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in Costa Rica. Credit: YES! Magazine/Susan Hardman. All rights reserved.

A child growing up in
the Costa Rican countryside is surrounded by some of the most beautiful and
biodiverse landscapes in the world. The government of this tiny Central
American country aims to keep it that way. But preserving this land of tropical
rainforests isn’t Costa Rica’s only accomplishment. The government ensures all
citizens have access to health care and education, and the
country actively promotes peace
around the world. So when the
New Economics Foundation released its second Happy Planet Index, a ranking of
countries based on their environmental impact and the health and happiness of
their citizens, the No. 1 spot went to Costa Rica, population 4 million.

The United States’
ranking: No. 108 in 2016.

What can our neighbor
to the south teach us about happiness, longevity, and environmental

“Costa Rica enjoys a privileged position as a
mid-income country where citizens have sufficient spare time and abundant
interpersonal relations,” says Costa Rican economics professor Mariano Rojas.
“A mid-income level allows most citizens to satisfy their basic needs.
Government intervention in the economy assures that all Costa Ricans have
access to education, health, and nutrition services.” Costa Ricans, he added,
have not entered the “race for status and conspicuous consumption.”

Created in 2008,
the Happy
Planet Index
examines sustainable happiness on a national
level, ranking 143 countries according to three measurements: how happy its
citizens are, how long they live, and how much of the planet’s resources they
each consume. The HPI multiplies years of life expectancy by life satisfaction
(as measured by the Gallup Poll and the World Values Survey), to obtain “Happy
Life Years,” which are then divided by pressure on ecosystems, as measured by
the ecological footprint. (The ecological footprint, in turn, measures how much
land and water it takes to provide for each person.)

The Happy Planet Index
“strips down the economy to what really matters,” says New Economics Foundation
researcher Saamah Abdallah. It measures “what goes in, in terms of resource
use, and the outcomes that are important, which are happy and healthy lives for
us all. In this way, it reminds us that the economy is there for a purpose – and
that is to improve our lives.”

Abdallah calls the
importance of family, friends, and community “social capital.” People who live
in countries with higher levels of material wealth often report less happiness
than people in countries with less wealth but stronger social networks.
According to the HPI, a Costa Rican has an ecological footprint one-fourth that
of the average person in the United States.

The United States is
one country where social capital is falling, according to a study conducted by
the economist Stefano Bartolini.

“It is not surprising
that social capital should be falling in the U.S.,” Abdallah says. “Americans work the
longest hours
in the Western world and have the shortest
holidays. All their time is spent making money, rather than building social
bonds, which are just as important to well-being.”

importance of peace.

Domestic and
international peace has long been a priority in Costa Rica. In 1948, the
country abolished its military, allowing it to spend more on health and
education. Its University of Peace, established in 1980, offers a master’s
degree in peace and conflict studies as well as ongoing workshops – like a
recent one on corporate responsibility offered to international business

In September 2009, the
Costa Rican legislature created
a Ministry of Justice and Peace
, emphasizing the role of peace
promotion and conflict resolution in preventing violent crime. Shortly
afterward, the country hosted the 2009 Global Alliance Summit for Ministries
and Departments of Peace, where representatives of 40 countries gathered to
work on developing peace infrastructure in their own governments.

Central to Costa
Rica’s promotion of peace is the Rasur Foundation, which organized the summit
and lobbied for the creation of the Ministry of Justice and Peace. Rasur is a
teacher in a Costa Rican poem who tells a group of children, “Before directing
the lightning in the sky, we must first harness the storms in our own hearts.”
Through its Peace Academy, the Rasur Foundation works with the Costa Rican
Ministry of Education to introduce techniques of conflict resolution and “being
peace” in Costa Rican schools.

Costa Rica’s Nobel
Prize-winning president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, who attended the Summit, is
quoted on the Foundation’s website:

“Peace is not a dream.
It’s an arduous task. We must start by finding peaceful solutions to everyday
conflicts with the people around us. Peace does not begin with the other
person; it begins with each and every one of us.”

Costa Ricans are not
only reporting happy lives, they are living long ones. In the second
measurement of the Happy Planet Index, longevity, Costa Rica scored an average
of 78.5 life years, compared with 77.9 for the United States. Some studies have
suggested that Costa Rican men live longer than men anywhere else in the world.
There is little difference in life expectancy across income levels, unlike in
the United States. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have
found an “enormous gap” in U.S. life expectancy, depending on race, income,
location, and other factors.

