From champion of peace to environmental role model, this Central American nation shows us how smaller countries can punch above their weight globally, says Benedict Lopez.
Bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the south, Costa Rica is a small country in Central America with a population of around five million.
The country’s land mass is around 51,000 sq km, and it has about 600 sq km of territorial waters.
Compared with other Central American countries, Costa Rica is an oasis of stability in a sometimes troubled region. It is not afflicted with acute violence, civil unrest and persistent poverty. Unlike some of its neighbouring countries, it has not witnessed an exodus of refugees, desperately fleeing for a better life overseas.
Peace dividend: From champion of peace…
Like Iceland, Costa Rica does not have an army, navy or air force. It has no heavy weapons of any kind – only the local police.
In 2018 Costa Rica celebrated 70 years since President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the military after victory in the civil war on 1 December 1948.
Money saved on defence has been channelled towards education and healthcare. This has resulted in Costa Rica having a literacy rate of around 98% and the second-lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America, after Chile.
Healthcare is free for the poorest Costa Ricans, while others pay at a prescribed rate. Based on a World Health Organization report, Costa Rica has the best healthcare system in Central America and is ranked 36th in the world – a commendable ranking for a small nation
Costa Rica has also been a trailblazer in brokering amicable solutions to conflicts in the region. Former President Oscar Arias believed to all problems, which could be resolved through intense negotiations.
In recognition of his herculean efforts, Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for being at the forefront of a peace plan with Central American heads of state to agree on economic cooperation and peaceful resolutions, rather than resorting to conflict.
Panama emulated Costa Rica in 1989 when it abolished its military. The border between both countries is now the only non-militarised frontier in the world – a noteworthy achievement for these two small nations and a model for others to emulate.
Costa Ricans have benefited as a result of the pragmatic, non-belligerent policies pursued by their government. The country’s economy has been stable for many years now, growing 2.6% in 2018, a slight drop of about 0.7% from the previous year. Inflation was low at 2.2%, but unemployment remains high at over 8%.
… to Champion of the Earth
Recently, Costa Rica was once again shot into the limelight. In September the country won the UN’s 2019 Champion of the Earth award, the world body’s highest environmental honour. The country was recognised for its efforts at safeguarding nature with unyielding steadfastness and its strategies to battle climate change.
This tiny Central American country continues to play an important role in climate change issues.
On 2-13 December the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held in Madrid.
In the lead-up, Costa Rica hosted a pre-COP meeting last month to link the UN secretary-general’s Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September with COP 25.
This high profile role is not surprising: Costa Rica is acknowledged as a world leader in sustainability. Like Denmark, it has outlined an ambitious plan to decarbonise its economy by 2050 – in line with the Paris climate agreement and the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Costa Rica aspires to be a template for other nations trying to do their part to reduce carbon emissions before the world reaches a tipping point.
At present, around 95% of Costa Rica’s energy requirements are from renewable sources. In 2017 renewable energy provided the country’s energy requirements for a record 300 days. The country has now set a target of 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
Costa Rica is also greening its environment after many years of worrying deforestation. Thanks to this proactive approach, more than 50% of lost trees have been replanted. These trees should soak up any remaining carbon emissions.
And by 2030, 70% of all the country’s buses and taxis will be electric, with full electrification by 2050.
“Costa Rica has been a pioneer in the protection of peace and nature and has become an example for the region and the world,” said United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director Inger Andersen.
“Climate change demands urgent and transformative action from all of us. With its ambitious plans to decarbonise the economy, Costa Rica is rising to that challenge. Global emissions are reaching record levels and we must act now to move to cleaner, more resilient economies.”
The UNEP also lauded Costa Rica for promoting clean technologies and sustainability in an extraordinary way despite its small size. This is a remarkable feat for a country of just five million people who discharge only 0.4% of global emissions of greenhouses gases.
Costa Rica and Iceland serve as beacons of hope for other smaller nations. Size should not be an obstacle for smaller nations to achieve global recognition by carving out a niche in targeted areas and striving for excellence.
Malaysia should work together on environmental issues with smaller nations like Costa Rica to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Geographical distance should not hinder us from nurturing such promising relationships.