image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro adapted the following piece in January 2011 from his Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit speech for publication in Costa Rica’s Tico Times newspaper.

Investing in our Natural Capital

This month we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Costa Rica’s System of National Parks and Protected Areas, which got its start when Poas Volcano National Park was established in January 1971. I was one of the Park Service’s two original employees and during my four decades of work on behalf of our natural heritage, I’ve become closely acquainted with one very important and unrelenting truth that applies to all living creatures and our ecosystems in equal measure. Often expressed in Latin as ex nihilo nihil fit, this universal tenet tells us that “nothing comes from nothing.” In other words, it is impossible to create something out of nothing.

Thus, whatever human wealth we’ve built or manufactured here on earth, necessarily meant the reduction of another kind of wealth we don’t usually account for on our financial statements: our natural capital. Without fail, at the absolute beginning of the most ultimate of supply chains, and at several points further along it, a forest was cleared, the atmosphere was impacted, a river’s flow was polluted, diverted, or obstructed, and non-human life was taken, in order to provide us with the kind of life we’ve wanted for ourselves. I do not say this reproachfully, but rather as a matter of fact because we must always remember that in order to have something, we must diminish something else...ex nihilo nihil fit.

1940s Costa Rica was 3/4 covered with untouched forests, and its populace was still largely barefoot. Then, during that same decade, came national policies that eliminated the army, and directed capital investment into education, health, and other social welfare programs. Today, in terms of several conventional indicators, Costa Rica is considered a model for developing nations. In effect, because nothing comes from nothing, a considerable amount of the country’s forests and other natural capital was processed into pasturelands, schools, hospitals, infrastructure and services, not to mention more Costa Ricans.

We now have our shoes. We also have our cars, our highways, our airports and many other goods and services. But much of the country’s recent economic growth may not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the strong conservation effort started in the 1970s that slowed the several decades-old trend towards natural capital depletion.

Costa Rica’s national parks and other protected areas, not only help protect more than 4% of earth’s biodiversity, in a tiny country that is largely invisible on a world map, but also played a pivotal role in restoring forest cover back to near half of Costa Rica’s land area, after falling to a low of approximately 1/5 in the 80s. These parks also set the stage for what is today perhaps our top money maker: the tourism industry. It turned out to be an excellent investment in our natural capital.

Furthermore, the national parks system, together with other lands that are under the ownership and protection of local communities, non-profit organizations and private individuals, have helped maintain vital services the Planet provides us, services we notoriously take for granted, such as the provision of drinking water and the “hidden water” contained in virtually all our goods and services, soil erosion control, flood mitigation, carbon sinking and climate moderation.

Costa Rica’s conservation movement is a good example of times throughout history when humans have slowed the rate at which natural capital is converted into “processed” capital, thus striking a better balance between industrial development and the protection of the resources that make that type of economic growth even possible, not to mention sustainable over time.

But this balance remains a precarious one at best, both in Costa Rica and the rest of the world.

Although now retired from the Parks Service, I still dedicate a considerable amount of time to making sure that what was started several decades ago with Poas National Park, continues today, with the relatively younger parks, such as the Water National Park. Established in 1992, Juan Castro Blanco/Water National Park (its complete name) encompasses a 14,000-hectare area just to the east of Ciudad Quesada. The park’s tropical cloud forests act as a sponge, soaking up 560 million cubic meters of rain and other precipitation every year. This is later released as the drinking water for tens of thousands of local people, as well as the water used to generate an important part of Costa Rica’s hydro-electricity. However, the Water National Park’s lands are still largely in private hands and must somehow be purchased by the Costa Rican government. Local communities are taking action, including more than 60,000 households that voluntarily adopted an electricity rate increase to help generate funds for the Park. But given the magnitude of the challenge, much more help is needed. I invite readers who are convinced of this urgent task to join Nectandra Institute,, a non-profit organization I co-founded, in our support of the communities working to protect Juan Castro Blanco/Water National Park and the watersheds that originate inside it.