Some follow-up comments to un-sustainable palm trees

Palm trees2Thought I’d offer some of the follow-up comments I’d received through social networking on my recent post on the palm tree plantations and their destructive environmental effects.Enjoy and feel free to send me your comments too!


from Antonio Bettencourt, Independent Architecture & Planning Professional:

“Thank you for the very interesting post about the palm tree plantations. It is truly sad to see the “leaders” of Costa Rica engaging in such blatant green-washing. 

Palm trees are tremendously useful, not only for the oil, but even at the end of their lives, when they are cut down. Their wood can be put to many longlasting uses, such as flooring.

However, I agree with you absolutely. It is WRONG to cut down a tropical rainforest – and replace it with a plantation of palms. It is downright evil to do that and claim to be doing something “green” like reforestation.”


from-Suzanne Harle, Founder, Green Planet Films, environmental film distributor:

“Hi Debra, the effects of tropical rainforest slash and burn to make way for palm plantations is hauntingly documented in a new film called GREEN, by independent French filmmaker Patrick Rouxel, the surprise winner of the Best of Festival at Jackson Hole International Wildlife Film Festival. It was the buzz of the festival and will be playing in the film festival circuit for the next year.

GREEN is about rainforest destruction in Indonesia as told through the eyes of an orangutan. After his award, Patrick screened it at the UN upon invitation. Watch online here”

The Un-Sustainability of palm oil

Palm oil trees replace old growth forests as far as the eye can see

Palm oil trees replace old growth forests as far as the eye can see

At the end of the conference on sustainable tourism, I flew to the first of three eco-resorts I’d be visiting while here in Costa Rica. While flying from San Jose (Costa Rica, that is) to the city of Quepos on a small plane via Sansa Air, I looked out the window. What I saw was troubling. 

After hearing a great deal at the conference about Costa Rica’s reforestation efforts, I thought at first the acres and acres of trees I was seeing were just that – tree reforestation areas. Everything was laid out neatly, symmetrically and close together. But it looked too perfect and my intuition said something wasn’t right here.

As we got closer to the airport and flew lower, I realized what I was seeing wasn’t climate-friendly reforestation. This was what I’d been reading about – palm tree plantations that had been put in after the clear cutting of old growth forests.

After arriving and getting settled at Arenas del Mar (an incredible eco-tourist resort in the midst of the rainforst, which I’ll be writing about soon), I had an enlightening conversation with Mr. Fabian Palma, Arrenas del Mar’s General Manager. When asked about the tree plantation, he gave me some sobering information.

Palm treesFirst, he reminded me that these trees were grown in order to harvest them for palm oil – this instead of the old growth trees that for centuries had nourished the land and captured huge amounts of CO2. I was then told that these hectares of trees had to be cut down and replaced every 20 years, at their end-of-life!

So not only is their product unsustainable, so are the trees and the way they’re processed!

It was a stunning sight to see. What a devastatingly negative impact this industry has on the environment – in Costa Rica and, by extension, the rest of the world.

There’s an immense amount of greenwashing going on about palm oil. And no wonder, since so many majar brands like Dove and Unilever use it in a wide variety of consumer products. Claims of sustainability are no where near accurate. Rainforests are systematically cut down and burned to make way for these non-sustainable alternatives. And worse, the public until recently hasn’t even been aware of their own complicity in encouraging this.

But now I’ve seen it and it’s not a pretty sight. Palm trees that must regularly be replaced – that’s hundreds of thousands of trees! – are working against the environment in a big way. It’s time to make some new choices and demands when it comes to what we accept in our favorite products.

Sustainability and Adventures with Purpose

Richard BangsIn today’s conference, author, nature film maker and outdoor adventurist Richard Bangs awed and mesmerized us with two clips of his latest eco-films from around the world.

“It’s all about what can we change and what can we improve,”
he said.

A brilliant wordsmith, Bangs’ films are shown on PBS and other television networks around the world.

The two clips covered eco-adventures Bangs took – one in New Zealand and one in Switzerland. Panoramic views were breathtaking, jaw-dropping with scenes from the New Zealand wilderness – capturing lakes, rivers and even the most remote “eco-chalet’s” in the world. Pictures of Switzerland’s Matterhorn and the Alps – often with little to no snow – truly displayed why author Mary Shelly called them “the backbones of the earth”.

The magic of a New Zealand sunset

The magic of a New Zealand sunset

“Tourism today is lodges built for comfort. Yet, he said, most folks seek the shadows and wild things. They want to see “the wizardry and witchcraft of the wilderness,” he said.ecoBangs stressed that

“How can we capture that magic, to allow people to come and have those experiences, with that sense of warmth and sense of family,”  he said? There has to be an emotional connection, Bangs said.

Excellent points to consider for those involved in environmental tourism, or those considering moving that direction.

Is Sustainability a requirement for eco-tourism?

Costa Rica natureIn yesterday’s sustainable tourism conference, speaker Lawrence Pratt dissected the issue and importance of sustainability in regards to successful eco-tourism. Pratt – from INCAE, a multi-national graduate business school that was established by support from President John Kennedy – said that sustainability is integrally linked with eco-tourism and vice verse.

