When the Last Tree is Cut Down . . .

When the Last Tree is Cut Down . . .

Paul Collar

Paul is a geologist and engineer and publishes this newspaper.  You may reach him at paul@osagroup.org

I think that I shall never see
A poem so lovely as a tree;

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer, 1913

Writing from the second story verandah of my home, cars pass by 30 meters away along the harbor front road, but I only see the headlights blinking through the dense foliage of the trees that call my front yard home.  A couple times a week, about this time of night, comes a clomping on the roof above and soon a rustling of foliage of the tree nearest the corner, and presently an opossum of one kind or another, occasionally bird-dogged by a second opossum replete with sprouted horns, appears from the night and into the glare of my verandah lighting.  They don’t know what to make of me—a few feet away during their arboreal descent—and either stop to gawk back or hurry on along their merry way.  And I don’t know what to make of them either, other than to marvel in their visitation.  During the day the squirrels rule the boughs and converge to titter and scold the feral cats that wander the grounds and the odd silky anteater that shows up from time to time as well.  There is a troop of white-faced capuchins that make the rounds at least once daily to drive the squirrels nuts with the territorial clamor of limb-shaking and fang-bearing shrieks.  The capuchins come around from the mangroves out back, usually in the afternoons, and race around the verandah railing and leap from it back and forth to the trees, sometimes jumping up and down on the zinc roof of the party deck above me to raise as big a din as they are able and drink from the pool water from their elbows, breaking twigs from the trees all around to throw to the ground in shrieks when they get all worked up over something.  If I leave something on my desk when I go to bed and the monkeys come around in the morning before I have retaken my post, they play with it—bank token, datacard, ballpoint pen, keys, remote control—whatever it is, if I have not secured it inside the night before, it winds up in the yard below, or on the tiled veranda floor; thankfully they do not take it around back to drop into the mangrove tidewater, at least not yet.  And to that end, I have managed to keep my laptop and cell phone from their purloining mischief.  But in the chaos of a reality punctuated by probability and statistics, I surely have a run of luck going.

The planet can hardly boast as much, and luck, as it turns out, is the province not of providence, but of the well-prepared.  And while the planet is experiencing a current net deforestation rate of around 73,000 square kilometers per year, this is down 14% from the world’s deforestation rate from 1990-2000 of 85,000 square kilometers per year.  While the planet is headed in the right direction on this important metric, the yearly planetary deforestation is still equal to a land area 1.5 times larger than Costa Rica itself.  Our planet cuts down 200 square kilometers per day of forest more than it replants.  Corcovado National Park has an area of 164 square kilometers.  Globally, we lose the equivalent of our entire Corcovado National Park and twenty percent more in trees every single day of the year.

The Republic of Costa Rica has been more ambitious in its reforestation goals than perhaps any nation.  As the image below shows, Costa Rica underwent a period of extensive deforestation from the 1940’s through the 1980’s until inaugurating forestry laws that dramatically reversed these trends.  At its 1987 nadir only 21% of the nation had forest cover.  Today the World Bank estimates our forest coverage at 54% and growing.  Costa Rica is a small country and its gains are dwarfed by the pressures on forestry in Brazil and Indonesia among others.  Yet as a proportion of national area, Costa Rica’s forestry gains are dramatic.

Costa Rica’s remarkable reforestation strides come despite the fact that aside from its people its single largest raw resource is the forest itself.  Whether penciled out in pulgadas of exotic tropical hardwoods or in oxygen production capacity per hectare, whether attributed a valuation component within the nation’s eco-tourism industry or through accounting gimmicks to charge best-of lists among a fawning international press, the nation’s forests, for better or worse, are not part of just a national identity but indeed a barometer of national health and a bookmark in the planetary annals of state-sponsored environmentalism.


