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UK Peers explore environment and development policies in Costa Rica and Panama

This was my first visit to Costa Rica and Panama, as part of a delegation alongside seasoned experts in the region, Baroness Hooper and Lord Mountevans.

The visit was immensely informative and was arranged impeccably by the hosts and our Embassies in both countries, with the advantage too that for most of the time in each country we were accompanied by the Ambassadors to the UK, HE Rafael Ortiz Fabrega (Costa Rica) and HE Natalia Royo (Panama).

I am extremely grateful for everyone’s hospitality and willingness to go to great lengths to inform and look after us. Being greeted one by one in the centre of the Costa Rican Assembly by all 57 members as they filed down to shake our hands was totally unique in my experience.

There were many highlights, but to complement the report from our delegation leader, Baroness Hooper, I will concentrate here largely on the environmental side of our visit.

Costa Rica has been a world leader on the environmental front, both within the country, and in its leadership in Latin America and globally.  The outstanding Costa Rican diplomat, Christiana Figueres, was Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016 and played a key role in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

It was fitting therefore that our first visit was to the La Selva Biological Station.  Set up almost 60 years ago, it has become an international centre for studying biodiversity.  As scientists track the effects of climate change, this reserve can help inform their studies, because of its longevity.

We could see as we were expertly guided through how interdependent the flora and fauna are, and how disrupting one species can have serious effects.  The fragility of the earth’s biodiversity came through very clearly.

The following day, we met members of the Environment Committee.  MPs serve on a number of committees as there are only 57 of them, in a Presidential system.  We heard that MPs can only serve one term.  This may have its benefits, but may also undermine the ability to build up experience and a track record.

However, they made it plain how important the environment is for Costa Rica.  They have been able to develop economic benefits, with 80% of Costa Rica’s GDP coming from ecotourism.

Nevertheless, Costa Rica is not a wealthy country, and we heard about plans that the President is exploring for exploiting hydrocarbons.  Although 95% of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources, largely hydropower, the lure of fossil fuels is very strong, especially given current economic pressures.

We heard from MPs and NGOs that the Presidency was seeking Norwegian assistance, and that this would seem to make such extraction look more environmentally sustainable.  Regardless of how it is done, of course the very extraction of fossil fuels could undermine Costa Rica’s reputation for ecotourism, as well as potentially contributing to climate change.

As they worried about the trade in narcotics that is building through their country, finding alternative sources of income for young people in particular was clearly vital.  Seeking to generate payments for maritime conservation was one potential area.

We spoke about the Eastern Tropical Marine Corridor (CMAR) which includes Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, and which has the potential of huge carbon capture, with the global benefit of that, but where the governance issues need to be sorted out.

Costa Rica should reach 30% protection of biodiversity by 2030, the target agreed at the UN Biodiversity COP (15) in Montreal. It will host the UN Oceans Conference in June 2024, in advance of Paris Conference in 2025. We have fed back some ideas to the UK Government.

The environmental theme continued in Panama. Panama prides itself on being carbon neutral, with 54% of its oceans protected.

There has of course been global concern about the two major canal routes for trade – the Suez because of attacks in the Red Sea by the Houthis, and the restrictions in the Panama Canal because the water levels in the lakes that feed the locks has dropped.  We heard a great deal of concern about El Nino and its climate implications, and visited the Canal and were briefed on measures to conserve water.  They were clear that this could be a recurring problem.

We also visited what has been described as the first indigenous peoples in the region to be displaced from their traditional homes (on low lying islands) by rising sea levels.

The UN and many other agencies are operating in Panama (because now there are 500k migrants from conflict, poverty and climate change passing into the isthmus from Latin America, heading towards the US).  However, there seemed to be a dearth of international development expertise addressing how the indigenous people were to be moved from their islands where they could fish, inland, where they could not so easily do so, and with a loss of their cultural identity.  There is urgent need for international engagement or the kind of problems that have been encountered with the displacement of indigenous people elsewhere in the world is likely to manifest, making it even more difficult for future removals in the world because of climate change.

Any grant from DEFRA, which is a possibility, must address this development lacunae.

Also, of global significance is the situation with First Quantum Minerals.  It sought to take over a copper mine, employing 40k people, and providing Panama with 5% of its GDP, but protests on environmental grounds, linked to other concerns about the current Government, led the Government abruptly to terminate the agreement.  Litigation is anticipated.  But the ramifications for the west, as it seeks to catch up with China in its search for minerals for renewables, are globally significant.

Like Costa Rica, Panama is coming up to elections.  How these issues and the others we encountered will play out remains to be seen.  I look forward to hearing more.


Rt Hon Baroness Northover