Once upon a time, the nation of Costa Rica had stunning rainforests covering 75% of the countryside. The country accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth's surface but it contains nearly 6 percent of the world's biodiversity. Some of the most beautiful animals in nature, from the ocelot to the macaw to toucans. But all that forest meant a lot of opportunity for loggers, cattle ranchers, and farmers, who went into the forest with chainsaws in hand and devastated the forest. While exact numbers are hard to come by, anywhere from a third to a half of the rainforest was gone by 1987.
Much of it has grown back.
Thanks to government intervention, which passed a law in 1996 making it illegal to begin logging operations without a rarely-issued permit. A short time later, the government instituted a system of payment for ecosystem services (PES) which paid farmers for carrying out sustainability practices like protecting watersheds, conserving biodiversity or capturing carbon dioxide. The government scheme, which is financed predominantly by a tax on fossil fuels, has paid out a total of $500 million to landowners over the last 20 years, according to FONAFIFO, the nation's forestry fund.
"We have learned that the pocket is the quickest way to get to the heart," says Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica's minister for environment and energy, adding that people are more likely to take care of nature if it provides an income.
Whatever it's doing, it's working. 60% of the lost rainforest has grown back, bringing back half a million species into its care.
The country has a phrase called "pura vida," which is used as a greeting, a farewell and in many other social contexts. It translates as "pure life" and signifies peace and respect between a person, their friends and family, and the environment. This respect is reinforced by the country's booming ecotourism sector says Patricia Madrigal-Cordero, former vice-minister for the environment.
"People come to see the mountains, the nature, the forests, and when they are stunned by a monkey or a sloth in the tree, communities realize what they have here, and they realize they should care for it," she tells CNN.
This effort has been rewarded with tourism dollars. The nation of 5 million people sees around 3 million visitors a year. Last year, tourism generated almost $4 billion in revenue for the country. The industry accounts, both directly and indirectly, for more than 8% of GDP and employs at least 200,000 people.
"People in Costa Rica receive a lot of money because of tourism and that changes the incentives of land use," says Juan Robalino, an expert in environmental economics from the University of Costa Rica.
Other countries have tried similar efforts with varying degrees of success, but a combination of political will, environmental passion and tourism that has enabled Costa Rica to become a pioneer in reforestation.