FunNature & AnimalRodrigo Gámez:

Rodrigo Gámez:

Yesterday a hundred species disappeared from the face of the Earth. Today they will do so many others, and so every day for years. Many of them contain the secret of curing diseases or the possibility of better feeding an increasingly hungry world. Possibly, that secret remains forever beyond the reach of man, because most of the species that disappear have not even been classified by science. Their conservation is the only guarantee of the future for humanity, because we depend on them to feed ourselves, maintain our geochemical balance and even breathe, but the deforestation of the forests is causing their rapid disappearance in almost all tropical countries.

This is not the case of Costa Rica, which has become a pioneer country in the conservation of its biodiversity. Despite being a small tropical nation, the efforts of people like Rodrigo Gámez and the vision of the future of its leaders did the miracle. The key to success has been a research center, INBio, which has become the world’s leading reference in the protection of nature and biodiversity.

With a slow and convinced speech, Rodrigo Gámez declares his satisfaction with what has been done. Now, the youngest of his children follows the path opened by him and dedicates himself to the economics of biodiversity.

This is the right way, because the problem of biodiversity is economic, right?
-Yes, it is an economic and political problem, not a scientific one. To save biological diversity, it must be put to work for society. The human being values what is useful and productive for him. For this reason, none of the animals that we know and value, such as cows or chickens, is threatened with extinction.

What role does the scientist play?
-No one can value what they do not know, and despite the fact that man has always depended on nature, we have reached a point where we feel outside of it. The development of large cities makes us see nature as something distant. The researcher’s job is to better understand the natural world and discover the benefits it offers.

Why is it that Costa Rica has become the pioneer country in the knowledge and conservation of biodiversity?
-We are still in contact with nature. My generation has seen what it was like before and what it is like now, after the great deforestation of the 1950s and 1960s, and we have not liked the change.

But that happens with other countries and they have not taken action …
-Historically, Costa Rica has had culturally different characteristics from other countries. During the colonization it was the poorest region of the Spanish empire and only people who fled the Inquisition came here. When independence arrived, in 1821, the Constitution already included free and compulsory education. In 1948 there was a small civil war and the first measure that the victorious president, José Figueres, took was to abolish the army. So all resources were spent on education, health, housing …

How was the biodiversity plan started?
-A group of people were concerned about the difficult maintenance of protected areas and we thought that the philosophy of national parks should be changed to that of conservation areas. The conservation trilogy says that you have to save, know and use, and national parks do only the first step. The parks of Costa Rica were isolated zones that had to be closed and protected from the neighbors of the neighboring agrarian lands by forest guards. There were no scientific criteria in its designation: an endemic species appeared and an island of protection was created. So what we had was an archipelago of poorly managed parks. The alternative was to create large conservation areas that would unite these scattered areas, increase the protected territory and produce benefits for the development of local communities. I had talked about this with Óscar Arias and, when he was elected president in 1986, he called me to put it into practice. Now we have gone from having 12 percent of the territory protected to 32 percent.

What benefits does that bring?
-On the one hand, there are environmental services, such as water production, CO2 fixation and climate regulation. Think that the largest metropolitan area of the country receives 90 percent of the drinking water from the protected areas, that soon we will have a tax on gasoline, whose funds will go to the protected areas and their people, to compensate for the work of fixing the anhydride carbonic from forests. We had 15 years of drought and now we have suffered heavy rains and in both cases the forests have shown their advantages by retaining water and preventing floods. Then there are the local benefits, such as ecotourism and education. Tourist visits to protected areas are already the first source of foreign exchange for Costa Rica, above coffee! And these revenues have an impact on the people who live near these areas. In education, we have promoted that these protected areas serve as an open school for comprehensive training, not only to learn biology, but also geography, human relations with the environment, etc., and all schools and colleges in these regions regularly attend these areas. Finally, there are the benefits of information, so that scientific research is encouraged. There are already eight laboratories in which foreign scientists work who are also a source of employment. In short, protected areas are a library open to all of society.

Has the biological wealth of the country been assessed?
-Costa Rica is one of the richest countries on the planet in biodiversity, with half a million species. Until a few years ago, only 14 percent of them were known, the result of 150 years of research, but in six years we have already gone to 20 percent and we intend to reach 60 percent in the next seven. Bear in mind that most countries do not know even 10 percent of their biodiversity. Our intention is to reach the total inventory of species, a megaproject that will cost about 30 years and about one hundred million dollars.

Where does the money come from?
-From the Global Fund for the Environment and from countries with which we are in negotiations, such as the Netherlands or Norway, and among which we would like Spain to be. We have the support of UNESCO, which has a project called Diversitas to make total inventories of species and which has chosen our project as a pioneer model.

Are species still being lost in Costa Rica?
-It can be said that in the medium term we will not lose any, if we manage to consolidate the plan, although it is always inevitable that some will be lost. Our intention is that a third of the territory is protected, but even so we cannot prevent it from being protected in the form of islands and that this produces a minimum loss of biodiversity.

What would you recommend to other countries to conserve their biodiversity?
-Each country is different and has its problems. We are not going to tell anyone what to do. What we can do is teach what we are doing, and that is why we organize seminars and workshops for foreign experts. Everyone should understand that there are three types of wealth: material, cultural and biological, and that although the latter has been the least valued and the most destroyed, it is nevertheless the one we tropical countries have. You have to take advantage of that wealth to make it attractive and to get resources from the first world.

For many, conserving biodiversity would require a return to primitive life forms …
-That’s unfeasible. Given the growth of the world population, we can no longer be in perfect coexistence with nature, but what we can do is live in alliance with it, taking advantage of the opportunities it offers us to improve our quality of life.

Do you think that the Biodiversity Agreement signed at the Rio de Janeiro summit can contribute to improving the situation?
-Yes, although it is only a first step that must be adjusted to each country. The important thing is that the States present their conservation strategies. The agreement establishes an application period of 25 years, but by then most of the biodiversity will no longer exist. If our generation doesn’t, it will be too late. That is why Costa Rica decided to do it on its own and accelerate it.

How could the agreement be streamlined?
-The political will is needed. And this will would be accelerated if the rulers saw the economic interests that biodiversity hides. As President Figueres said, conservation has to be a good business for it to work. It is true that the future of species depends on us, but it is also true that ours depends on them.
Ignacio F. Bayo

This interview was published in February 1996, in number 177 of VERY Interesting


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