ICT and environment in Costa Rica: Closing the gap between words and deeds

By AF Publisher: APCNews     Montevideo,

Laws on climate change and waste management in Costa Rica have existed since 2009. However, despite appearing on paper, there has been little progress in putting them into practice. If the situation does not change, the country will not become carbon neutral by 2021.

The recent opening of the telecommunications sector exposes the problem

Access to telecommunications is a right in Costa Rica. Government programmes to train teachers and students in the use of information and communication technologies have been conducted for more than 20 years. Affordable cyber cafés abound and the connectivity rate is high, although it is concentrated in urban areas.

Costa Rica’s telecommunications sector ceased being a state monopoly in 2007 when the Central American free trade agreement was signed. As a natural result of opening up the sector, technology consumption increased. This makes it ever more important for the population to be aware of the consequences of its purchasing activity and to develop a culture of recycling. In turn, it was possible for new actors to enter the sector, increasing the need for specific national regulations on management of electronic waste.

According to Kemly Camacho, author of “a report on the subject“http://www.apc.org/en/system/files/Costa%20RicaFinalReport_June2011.pdf, even when opening up the market means that people have greater freedom of choice in terms of telecommunications, this does not assure more equity, because private companies do not necessarily have a social approach as does the state. It points to the importance of national legislation that takes the interests of the whole society into account: laws that indeed exist but are not very visible in practice.

Costa Rica as an “environmentally friendly” country

In dealing with the issue of telecommunications we must bear in mind the impact of these technologies, especially since Costa Rica is famous for its preservation of the natural environment and has developed various policies in order to position itself as a country whose economy is “environmentally friendly.”

The amount of waste generated in the years prior to the existence of regulations affected the country’s environment, impacting water quality and aquifers, as well as public health. According to the current development plan, degradation of water as a resource was a constant in recent decades.

Costa Rica took various steps to mitigate climate change, such as protecting part of its territory (about 40%), promoting reforestation and forest conservation, and developing a plan for the use of clean energy. As part of its commitments to the international community, Costa Rica proposed becoming a “0 carbon” country by 2021. However, unless the situation in the telecommunications sector changes, it will be difficult to reach this goal.

State regulation vs. private initiatives

In 2009 laws on climate change were created ─among them the law on solid wastes─ which includes specific provisions on electronic waste. The regulations are new and while steps are being taken towards their implementation, the author of the report indicates that we will have to wait to see if the rules are effective or not.

Most of the current initiatives on these issues continue to be private. Efforts exist among several government actors, the private sector, the academy and civil society. They are isolated efforts that do not pay sufficient attention to the use of ICT. Camacho states that it is probable (and desirable) that the new regulations will promote the participation of more organizations and the emergence of new national actors in the sector.

Many private initiatives, particularly international ones (as in the case of Walmart, which carries out quarterly waste collection campaigns) are profiting from electronic refuse. For example, the “Villager Export” project collects electronic waste and exports it to various countries, participating in a recycling process regulated by international laws, and thus obtaining economic benefits.

The government of Costa Rica has yet to see this as an opportunity. Management of this type of refuse is left in the hands of other companies and there has not been the political will to create social projects (not just sporadic ones concentrated in urban areas) and profit from the resources generated. “If a good vision existed,” Kemly Camacho maintains, “electronic refuse could be utilized to create social development projects, especially for young people who suffer exclusion.”

In order for the new government policies to be implemented, many processes must be changed, particularly at the level of municipalities, which should develop their own strategies for putting the regulations into practice.

Advocacy to emphasize the importance of electronic waste management

For the Costa Rican government the priority is solid waste and not electronic waste management. Moreover, there is no real awareness of the need to treat electronic refuse differently from solid waste. In order to turn this situation around civil society must influence government policies: creating an understanding of the challenges and the importance of handling electronic wastes as such is a fundamental step.

The academic sector and civil society are already key actors in terms of climate change and sustainable development, through implementing campaigns and their work in lobbying and awareness-raising on the issue. Some examples of efforts carried out by civil society are the Partners for Climate Change Programme (provides services to measure carbon emissions), Green Vacations (aimed at the tourism sector), Alliance for Life (a website that fosters dialogue among actors to achieve good environmental management), and the BANACLIMA project (records and processes climatic variables in the area of banana plantations).

The advocacy process has already begun: several activist organisations, such as Sula Batsú, are holding brainstorming sessions to spark interest in the topic. In October there will also be a forum dealing with the data arising from the report and will be aimed at various actors such as the government, technology companies, civil society and academia.

Costa Rica already has the laws. From here on awareness-raising and advocacy will be key to making this issue public, and making its implementation a reality.

This article was written for APC’s GreeningIT initiative and is based on the report by Cooperativa Sulá Batsú and the Global Information Society Watch 2010 report for Costa Rica .

Photo by Emilia Tjernström [Arriving at the horizon]. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0

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