In pre-Columbian times, the area now known as Costa Rica was inhabited by small, dispersed indigenous groups who caused little human impact on the land. Spanish colonial settlement was also limited in both size and location, being focused in San Jose, Cartago, Alajuela, and Heredia. Even then, however, there are records of governmental action to control the burning of fields and forests. After Costa Rica gained independence from Spain, the frontier began a retreat pushed by roads and the development fanning out from them. Environmental controls reflected the concerns of an agrarian society: laws maintained forested watersheds and forests along main riverbanks. Population growth and expansion of towns and agricultural activities in the 20th century made it clear that forest and the incredible life in it, left unprotected, would not long survive.

Today, the combination of public and private initiatives that keeps Costa Rica on the cutting edge of conservation strategies has earned international acclaim for this small country. The national park system is perhaps the best-known of these strategies, but the stage is crowded with other players, including large and small private reserves, biological corridors, carbon credits and carbon sinks, "eco" labels, ecotourism, biological prospecting, reforestation incentives, and private nonprofit conservation organizations. Dedicated individuals, both Costa Rican and foreign, working in both the public and private sectors, have made the difference.

At stake are richly diverse ecosystems estimated to contain half a million plant and animal species: about 5 percent of the species that exist on the planet are in Costa Rica. There are more butterflies in this tiny country than in the United States, nearly as many bird species as in all of North America,
and almost half its number of plant species. Here and around the world, species are being lost before they have even been identified, much less studied for their importance to humanity. Plants are gone before their medicinal value is known. Disappearance of a species of fauna can cut a link in a food chain that directly affects other species. Preservation of this biological diversity holds importance far beyond national boundaries.

Successes so far have not come without struggle, and much remains to be done. The following pages list some of the challenges and achievements. A common theme runs throughout: conservation of nature cannot be separate from the satisfaction of human needs. Sustainable development is the watchword.

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