Costa Rica’s Nicoya
Peninsula is one of the world’s “Blue Zones” – places where the inhabitants
frequently live to be over 100 years old. The residents of these zones
generally eat well, get plenty of exercise, and have a genetic predisposition
to longevity. Nationwide, Costa Ricans benefit from a combination of
government-run and private insurance options. Costa Rica promotes good health
among its citizens even before they are born, sending doctors and nurses out
into the countryside to provide prenatal care and teach parents how to raise
healthy children.

the landscape.

The Costa Rican
government’s promotion of peace and health for its citizens extends to a
peaceful and healthy relationship to the planet. The size of its ecological
footprint indicates that “the country only narrowly fails to achieve the goal
of…consuming its fair share of the Earth’s natural resources,” according to
the Happy Planet Index.

Costa Rica has
pioneered techniques of land management, reforestation, and alternatives to
fossil fuels.

Spurred by rapid
deforestation of its pristine rainforests due to logging and agriculture, the
country began converting parts of its territory to national parks in the 1970s
and prohibited the export of certain trees. Even so, by 1987, illegal logging,
cattle ranching, and development had reduced the country’s rainforest from 73
to 21 percent of the landscape. So in 1996 Costa Rica introduced the Payment
for Environmental Services Program (PES). Oil importers and water-bottling and
sewage-treatment plants now have to pay a special tax to do business in the
country, while other businesses contribute via a voluntary carbon-offset fee.
The money is used to pay local people to protect the trees, water, and soil in
their surrounding environment by abstaining from cattle ranching and illegal

The PES program has
had mixed results. In some areas, cattle ranching and illegal logging remain
more profitable, and the government has had to scramble to raise enough money
to finance the program. But overall, because of the country’s new environmental
policies, including a massive UN-sponsored tree-planting program begun in 2007,
more than half of Costa Rica’s territory is once again covered with rainforest.

In a further effort to
go green, the country has banned oil drilling within its borders and invests
heavily in renewable energy sources like hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal
power, which now provide 95 percent of its energy. In the capital, San Jose,
vehicles are permitted downtown only on certain days, depending on the
license-plate number. A planned commuter train will also cut down on automobile
pollution. The country has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2021, the year of
its bicentennial.

“The position of Costa Rica is that we all
have to make ourselves present on the issue of climate change,” said Gerardo
Mondragón in a telephone interview with YES! Magazine. He is with Paz con La
Naturaleza (Peace with Nature), an advisory agency to President Arias on
ecological planning. “We want to get the message out that all countries have to support one another in this ,
and in particular, industrialized countries should support those countries who
have clear initiatives.”

Critics of Costa
Rica’s green policy, like Rachel Godfrey Wood of the Council on Hemispheric
Affairs, have pointed out that no amount of tree planting can completely undo
the damage done by fossil fuels.

The Costa Rican
conservation organization FECON posts regularly on its website about continuing
ecological problems in Costa Rica: deforestation by landowners, pineapple
plantations that cause soil erosion and pollute community drinking water with
pesticides, and a new mining development in Las Crucitas that has local
residents worried about cyanide poisoning in the region. Another controversy
recently erupted in a region called Las Baulas, where environmentalists fear
development will threaten the turtle population.

“We have to go slow,”
Mondragón said of the environmental challenges still facing Costa Rica. “But we
still have to let people know what’s happening.” He blamed the Las Crucitas
mining project on antiquated laws that don’t give Costa Rica enough protection
from environmental damage by companies working within its borders. “We need to
change these laws so that development can proceed in a balanced way.”

As a stable democracy
for the past century, Costa Rica has been considered a “business-friendly”
country. Though large banana, pineapple, and coffee plantations have not
disappeared, ecotourism and high-tech companies have increasingly invested in
Costa Rica.

But a recent struggle
between proponents and opponents of CAFTA, the Central American
Free Trade Agreement
that passed last year, highlighted
divisions over the issue of liberalizing trade laws. In one camp are those such
as President Arias, who support CAFTA because they believe it will bring additional
foreign investment; in the other camp are those who fear trade liberalization
and privatization will allow businesses to be unaccountable to Costa Rica’s
labor or environmental regulations. The controversy over CAFTA illustrates an
innate dilemma in Costa Rica’s green strategy: How can a country that relies on
corporate investment for its economic survival demand that those same
corporations abide by the country’s ecological guidelines? And what clout does
it have in enforcing those guidelines?

No country, not even
Costa Rica with its No.1 ranking, has reached the goal of “one planet living”
that the creators of the Happy Planet Index believe we should all aspire to:
consuming our fair share of the Earth’s resources. “We want nations, regions,
and cities to assess how well they are doing based on well-being and
environmental impact,” says Abdallah of the New Economics Foundation. “We would
like to highlight the message that good
lives need not cost the Earth
and that ‘one planet living’ can
actually mean a
better life

This article was first
published in YES!
under a different title and standfirst.


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