But sustainable tourism goes beyond Nature, he said. In Costa Rica in particular, it’s taken on a highly diverse profile.

The Certificate of Sustainable Tourism (CST) has helped Costa Rica create a country position as an eco-tourist destination. In fact, he said, the CST has been successfully replicated in other countries.

But he questioned whether sustainability really helps drive eco-tourism and if it’s a requirement to creating the tourist-related income desired.

Pratt gave dramatically diverse examples of companies that promote themselves as having sustainability practices, including:

  • Holand America and their sustainability program
  • Motel 6, which, Pratt said, will wind up becoming the greenest small hotel chain in the U.S. through their current efforts

“By claiming sustainability, you’re no different than Motel 6 or Holland America,” Pratt said to attendees, assuring them that these 2 companies were actively pursuing their green efforts.

Pratt posed the questions: what’s needed to expand current eco-tourism efforts and what drives it?

With no set answers, he said perhaps a new definition of sustainability was needed and that Costa Rica needed to reinvent itself in this.

What will make Costa Rica different from the rest of the world who has already adopted this concept and practice, he asked?

Excellent questions for any country or region wanting to drive eco-tourism.

Sustainability Development and Eco-tourism

Costa Rica beachDuring her detailed presentation at today’s conference, Gina Guillen – senior advisor to the Costa Rican Minister of Tourism – discussed the challenges and benefits of eco-tourism.

 Eco-tourism, Guillen said, generated over $1 million in revenues last year. This went to help conservation efforts.

She discussed  the Blue Flag certification program, which helps protect Costa Rica’s oceans, beaches and waterways.

Eco-tourism helps generate social development, she stressed, stating that she believed there has to be a balance between sustainability and development.

Adopting "green"- peer pressure works

Four SeasonsDuring one presentation at today’s conference, it was revealed that famed hotel chain, Four Seasons, had adopted green practices  in Costa Rica.

And only here.

Why? Peer pressure apparantly. With the concerted efforts of Costa Rica’s tourist board, CANAECO, along with the support of the Costa Rican government, Four Seasons realized that it was in their best interest – and would help attract more tourists – if they embraced sustainable practices.

So what would it take for them to implement them company wide,  wonder?  Just a thought.

Sustainabilty – from rivers to reforestation

In today’s conference, speaker Rafael Gallo outlined his challenges and successes with protecting Costa Rica’s rivers and his evolving environmental activism.

Beginning as a white water river rafting operation, Gallo began with local tourists. In 1985, Gallo and his brother began a campaign to save Costa Rica’s rivers.

“We had to protect the rivers that gave us income,” he said.

In 1986, the brothers were able to delay the building of a dam on one of the rivers for six weeks. Ultimately this forced the corporation to do an Environmental Impact Review, a step they’d ignored.

From there, Gallo bought land along the river, with plans to restore land that had been deforested. He even hired a farmer to help reforest who’d originally cleared the land of trees!

Gallo worked with the surrounding communities. Recognizing the importance of providing financial benefits that empower local people, he has helped turn them into eco-preneurs, some with franchises of this river rafting company, helping them become self-sufficient.

His eco-activism continued to evolve and grow, creating a foundation to successful lobby against another river dam.

Always ahead of the environmental game, Gallo was the winner of the 1st National Geographic Eco-Tourism award. His re-forestation projects include planting over 10,000 trees on land that had been deforested.

Gallo is currently working with the country of Bhutan to help them establish river rafting as a viable sustainable recreational tourist service.

Sustainable architecture's impact


Bruno StagnoYesterday, renowned architect Bruno Stagno spoke during the sustainable tourism confrerence about the importance of creating sustainable architecture that adapts to the local climate.

Stagno, winner of numerous international awards including from the Dominican Republic and Holland, stressed the need to recognize and incorporate Nature in architectural design, or, as he calls it, bioclimatic architecture.

Stagno said that 50 percent of the world’s existing forests are located in tropical areas. Of the UN’s membership, 108 countries in are in these areas.

“We have to develop guidelines foe eco-development,” Stagno said.

Stagno is currently working on projects to bring forests to urban settings, particularly in San Jose, Costa Rica.

More soon.

UN indicates lowered expectations from environmental summit in Copenhagen

Indications that this December’s  Copenhagen summit might not achieve its environmental goals came yesterday when Janos Pasztor, Director of the UN Secretary-general’s Climate Change Support Team, said he doesn’t expect any solid agreement to emerge, based on the lack of a comprehensive climate bill from the U.S. Congress and a lack of consensus from industrialized nations.

The UN still plans to push governments toward forging the content of an agreement, he said, even though the talks may not produce a binding treaty.

This is a discouraging prediction that, if true, hold serious global ramifications.

Sustainable Travel – Protected Areas

costa-rica-corcovado-national-parkConference presenter Marco Araya spoke about the protected areas of Costa Rica.

SINAC operates eleven areas that encompass 167 protected areas. These include wetlands, watersheds and three biosphere reserves.

He mentioned that in 1988, legislation and the ICT created all the volcanic range of Costa Rica as one national park. This encompasses over 1 million hectors of protected land.

Costa Rica continues to expand the amount of environmentally protected areas for future generations.

More soon.