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Sustainable Development Studies

Costa Rica

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Conserving Tropical Biodiversity and Promoting Sustainable Development

Costa Rica is known worldwide for its conservation efforts, which have attracted millions of tourists to the country’s parks and reserves. However, the ongoing transition from an agriculture-based to a service economy, climate change, and accelerated infrastructural development threaten Costa Rica’s biodiversity and society. As rural areas give way to urban development, already scarce resources, including fresh water and energy sources, are stretched to their limit. The program examines different development and resource management models that Costa Rica uses to protect the biodiversity of its ecosystems while promoting socioeconomic benefits for its people.

  • Semester Programs

    Sustainable Development Studies

    Costa Rica

    Costa Rica is a resource-rich and biodiverse country that is rapidly developing and increasingly recognized for its efforts to ensure conservation and the protection of natural resources. Students examine management schemes, identify the benefits of protected areas, and determine which systems offer the best option for economic development, the maintenance of cultural norms, and the preservation of biodiversity.

  • Summer Programs

    Session I: Sustaining Tropical Ecosystems: Biodiversity, Conservation, & Development

    Costa Rica

    Students examine the impacts of development on the environment and on society by understanding key historical and current aspects of sustainable development strategies in Costa Rica, coupled with knowledge of tropical ecosystem function and connectivity.

  • Session II: Applied Research Techniques & Strategies Toward Sustainability

    Costa Rica

    Students are directly involved in designing and conducting field research on a topic of immediate relevance to local clients and proposing alternative approaches toward sustainable development in an effort to help address challenges to conservation goals.

How can Costa Rica respond to local and global challenges while securing the functionality of its natural and human systems?

The SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS) in Costa Rica presents the third cycle of its five-year research plan (5YRP), covering the period 2013-2017, as part of its unique model of research and education in study abroad programs. The topics of the research plan are identified after a review of the current status of natural resources and biodiversity protection of Costa Rica. The plan is developed through an interactive and collaborative process involving SFS staff, local managers of natural resources, and local communities, and is based on the results of our previous investigations. Research results are presented to these stakeholders to facilitate informed decision-making to better manage environmental resources and ecosystem services, as well as to maintain the stability and integrity of the communities that depend on them.


We hope to increase public environmental awareness and concern for maintaining healthy ecosystems, especially in communities affected by tourism and environmental degradation.        


Costa Rica has taken a comprehensive approach to protect its rich biodiversity. The National System of Protected Areas (SINAC) is organized into II conservation areas, which comprise 26 per cent of the mainland territory and 17 per cent of the country's national waters. A sustained effort to establish protected areas has reversed record-high deforestation rates and resulted in the recuperation of 52 per cent the forest cover by 2012. Despite its initial success, the structure of SINAC has been weakened by increased bureaucracy, chronic lack of funding, a weak legal framework, and weak enforcement of the existing regulations, lack of government vision, and lack of community integration.

Effective management of natural resources and the protection of biodiversity are essential for securing the future welfare of Costa Rica. However, critical management decisions are often based on little research, or are affected by strong interests focused on short-term economic gain. In addition, the country has experienced a rapid transition from an agriculture-based to a service-based economy, and thus faces many negative impacts from globalization, such as rapid urban expansion, decreased food security, and expansion of monocrop plantations. This heavily impacts biodiversity and the human communities that depend on it.

Besides the fluctuating economy, natural phenomena triggered by climate change present some of the most critical challenges that make the re-organization of land-use practices and development policies (e.g., the relocation of coastal communities) an urgent imperative. Tourism continues to be the main source of national revenue, but it needs to be managed properly to guarantee that it will be ecologically sustainable, and that its benefits will be shared by investors and local communities alike. The current threats to biodiversity protection are the rapid conversion of rural into urban areas with the consequent forest loss and habitat fragmentation, the globalization of agriculture {increased monocrop plantations servicing international markets as opposed to local food production), the occupation of prime real estate by foreign investors with the resulting displacement of local communities, inappropriate waste disposal, increased pollution, and greater demands and competition for water resources.


