Ecologists define 12 tropical life zones in Costa Rica, which are named according to forest type and altitude in a system devised by and named after LR Holdridge. Thus there are dry, moist, and rain forests in tropical, premontane, lower montane, montane, and subalpine areas.
Within a life zone, several types of habitat may occur. Much of Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, for example, is tropical dry forest, but types of vegetation within this zone include deciduous forest, evergreen forest, mangrove swamp, and littoral woodland. Thus Costa Rica has a huge variety of habitats, each with particular associations of plants and animals. The country's extensive and ambitious national park system is an attempt to protect them all.
Despite Costa Rica's national park system, the mayor problem facing the nation's environment is deforestation. Costa Rica's natural vegetation was originally almost all forest, but most of this has been cleared, mainly for pasture of agriculture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, that between 1973 and 1989, Costa Rica's forests were being lost at an average rate of 2.3% each year. The situation has improved over the past decade, however: Tree plantations are being developed, and the availability of commercially grown timber means there is less pressure to log the natural forests. Nevertheless, deforestation continues at a high rate and there now very little natural forest outside the protected areas. Even within national parks, some of the more remote areas have been logged illegally because there is not enough money to hire park guards to enforce the law throughout the parks.
Apart from the direct loss of tropical forest and the plants and animals that depend on them (see Conservation, below), deforestation has led directly or indirectly to severe environmental problems. The first and greatest issue is soil erosion. Forests protect the soil beneath them from the ravages of tropical rainstorms, and after deforestation much of the topsoil is washed away, lowering the productivity of the land and silting up watersheds. Some deforested lands are planted with Costa Rica's main agricultural product, bananas, the production of which entails the use of pesticides and blue plastic bags to protect the fruit. Both the pesticides and the plastic bags end up polluting the environment.
The loss of key habitats particularly tropical forest, is a pressing problem. Deforestation is happening at such a rate that most of Costa Rica's (and the world's) tropical forest will have disappeared by the first decades of the 21st century; loss of other habitats is a less publicized but equally pressing concern. With this in mind, two important questions arise: Why are habitats such as the tropical rainforests so important, and what can be done to prevent their loss?
Much of Costa Rica's remaining natural vegetation is tropical forest, and there are many reasons why this particular habitat is important. Almost a million of the known species on earth live in tropical rainforests; scientists predict that most of the millions more plants and animal species that await discovery will be found in the world's remaining rainforests, which have the greatest biodiversity of all the habitats known on the planet. This incredible array of plants and animals cannot exist unless the rainforest that they inhabit is protected - deforestation will result not only in loss of the rainforest but in countless extinctions as well.
The value of tropical plants is more than just the habitat and food they provide for animals, and it is more than the aesthetic value of the plants themselves. Many types of medicines have been extracted from forest trees, shrubs and flowers. These range from anaesthetics to antibiotics, from contraceptives to cures for heart disease, malaria, and various other illnesses. Many medical uses of plants are known only to the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. Other pharmaceutical treasures remain locked up in tropical forests, unknown to anybody. They may never be discovered if the forests are destroyed.
Costa Rica's Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) has signed contracts with pharmaceutical companies such as Merck & Company of the USA, the world's largest pharmaceutical company. Funding from the companies is used to support INBio's efforts to protect the rainforest by training locals to make plant and animal collections in the field and to make detailed inventories. Simple preliminary studies are carried out to identify those species that may have medical significance. Thus local people are involved at a grassroots level, and pharmaceutical companies receive selections of species that may lead to vital medical breakthroughs. the deal doesn't stop there, however. The contracts earmark a percentage of the profits for conservation and preservation efforts.
Deforestation leads not only to species extinction but also to loss of the genetic diversity that could help certain species adapt to a changing world. Many crops are monocultures that suffer from a lack of genetic diversity. In other words, all the plants are almost identical because agriculturists have bred strains that are high yielding, easy to harvest, good tasting, etc. If monocultures are attacked by a new disease or pest epidemic, they could be wiped out because the resistant strains may have been bred out of the population. Plants such as bananas, an important part of Costa Rica's economy, are found in tropical forest, so in the event of an epidemic scientists could look for disease-resistant wild strains to breed into the commercially raised crops.
While biodiversity for aesthetic, medical, and genetic reasons may be important to us, it is even more important to the local indigenous peoples who still survive in tropical rainforests. In Costa Rica, Bri Bri Indian groups, still live in the rainforest in a more or less traditional manner. Some remaining Cabecar Indians still practice shifting agriculture, hunting and gathering. About half of Costa Rica's remaining Indian people are protected in the ärea de Conservación La Amistad Caribe y Pacífico, which comprises three national parks and a host of indigenous, biological and other reserves in the Talamanca region on the Costa Rica - Panama border. Various international agencies are working with the Costa Rican authorities to protect this area and the cultural and anthropological treasures within it.
Rainforests are important on a global scale because they moderate global climatic patterns. Scientist have determined that the destruction of the rainforests is a mayor contributing factor to global warming, which would lead to disastrous changes to our world. These change include the melting of ice caps, causing rising ocean levels and flooding of mayor coastal cities, many of which are only a scant few meters above the present sea level. Global warming would also make many to the world's 'breadbasket regions' unsuitable for crop production.
All these are good reasons why rain-forests and other habitats should be preserved and protected, but the reality of the economic importance of forest exploitation by the developing nations that own tropical forests must also be considered. It is undeniably true that the rainforest provides resources in the way of timber, pasture, and possible mineral wealth, but this is a short-sighted view.
The rainforest's long-term importance, both from a global view and as a resource of biodiversity, genetic variation, and pharmaceutical wealth, is becoming recognized by the countries that contain forest as well as other nations of the world that will be affected by the destruction of these rainforests. Efforts are now underway to show that the economic value of the standing rainforest is greater than the wealth realized be deforestation.
One important way to make the tropical forest en economic productive resource without cutting it down is to protect it in national parks and preserves and make it accessible to visitors. this type of eco-tourism has become extremely important to the economy of Costa Rica and other nations with similar natural resources. More people are likely to visit Costa Rica to see monkeys in the forest than to see cows in a pasture. the visitors spend money in hotels, transport, tours, food, and souvenirs. In addition, many people who spend time in the tropics gain a better understanding of the natural beauty within forests, and the importance of preserving them. The result is that when the visitors return home, they become goodwill ambassadors for tropical forests.
The fundamental concepts of eco-tourism is excellent, and it has been very successful - so successful that there have been inevitable problems and abuses (See Eco-tourism). apart from Eco-tourism, other innovative projects for sustainable development of tropical forests are being developed. Many of these developments are on private reserves such as Monteverde and Rara Avis. Here, individuals not connected with the government are showing how forests can be preserved and yield a higher economic return that if they were cut down for a one-time sale of lumber and the land then turned into a low-yield pasture.
Text by Lonely Planet.
Pictures by ICT, Instituto Nacional de Tourismo. The team of Discovery Travel World wishes you the best of times in our little paradise called Costa Rica.
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