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2010-03-18 | story

Research helps save Costa Rica’s beaches

Research helps save Costa Rica’s beaches

Unplanned, aggressive coastal development is threatening beautiful beaches. To help address one of Costa Rica’s most serious environmental problems, researchers from the Environment for Development initiative (EfD) are evaluating the performance and impact of a voluntary environmental regulation and certification initiative called the Blue Flag Ecological Program.

In Costa Rica’s Blue Flag Ecological Program, coastal communities can apply for a blue flag that proves that they have been successful in cleaning up their towns. It has been in effect for 14 years.

"hope our results will give policy makers tools to expand the program and make more coastal communities improve their environmental performance. This goes hand in hand with economic and social development "

Maria Angelica Naranjo, researcher and dissemination officer at EfD in Central America.

Policy makers in all of Latin America are turning to voluntary approaches to address important environmental problems. However, little is known about the effectiveness and efficiency of voluntary regulation in developing countries. To help fill this knowledge gap, researchers from EfD in Central America are examining the process and dynamics that lead communities to participate in the Blue Flag program. Their research will also explain what characteristics a community needs to get the award. Finally, it measures the value of participation, or in other words, the environmental impact of the program.

Behind the certification program are the Ministries of Public Health, Environment and Energy, and Education, as well as the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, the National Chamber of Tourism, and the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) through its National Laboratory of Water, whose technical committee makes the final decisions on which communities will get the award.

Certified beaches are assessed by the National Laboratory of Water three times a year. Other areas assessed include: 1) measuring whether the community’s water is safe to drink, 2) how waste and garbage are disposed of, 3) whether it is safe to walk the beach, and 4) whether schools are providing environmental education.

“I believe participation in the Blue Flag program is already helping communities improve their environmental performance, even if they don´t get the flag. Participation is already a regulation. It helps the community make sure its development is sustainable. Policy makers wanting to expand the program can use our results to get prospects and information on what characteristics explain participation, and then actively search for communities holding these characteristics and make them participate,” says Naranjo (left).

It is the whole community that gets certified in this program, and the environmental economists at EfD Central America believe that the benefit from this award is social development.

“I am proud that we, as researchers, are tackling one of the most serious environmental problems in Costa Rica. Unplanned growth and huge hotels are ruining beautiful beaches. We want to spread awareness, not only among policy makers but also at the community level, about the importance of taking proactive environmental action to achieve sustainable development,” says Naranjo.

Information makes the program reliable

A ceremony for beaches receiving the blue flag is held every year, to which both ministers and journalists are invited.

Costa Rican news media list all beaches that will be awarded the blue flag. When a beach loses its flag, it implies that this tourist destination is not taking care of the environment and hence, media will focus on it.

“This is what makes this program so reliable. Information about the beaches that lose or don´t get the flag are questioned by journalists who want answers. This information is of course a stone in the shoe for these communities”, says Naranjo.

She thinks everyone is aware that the beaches are getting overpopulated and devastated by unplanned development. Yet, the Blue Flag Program makes clear when things are done right and when things are done wrong.

“For a community, having the blue flag means better environmental performance, which will attract tourists and generate money. This is why sustainable development means economical benefits,” says Naranjo.

Socioeconomic and biophysical characteristics

The researchers compiled a database of 284 coastal communities considered tourist destinations. In 2008, 87 of these communities applied to the program – 60 got the flag and 27 did not.

The database includes 200 socioeconomic characteristics, such as population, average years of education, income distribution, poverty index, and share of foreigners. It also contains biophysical characteristics, such as average yearly rainfall, distance to rivers, slope of the beach, number of schools and hospitals nearby, distance to roads, airports, and the capital.

The environmental researchers run an econometric regression to find out which characteristics are related with participation in the Blue Flag program, and find statistically significant relationships. For instance, tourism and social characteristics explain participation very well. The closer the beach is to a national park, a main road or hotels, the more likely it is that the community will apply. Other factors linked to the likelihood of applying are more equal income distribution, large population and few poor households.

Yet, the characteristics that distinguish those who really receive the award are not so much socioeconomic but rather biophysical, such as slope, average rainfall and long distance to roads.

Somewhat simplified, tourism and socioeconomic characteristics explain ambition to participate, while biophysical ones explain who end up getting the flag.

Other results show that while, as said before, equal income distribution makes communities more likely to participate in the program, they are more likely to actually get the blue flag if they have more unequal income distributions.

“I think this is cheerless, but the relationship is statistically significant. We will bring the results to policy makers who have been to these communities and can help us to find an explanation, the story behind it. This is why interaction with policy makers is so important,” says Naranjo.

By Karin Backteman