Alvaro Umana

1951 –

Alvaro was born in Costa Rica in the early 1950s. His interest in the natural world grew and he studied in the US and became interested in environmental pollution and engineering. He later became a politician and environmentalist.

In the 1980s Costa Rica had one of the worst rates of deforestation anywhere in the world, with forests only covering under 25% of the country. In 1986, Alvaro Umaña became the first Minister of the Environment.

Although he was now an important man in politics, his humility kept him grounded and focused. He began to make changes and to do so he realised that he needed to work with local people rather than imposing his ideas. He made special efforts to work with men and women, indigenous people and others. He worked out that it cost $64 for small farmers to not own a cow, and instead protect and reforest the area. Allowing the forest to stay for at least five years acted the guarantee of the loan.  It was a hugely successful plan with 97% of those who received loans either protecting or restoring the trees on their land.

As the country began to be reforested again, he asked foreign governments to help. The Netherlands for example were owed money from Costa Rica. Alvaro asked them if they would engage in a debt-for-nature swap – and they agreed!

Eco-tourists now visit Costa Rica to enjoy the diversity of birds, mammals and plant life. Forests now cover 57% of the country.

Rachel Carson was one of the first people to highlight the warnings about environmental damage and you can read her story on the site.

Activity – research Costa Rica and make a colourful poster or write a persuasive letter to your local MP, explaining what is being done and what more should be done to protect and renew our natural areas, forests and environment.

Look out for Paved Paradise that’s being released in 2023 and explains all about the success of Alvaro Umaña and Costa Rica’s work.