This state of affairs justifies the question driving our new research plan: How can Costa Rica respond to local and global challenges while securing the functionality of its natural and human systems? Research will stem from two consolidated thematic components:

1. Relationships between conservation and economic development; and

2. Ecosystem function and connectivity

Research focused on the first component will analyze the ecological and socio-economic drivers and impacts of land-use/land cover changes, the valuation of ecosystem services, the management of biophysical and socio-economic impacts of tourism, alternatives for sustainable development in and around protected areas, and the current strategies for human mitigation/adaptation to climate change. Tourism continues to be the most important source of revenue and one of the major aspects of globalization, and thus, its proper management is critical for environmental and economic sustainability, especially in areas of massive visitation. Under the new research agenda CSDS will focus on the analysis of increased tourism visitation on biodiversity protection and infrastructure needs within protected areas, as well as on the socioeconomic make-up and human capital of nearby communities.

The second component will examine the production of ecosystem services by land-use units (i.e., farms and managed forests) as well as at the landscape level, ecosystem responses to climate change, fluctuations in biodiversity within protected areas, impacts of land-use changes on natural resources and ecosystem services, ecological impacts of infrastructure on biodiversity, and the disturbances on wildlife caused by visitation to protected areas.


Through the implementation of our SYRP and delivery of research results to key decision makers, we expect to improve the local ability to protect, conserve, manage and monitor natural resources and ecosystem health at different scales. By doing so, we hope to increase public environmental awareness and concern for maintaining healthy ecosystems, especially in communities affected by tourism, uncontrolled urban expansion, and environmental degradation. This process provides a field -based experience to SFS students; improve the skills and expertise of SFS faculty and partner participants; and strengthen our technical collaboration with governmental agencies, local communities and NGOs.

The major beneficiaries of our research and related outreach activities comprise rural and peri-urban communities in the Central Valley Pacific Region; governmental agencies responsible for protecting and conserving natural ecosystems; local community leaders in the business, tourism, industry, education, public health, and governance sectors; municipalities and branches of government offices such as the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health, as well as several local universities and research institutions, and additional organizations interested in the protection and conservation of the natural resources and the ecological health of Costa Rica.


For more information on the research conducted by the faculty and staff of this Center, please visit The SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies page and click on individual biographies.

For a complete list of peer-reviewed publications by SFS faculty, staff and students, click here.

The SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies has been in the community of Atenas since 1993. For more than 20 years SFS has enjoyed a wonderful and close relationship with Atenas and the local neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Center hires primarily Costa Rican faculty and staff members, who are or become active members of the community. In addition, the Center provides jobs for local technicians and support staff as well as giving business to local stores, galleries, restaurants, and cooperatives.

A cornerstone of the program is its community service and opportunity for student engagement in Atenas and surrounding areas. The Center collaborates with local organizations to do forest restoration plantings, care for the municipal forest, and volunteer in national parks. At the Center, students have designed and maintained a local recycling program as well. Other outreach activities include teaching environmental education and English at local schools. Students also add to the social fabric by attending soccer games, festivals, and other performances.

SFS students participate in home-stay visits and host community dinners where the home-stay families are invited to come to the Center. Additionally, the Center hosts meetings of local development and conservation organizations based in Atenas. The Center's farm has received a Rainforest Alliance "Sustainable Agriculture" certification, which further demonstrates the sustainable practices and student participation in the environmental health of the Center.

With such close ties to the community, it is no surprise that the Center collaborates with local researchers and government officials to disseminate research data and information. Students and staff attend meetings and presentations at major universities as well as at farms, national parks, and reserves. Our Center is an important stakeholder and collaborator for local municipalities, development organizations, and local branches of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Center has also maintained a collaboration agreement with the National System of Conservation Areas for the last 15 years.