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How Costa Rica doubled forests size without competing with productive activities – Rodriguez

The Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) Friend of the Month for December 2022 is Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the world’s largest funder of biodiversity protection, nature restoration, pollution reduction, and climate change response in developing countries.

Carlos Manuel, a former environment minister of Costa Rica, describes himself as “a lawyer by profession, a politician by choice, and an environmentalist by heart”. He’s also a former member of the EPI Leadership Council and will play a key role at this month’s UN biodiversity conference (CBD COP15) in Montreal.

Angola has convened a special EPI minister’s meeting at the CBD COP15 in Montreal, which will take place on December 17, and will focus on the challenges of human-elephant conflict and raising finance for elephant conservation. The GEF CEO is amongst the special guests invited to join the meeting.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez
Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, GEF CEO and Chairperson

Tell us a little bit about your childhood, and how you first developed a passion for the natural world?

I grew up spending my summers in a coffee farm in the highlands of Costa Rica, close to a large complex of cloud forests and protected areas. I was exposed at an early age to the beauty of nature and Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity, but these were the decades of large deforestation and land use change, due to the growth of the economy and cattle ranching. I was shocked to see large forest fires used to clear the land for cows and agriculture. That changed my vision for life.

Costa Rica is often held up as a model in the protection of biodiversity…are there any lessons which you feel might be applicable to other parts of the world, and for example, EPI member states in Africa?

Costa Rica has done great work in ecosystem restoration and in the management of protected areas. We have more than 30% of land in protected areas, and almost 60% of the country with forest cover (compared to just 25% forest cover in the 1980s). We were able to double the size of forests without competing with our energy, food, and other productive activities, or with our cities. This was not only because of good conservation policies and institutions, but also because of political stability, a solid democratic system, respect for the law, big social investment in health and education, and good governance. All of these factors create the appropriate enabling conditions required for a successful conservation agenda.

You are an expert in conservation finance. What opportunities do you think African elephant range states should now be exploiting, through the GEF or elsewhere?

First, all elephant range states must coordinate much better between themselves, so that international finance can flow in a more long-term strategic manner (similar to what the Sahel countries are doing with the Great Green Wall Initiative). Second, countries should use the GEF resources in regional transboundary initiatives. Third, countries should work hard in addressing common drivers of ecosystem degradation, mainly generated by extractive industries. Fourth, they should create innovative financial instruments for wildlife conservation, from bonds and blended finance to debt relief for elephant conservation.

A big question, but what, for you, would constitute success at the CBD COP15 in Montreal?

Success will be a combination of protecting 30% of the land and oceans by 2030 plus a global commitment to mobilise 1% of global GDP from all sources (domestic, ODA, bilateral, multilateral, private sector, philanthropic).

Finally, it’s been a year of hectic environmental diplomacy, but also great geo-political strains. Do you remain optimistic about the state of the planet we’ll pass on to our children and grandchildren?

Yes of course! I am very optimistic because in less than a decade our kids will take over political and economic power and will consummate a system change, in terms of production and consumption. I believe they are more prepared and committed to reverse global environmental degradation. They will heal the planet. 

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