Article 50 of our Political Constitution was reformed by Law No. 7412 of 3 June 1994. It included the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment. Thirty years have passed. In this regard, it is worth asking if this environment is in the same state and if the ecological balance is the same or has improved, or rather, if it has deteriorated. It is worth reviewing the state of the situation and the state of the environment we are protecting.

By Allan Astorga

Healthy and ecologically balanced environment: this is a well-known phrase. It was the main right introduced in 1994 in article 50 of the Constitution. In 2020 the right to water was introduced, which is related, but which we will discuss in another opinion piece.

But what is a healthy and ecologically balanced environment? A healthy environment includes an environment that is unpolluted, clean, without degradation, i.e., as pristine as possible. Ecologically balanced, on the other hand, means something more, because it has to take into account the intervention of human beings in this environment.

For this reason, Executive Decree Number 31849-MINAE-SALUD-MOPT-MAG-MEIC, General Regulation on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedures, of 28 June 2004 defined the concept of Ecological Balance as follows: “is the relationship of interdependence between the elements that make up the environment that makes possible the existence, transformation and development of human beings and other living beings. The ecological balance between the activities of human beings and their environment is reached when the pressure (effects or impacts) exerted by the former does not exceed the charge capacity of the latter, in such a way that this activity manages to insert itself harmoniously with the natural ecosystem, without the existence of one representing a danger for the existence of the other”.

In this way, ecological balance incorporates the active role of human beings in the context where, despite human intervention, the natural balance is maintained. As can be seen, this is directly related to the carrying capacity or environmental fragility of the environment. Therefore, the most appropriate way to maintain that balance is for human intervention to occur in the least environmentally fragile sites. And if it corresponds to a more fragile environment, such intervention should be as minimal as possible and should seek to mitigate and compensate for these negative effects.

Change in the state of the environment: during the last 30 years, since the change in Article 50 of the Constitution was approved, the state of the environment and the balance of the terrestrial Ecosphere has changed significantly. This, both in Costa Rica and worldwide.

In 1993, the population of Costa Rica was 3.4 million inhabitants. Today, the population is 1.8 million more, i.e., 5.2 million in total.

In the same year, the world’s total population was 5.5 billion, whereas today we are just over 8 billion, i.e., 2.5 billion more inhabitants.

In terms of climate change, the total CO2 in the atmosphere in 1993 was 357 ppm, which meant an increase of 0.2°C compared to the pre-industrial temperature (around 1,800 AD). Today, the CO2 content in the atmosphere is 424 ppm, while the temperature in the atmosphere shows an increase of 1.2°Cover the pre-industrial temperature.

We are very close to the threshold of 450 ppm, which has been considered a point of no return, with a temperature of 1.5°C. According to recent projections, this will be reached within the next five years, which is of real concern concerning the fact that the last eight years have been the hottest since records have been kept.

Forests lost: Since 1993, the amount of natural forest lost worldwide is 420 million hectares. That means a territory of 4.2 million square kilometers, i.e. a territory half the size of Brazil.

In Costa Rica, contrary to the rest of the world, since 1993 there has been a recovery of the forest, however, since 2014, according to our analysis studies of land use change in particular in the Caribbean region of the country, this trend is reversing, i.e., natural forests are beginning to be lost, especially due to illegal logging, forest fragmentation and land use change for the development of plantations and construction.

Loss of biodiversity: in the world, during the last 50 years, 68% of wild populations have been lost, much of this percentage has occurred in the last 30 years as a result of deforestation, changes in land use and forest degradation, as in the Amazon.

The situation in our country does not escape this situation. Forest fragmentation for real estate development, forest conversion for the development of monocultures, particularly pineapple, the intense use of agrochemicals and pesticides and the degradation of the natural forest by illegal timber extraction are key elements that have led to a significant loss of the country’s continental biodiversity. Overfishing has also taken its toll on our heritage seas.

Other indicators of planetary boundaries: Globally, over the last 30 years, other indicators of the state of the planet’s environmental health have brought us to a situation of risk and very close to reaching the point of no return.

Access to clean water is becoming increasingly difficult and we are heading towards supply problems. Aquifer reservoirs are declining or becoming polluted. In Costa Rica, poor land and water resource management has us on the threshold of a crisis.

The intensive use of agrochemicals, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, has increased the pollution of the seas, where the marine population has halved in the last 40 years. Costa Rica and its seas do not escape this reality.

Ocean acidification has increased notably in the last decades. This leads to the extinction of marine species and a reduced capacity of the seas to absorb CO2. In addition, pollution by microplastics and other waste is on the increase and means that the seas have less and less life. Costa Rica, like the rest of Latin America, is a major source of marine pollution.

Threshold of change: the situation of the environment and the state of equilibrium of the terrestrial ecosphere, worldwide and in Costa Rica, is very serious and fragile. Much more fragile than in 1993, when the Rio Agreement was established (1992) and when our political constitution was modified.

We are entering a threshold of change, so that in the next five years, not only the limits of no return will be reached with respect to Climate Change, but also with respect to other critical planetary limits.

For this reason, it is necessary to take extreme measures to protect the environment, both globally and nationally. And not only in terms of climate change, but also in terms of prevention and control of environmental pollution, land use and planning.

It is essential to develop carbon sinks and promote a carbon-negative circular economy. As we have already pointed out, it is not enough to work only on reducing the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.

It is important to promote the development of alternative and sustainable energies, but local actions are also needed at the level of all municipalities in the world in terms of environmental management of the territory.

It is essential to reverse the trend of deterioration of the Earth’s ecosphere and planetary boundaries.

In Costa Rica, it is of great importance to take consciousness of the situation and to understand that it is not a matter of “loosening” environmental controls under the pretext of promoting investment and economic development. It is necessary to act with absolute intelligence, promoting proper land management to promote sustainable economic development while protecting the environment and working to restore the continental and marine terrestrial ecosphere. As we have pointed out, our country has the opportunity to serve as an example to the world on this issue.

Allan Astorga is an environmental geologist with a PhD in natural sciences