National Strategy for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Wetlands in Costa Rica
M.Sc. Rocío Córdoba M.
Technical Assistant
Wetlands and Coastal Zones Program for Mesoamerica

Some 320 wetland areas have been identified in Costa Rica. Occupying approximately 5% to 7% of national territory, these areas include examples of the most common ecological units: herbaceous swamps, mangroves, flood forests, palm forests and lakes.

Total mangrove extension is estimated at around 39000 Ha within1,460 km of coastline (1,248 on the Pacific and 212 km on the Caribbean.) Thanks to joint efforts by the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), the IUCN-ORMA Wetlands and Coastal Zones Program for Mesoamerica, and other academic and non-governmental organizations, seven internationally important wetland areas have been incorporated into the Ramsar Convention database:

  • Palo Verde National Park
  • Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
  • Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge
  • Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
  • Térraba-Sierpe National Wetland
  • Northeast Caribbean Wetland (Tortuguero Conservation Area)
  • Isla del Coco World Heritage Site

Wetlands conservation and management criteria applied in Costa Rica have been included within the different management categories for protected areas, and the nation’s Organic Law of the Environment now includes a category on wetlands management. Nevertheless, despite efforts to protect these ecosystems, many are now degraded or managed in ways that are unsustainable.

A Strategy for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Wetlands in Costa Rica
According to the document, "CARING FOR THE EARTH: A Strategy for the Future of Life," published by IUCN, the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the objective of a conservation strategy is to achieve a combination of comprehensive sustainable development and conservation. In addition, a strategy is a process for reaching a series of pre-defined objectives; these are based on a diagnostic appraisal of reality to identify opportunities and threats, and determine what decisions must be made and carried out by actors in the area concerned. Proposing a conservation strategy requires identifying and diagnosing the main problem and its consequences.

In the case of Costa Rican wetlands, the main problem has been identified as the loss and degradation of these ecosystems due to the absence of effective resource conservation and management, with the principal causes being:

  • A lack of understanding regarding the benefits wetlands provide;
  • The absence of an integrated management of wetlands resources; and
  • The absence of comprehensive planning.

MINAE developed the National Strategy for Conservation and Development of Wetlands in Costa Rica with technical support from IUCN/ORMA, through its Wetlands and Coastal Zones Program for Mesoamerica, and with funding from the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands. The objective of this strategy is to establish basic guidelines for defining the role of wetlands and their management in Costa Rica’s development. To do this, efforts have been made to:

  1. Mobilize the necessary public opinion and concern regarding sustainable management and efficient conservation of wetlands, and ensure that the institutions and communities involved have a better understanding of the resources sheltered by these ecosystems;
  2. Make available the appropriate instruments (scientific, socioeconomic, legal and administrative) for sound planning on wetlands use and management;
  3. Strengthen and solidify the agencies responsible for management and control of wetlands in Costa Rica, by developing the necessary technical and administrative capacity in target groups; and
  4. Promote participation by government, the private sector and civil society in the preparation of local and sub-regional strategies for wetlands-based sustainable development.

At this stage of the Strategy, special emphasis is being placed on the first three objectives in order to assemble information and instruments. Likewise, workshop-courses on these instruments have been provided for the different target sectors, and formulation of specific proposals has been promoted to implement strategies at the sub-regional level.

Since this is a national strategy, the target group is extremely broad, and consists of:

  • government institutions involved in the conservation and development of resources in wetlands and in adjacent zones, particularly the staff of the National System of Conservation Areas, under MINAE;
  • human settlements that make use of the goods and services generated by wetlands, or persons living in these areas;
  • non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the conservation and development of wetlands and adjacent areas;
  • the Costa Rican people; and
  • other countries in the region that could use some of the products generated by wetlands.

Principal activities developed in order to achieve Strategy objectives include the following:

  1. Consultations with national and international experts to prepare baseline information on wetlands and their management in Costa Rica;
  2. An inventory being made of the country’s most important wetlands areas based on existing data in documentation centers and on the result of surveys sent to the Conservation Areas;
  3. Incorporation of personnel from these Areas in the process, through field visits and consultative workshops;
  4. Compilation of existing legal information regarding wetlands and the preparation of a draft bill for a law on wetlands conservation;
  5. Preparation and dissemination of instruments (documents, maps, electronic databases, inventory, administrative and legal information) for wetlands conservation and management;
  6. Preparation of a proposal for the second stage of the Strategy, whose main objectives involve the following:
    • Promote a movement to create an awareness of the importance of these ecosystems at every level;
    • Implement concrete field actions in selected Conservation Areas;
    • Promote the preparation of an official document containing the "National Strategy for Wetlands in Costa Rica";
    • Allow local communities to take ownership of processes for managing these ecosystems and for making decisions with respect to their resources.

All of these actions are being carried out with very close coordination among institutions involved in the process. This helps to strengthen these institutions as the agencies responsible for wetlands conservation and management at the national level.

Products Generated by the Strategy

  • Incorporation and motivation of Conservation Area personnel within the Strategy process
  • Directory of specialists and institutions involved in Costa Rican wetlands and coastal zones
  • Procedural guide for wetlands management in Costa Rica (one technical version and another non-technical version entitled, "What are Wetlands and How Can They be Used Correctly?"
  • Manual on legal aspects concerning wetlands in Costa Rica
  • Draft bill for the Wetlands Conservation Law
  • Maps scaled 1:750,000 and 1:200,000 (printed and electronic versions)
  • National wetlands inventory and databases
  • Manual on wetlands identification and classification
  • Video of Costa Rica’s wetlands
  • Document systematizing experiences during the process
  • Proceedings of the workshops for training and information dissemination (including a workshop for environmental journalists)

Principal Lessons from the Process

  • There is a greater lack of understanding than originally perceived regarding the goods and services these ecosystems provide.
  • During the second stage of the "Strategy" a larger investment of financial and human resources should be made in training for all sectors involved with these ecosystems.
  • Experience was acquired in interdisciplinary and inter-institutional coordination (government institutions, NGOs, and the private and academic sectors) and in working with Conservation Area personnel. Actions took longer than planned while different mechanisms for communication and coordination were tried out.
  • A need was detected for a document containing conservation and management policies for these ecosystems. Information generated during the first stage of the project will provide the foundation for this document.
  • The process for systematizing experiences should have been set up from the very beginning for a more orderly compilation of lessons that can be applied in future processes.
  • Participation by the different sectors interested in decision-making regarding wetlands management in the country has improved. IUCN and MINAE have made joint presentations on the "Strategy" at internationally-important forums such as the 6th Meeting of Signatories to the Ramsar Convention (March 1996). This made it possible for Costa Rica to be designated as the site of the next meeting, an indication of international interest in this type of strategic action.

The "Strategy" as a Process
This project has demonstrated that a strategy is a dynamic process, and not simply the production of a document. Concrete products make it possible to evaluate the process along the way and to compile lessons from the experience. Nevertheless, the actions of all those involved are what keep the process moving. This process of ownership and strengthening of decision making is the strategy itself in action.

It is through the actors’ own willingness and efforts--the basic elements of truly sustainable development--that wetlands will be incorporated as ecosystems with importance, not only for conserving biodiversity, but also for the country’s socioeconomic development.

Actions carried out during the "Strategy" strengthen this working principle within a process that never ends, and which is and will continue being implemented by all the actors in integrated and participative ways. This is the main objective of the Second Phase of the National Strategy for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Wetlands in Costa Rica.