neighbours, the country has enjoyed stability, maybe because it is one of the world’s oldest democracies – 200 years – which has helped improve its social development far beyond its socio-economic brethren.
Perhaps what makes it most remarkable though, is its far-sighted attitude towards environmental stewardship (it is currently world third in the Environmental Protection Index). Costa Rica introduced a carbon tax as early as 1997, was the first nation to state its aim of becoming carbon neutral (by 2021), it is one of the only developing nations to show an increase in its tree numbers, nearly all of its energy is produced from renewable resources…
Travelling through the country, there is an awareness of environmental issues that is unusual in any developing nation. The beaches are clean and there is very little litter on the streets, for example. Raw sewage isn’t pumped into the sea – at least, not where I have been – and there is a package of environmental laws regulating everything from construction to farming. Villagers proudly recite that 3% of the world’s biodiversity is found here – “Pura Vida” they quote almost too often.
Of course, there are plenty of exceptions. The fantastic iguanas that sunbathe in the leafy canopies are known here as “chicken of the trees” and hunted by small boys with slingshots to adults with airguns. Caimans are hunted for their “aphrodisiacal” tails, snakes are killed on sight, as are any creatures likely to threaten livestock, such as margays or ocelots.
It’s hard to know whether happier people are more likely to look after their environment well, or if, as I suspect, being surrounded by so much life in all its green profusion is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
We take the bus to the capital, reluctantly leaving the jungle beaches of the Caribbean to wind up and inland through dripping cloud forests made all the rarer through climate change. Here, waterfalls gush through the ferns and lichen, bromeliads glisten in the near-continual rain and banana plantations give way to pineapple farms. The road is sealed but pot-holed and the bus lurches between trucks in a way that I still cannot relax through.
Clapboard houses become concrete and then larger in size until eventually we reach the city. A cold front is squatting over the valley and before long I’m shivering miserably and hunting in my bags for the alpine-wear of the Andes. We’re only overnighting here in San José; tomorrow we’re heading northwards to the volcano.