In fact, Costa Rica is no late arrival to forestry conservation.  The nation’s seminal law was the Ley Forestal (Ley 4465) of 1969, which founded the nation’s Forestry agency (Dirección General Forestal).  This was amended in 1986 with Ley 7032, found unconstitutional in 1990 and substituted the same year by Law 7174.  In 1996 the overarching and present law governing forestry (Ley 7575) was passed, and in the following year, one of the key tools of environmental protection was inaugurated, establishing payments for forestry protection, Pago por Servicios Ambientales, overseen by MINAE’s Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal (FONAFIFO).  The establishment of the National Park System in 1977 (Ley 6084) led to the active protection of 25% of today’s national territory in national parks, biological areas, and forestry reserves, legislation that is widely considered a planetary gold standard for forest conservation.  In fact, Costa Rica has the highest percentage of its area under national protection of any country on earth.  Not content to stand on such laurels, in 2013, Costa Rica became the first nation on the planet to inaugurate the international brokerage of oxygen credits through the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, celebrating a $63 million international investment in forestry preservation to offset planetary carbon footprints caused by the combustion of fossil fuels elsewhere.

When I first came to Costa Rica in 1984 on a study-abroad program, turtle eggs were legally sold in restaurants and mostly bars, and my host family for a few days in Cahuita served turtle meat proudly (and legally) to our group for dinner.  Today, the harvesting of turtle eggs and the poaching of sea turtles are not only illegal but increasingly verboten in a society that treasures its vanguard as a planetary standard-bearer of environmental probity.  While the 2002 law that protects these endangered creatures (8325) is a critical tool in their protection, it is national education and an evolution of cultural tendencies that is at the root of the success of Costa Rica’s protection of these noble reptiles.

While a similar educational program in forestry protection is nascent and growing, illegal logging remains a pressing assault on the nation’s forestry resources both inside and outside of nationally protected areas.  While laws are again important tools in the protection of the resource, the cultural appeal of native hardwoods for home construction, furniture, and general building continues to sustain an illicit market that can only be finally eradicated through an evolving national conscience away from the use of such woods in construction.

In this eighth edition of Sol de Osa we try to take on this critical threat to the nation’s forestry resources and in particular to Corcovado National Park and the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve.  Let’s face it.  Trees can be worth up to tens of thousands of dollars on the open market.  And like gold in the Osa’s streams and the peninsula’s maritime proximity to Colombia, the illegal harvesting of these trees is underlain by an economic incentive that, like the US affection for illicit drugs, drives criminal enterprise and environmental degradation.

Costa Rica has an uncanny ability to transition to the right side of all arguments, be they environmental, social or cultural.  Its people are unequaled in recognition of human rights and in the exercise of those rights that is so deeply forged in the national character.  In just its third decade of formalizing ecotourism as a national industry, the tourism business has directly and indirectly opened a 12 point stake in the nation’s Gross National Product and awakened a vibrant national conscience on environmental sanity and sustainability and generated a quarter of a million jobs.  After fifteen years, turtle eggs are no longer part of the national diet.  Now is the time for the appetite for wood to experience a similar moral and ethical assault.

Few can convincingly argue that wood is a viable alternative to less unsustainable building materials like concrete, steel, and glass.  Wood is expensive.  It rots.  Wood is damaged by termites.  It requires semi-annual maintenance.  Some may argue that it is pretty, that it conveys “warmth” to a finished interior, but these aesthetic claims cannot belie the fact that wood is a flawed building material.  While enforcement of laws protecting native species, encouragement of silvicultural production of teak, bamboo, Caribbean pine, and native species, plus blurry accounting gimmicks may well be tactics in this nation’s war against illegal logging, the real bar is overcoming wood’s aesthetic appeal.  Once the market for native wood is shrunk through educational outreach and corresponding public circumspection, the financial incentive gets winnowed from the equation.  It’s a paradigm already in play and like the nation’s turning away from the former alimentary staple of turtle eggs, is inevitable. But rather than wait for that to happen I for one examine my individual stake and turn against the widespread use of wood in construction and recognize and celebrate that the resource has its greatest value alive and standing as part of the 54% of this country with forest cover.

Others have framed the argument somewhat more poetically:

  • Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. Kahlil Gibran


  • The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. John Muir


  • I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. e. cummings


  • Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven. Rabindranath Tagore


  • What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another. Chris Maser


  • When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money. Native American proverb




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