Michael Bayliss recently had the pleasure of interviewing Costa Rican Ambassador Armando Vargas and gaining some insight into his progressive country.
I was recently in contact with the new Ambassador of Costa Rica, His Excellency Armando Vargas. Armando is keen to share the experience of his country with Australia and I had the honour of interviewing him in Canberra.
Here was an opportunity to gain a unique insider perspective on Costa Rican society and how the country has managed to achieve a degree of social, political and environmental success, despite challenges along the way.
Armando, tell us a little about Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is small, as small as Switzerland, but has 6% of the biodiversity of the whole world. It is a very rich country in life. We say, ‘Pura Vida’ (pure life).
Costa Rica – as its name suggests – a rich coast. Not in minerals, but in nature. If in the 21st century, someone organised a world contest for a modern Garden of Eden, Costa Rica should be a finalist.
Costa Rica is a unique country with many achievements. What are you most proud of?
Firstly, our democracy has functioned for more than a hundred years. Democracy is a process more than a product — a process in which Costa Ricans are united, despite the challenges.
In 1948, the army was dissolved, redirecting resources to education, public health and protecting nature. Today, Costa Rica is dedicated to cultivating a culture of peace. This was recognised when the people of Costa Rica received a Nobel Peace Prize as a country without an army. It’s not a solution for every country. But it has worked for Costa Rica.
The people of Costa Rica are committed to protecting nature. We have a rich biodiversity which is a gift but also a responsibility.
Thanks to enlightened leadership, education is free (and compulsory) for every child. The effort of more than 150 years is paying results.
How has Costa Rica managed to adopt progressive policies when so many other countries have struggled?
Costa Rica achieved independence almost 200 years ago. The first leader of Costa Rica was a school teacher. Leaders have insisted on the importance of education, public health and infrastructure.
Since the late part of the 19th Century, the leadership of Costa Rica emphasised that social policy has to balance with economic development.
This was important in the middle of the 20th century when we had a social revolution that established social security which included public health, opening up universities and education. Everyone now had opportunities to go up in the social ladder.
We believe that anyone has rights and responsibilities. We have a bill of rights as well as a bill of responsibilities.
One aspect of development is the co-operative movement. That extends all throughout the country and all economic activities. At least 10% of Costa Ricans are active members of co-ops. This puts people at the centre of efforts to improve quality of life.
Costa Rica was transformed by coffee cultivation in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are no large plantations in Costa Rica, but many small ones. Many are organised as co-operatives.
What are the positives and challenges for a country that values the wellbeing of its citizens over GDP?
We have the principle ‘when it rains, all should get wet’. With differences, of course, the entrepreneur who risks his investment and his companies will receive more than others, but in proportion, everyone should get their own part of the pie.
One of the big challenges that we have is re-establishing the balance of an economy from a base of agriculture to industry and services, finance and so on. The ideas and the heritage of development that we’ve accomplished are there, but we need to rise to the challenges of the modern world.
Can you elaborate on the success of Costa Rica towards population sustainability?
After the 1960s, Costa Rica had a very large rate of population growth, 5.5% per annum. There were a number of people that organised themselves to promote the concept of responsible parenthood. The idea slowly began to grow in the civil society. Finally, the Government adopted family planning programs. At that time, there were many discussions on the method for family planning. But today it is a reality. Costa Rica has a population growth rate that is comparable to advanced economic societies.
It was a process of education and persuasion which empowered women and that permitted the social network to improve and respond better to the needs of this society. The same process that has followed in the area of culture of peace and harmony with nature, the main characteristics of Costa Rican development.
What are some of the challenges that Costa Rica faces?
When a community is involved with a tight and balanced social net, the quality of life is better. A big challenge is how to maintain the model of development that worked so well in the past.
We need to demonstrate that is possible to have enlightened policies. For example, in responding to the climate crisis.
We need to work on gender equality. We are doing fine in some respects, but not in some others. We need to provide hope to the younger generations, that even if there are many changes going on in the world, Costa Rica will be able to maintain its way of solving problems.
We must persevere on the culture of peace and how to express ideas that will give hope to other countries that there is a way of solving the conflicts other than war.
Do you think that Costa Rica can show leadership to the world?
In the field of ideas and ideals, there are no small or large countries.
Costa Rica is committed to human rights and in expressing forward-looking ideas. We’ve been working very strongly to provide each sector, each group, no matter their orientation or preferences, a right to co-exist peacefully with people with different ideas and different ways of life. Costa Rica is the headquarters for the intra-American human rights court. We are also the headquarters for the University of Peace that was established 30 years ago by the United Nations.
What do you think Costa Rica can learn from Australia?
Australia is very unique. It is a Western society and culture in Asia. That is something extraordinary, I don’t know how aware Australians are of this accomplishment.
Your dedication to science and technology, which is not always well known or acknowledged outside of Australia — we can all learn from this.
From meeting with Armando, I was impressed by several aspects of Costa Rican society Australia can learn from. Firstly, the success of the co-operative movement as a viable alternative to traditional top-down capitalist corporate structures. Secondly, that Costa Rica has successfully achieved a stabilisation of its population through education, inclusion and empowerment. Thirdly, this is a country that values peace, equality and pride for its environment over expansion, growth, violence and conquest.
It is evident that there is pressure for Costa Rica to adapt to the realities of the modern world. I would prefer instead that the world stage learns from the Costa Rican examples that alternatives to neoliberal growth-based economies are not only possible but also hold great rewards for societies who are courageous enough to walk the path less taken.
(With thanks to Rod Taylor, author of ‘Ten Journeys on a Fragile Planet, Odyssey 2020’ for his input into all aspects of this meeting, including production and editing of the video interview and editing of the transcript.)
Michael Bayliss is communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning. You can follow him on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia HERE.
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