Sustainability, Health, and Development: Dispatches from Costa Rica

A few weeks ago, a group of Public Health and Social Work graduate students returned from a 10-day field trip to Costa Rica.  Along with Professor of Practice Joe Steensma, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Sustainability Phil Valko, and Director of Global Programs Tammy Orahood, the students had the unique opportunity to observe and study the complex interplay between human health and well-being, sustainability, and economic development.

Costa Rica, a Model for Sustainability

As a nation, Costa Rica has impressive energy, emissions, and public health outcomes that seem to defy conventional wisdom. Despite having a Gross Domestic Product per capita that is greater than the world average, Costa Rica has an energy use per capita that is 46% below the world average. Additionally, the country’s life expectancy is greater than that of the United States.

Impressively, Costa Rica’s carbon emissions per capita are 90% below U.S. levels.  This is thanks to an electric power sector that is nearly 100% renewable, comprising of 78% hydroelectric, 10% wind, 10% biomass, 1% solar and less than 1% fossil fuels. Costa Rica is a great experiment as to whether a country can continue to deliver 100% renewable electricity as it develops further and electrifies its transportation sector.

Initiatives for Reforestation

Among other interesting points, the group learned that Costa Rica is one of the few nations that has stopped and even reversed deforestation within its borders. The World Bank estimates that forest cover in Costa Rica hit a low of 26% in 1983. Today, however, forest cover is estimated to be as high as 75%, thanks to initiatives such as the Payment for Environmental Services Program that pays landowners for having forest land on their property.  These initiatives have fostered significant growth in the populations of amphibians, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals that depend on healthy forest ecosystems to thrive. Reforestation has also had a positive economic effect, fueling a strong and growing ecotourism industry.

Low Impact Tourism

Over the course of the trip, students led discussions on topics they had studied throughout the semester. As part of this assignment, students Basant and Karen gave a presentation on ecotourism. They highlighted the travel principles of leaving nothing but footprints, taking nothing but pictures and killing nothing but time. To help the group gain a more personal understanding of the ecotourism industry, the team developed interview scripts that the other students used to guide conversations with people both visiting as ecotourists and working in the industry itself.

The group soon became ecotourists themselves, taking an ecological boat tour on the Sarapiqui River where they saw countless birds and even a sloth mother and baby moving through the trees. That same evening, they went on a night hike and saw such animals as glass frogs, red-eyed tree frogs, blue jean frogs, centipedes, sleeping birds, bioluminescent moss, and banana spiders. Additionally, in one harrowing moment, the group crossed a suspension bridge in the dark over the roaring Sarapiqui river with the sounds of rushing water and wildlife beneath them.

    

Photo credits: Joe Steensma. Do not use without permission.

Nature is Therapeutic

At the nature reserve of Catarata Del Toro, students Jane and Rachel led a session on nature immersion therapy, also known as “shinrin-yoku”, or forest bathing. Various studies have found significant physical and mental health benefits from exposure to nature, and some even suggest that a large portion of the population is suffering from a condition known as Nature Deficit Disorder. Better understanding the pathways through which our bodies interact with nature can empower public health professionals, urban designers, and healthcare providers to use nature to create positive physical and mental well-being. The students all agreed that this was an exciting area for research at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, aerosol science, metabolomics, and epigenetics.

The Necessary Resiliency

At Cafe Colibri in Cinchona, the owner shared with the group the story of his business’s reconstruction that followed a devastating earthquake. The cafe is perched on a steep mountainside with a breathtaking view, but unfortunately the area is also prone to earthquakes. The discussion raised key questions about both the value and the peril of building in places that are vulnerable to natural disasters.  Students weighed the costs and benefits of these areas that provide unique human and environmental attributes, and discussed the role that governments play in guiding where and how post-disaster investments are made.

Returning to the United States, the graduate students brought a range of new experiences, perspectives, and ideas for small- and large-scale positive change. Field-based courses like Sustainability, Health, and Development provide students with on-the-ground experiences that compliment coursework. They challenge students to grapple with the ways in which theory manifests in community settings and develop their own understanding of the challenges and opportunities for improving human and environmental well-being. The entire cohort of students on the trip have now completed their MSW and MPH degrees at WashU and head off into the world to begin what will no doubt be high-impact careers.