Can Costa Rica’s forests be saved? That may seem like a strange question, since Costa Rica has about 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity and a multibillion-dollar ecotourism industry. But the truth is, before World War II an estimated 75 percent of Costa Rica’s land was covered with lush forests, often along the sea. Since then, however, the national government aggressively promoted the farming of coffee, sugarcane, palm oil and cattle. As a result, by the 1980s, cattle pastures accounted for more than half of Costa Rica’s land, contributing to what some experts call “one of the most expansive and damaging environmental disasters recorded in modern history.”
“Our goal is to make Costa Rica understand that our forests must be saved.”
Daniel Uribe, Social Entrepreneur
Daniel Uribe, 28, is on a crusade to reverse that process. His father, a photographer who used the country’s forests as a backdrop, taught his son one fundamental lesson: “When you cut down a tree, a negative reaction unfolds.” Coastal forests help control erosion and protect inland communities from storm surges. That lesson is partly what led Uribe to Universidad Latina de Costa Rica (ULatina), the country’s largest private university. The university’s biology department’s mission is to develop leaders for the emerging environmental sustainability field.
One afternoon in 2008, Uribe and a friend, Max Tattenbach, sat on Playa Hermosa—which means “beautiful beach”—on Costa Rica’s central Pacific shore. There was no shade, because there were hardly any trees. That observation led Tattenbach to create Costas Verdes (“green coasts”), a nongovernmental organization committed to restoring the forests along Costa Rica’s shores. Uribe quickly joined the initiative as ULatina’s representative, and the team drafted a business plan. Within a year, Uribe had become Costas Verdes’ president, and the organization was asking government officials for permits to plant trees on beaches.
Costas Verdes has grown quickly. It has organized more than 2,500 volunteers at 20 schools across the country to plant more than 10,000 trees—all native to Costa Rica. Many of the students are from ULatina, which requires students to perform 150 hours of volunteer work. The organization also encourages elementary school students—and even tourists—to help plant trees. “We’re creating conservationists,” Uribe says. Costas Verdes now has six employees and has partnered with the national government and private businesses to expand the program to plant native trees throughout the country.
Uribe is among those young leaders who believe it’s possible to improve society and make money. That’s why he was chosen as a fellow of Premio Yo Creo, a program for Costa Rican social entrepreneurs that’s based at U. Latina and managed by the International Youth Foundation, with support from the Sylvan/Laureate Foundation. In the fall of 2014, he will become a Laureate Global Fellow, one of a class of social entrepreneurs trained by the International Youth Foundation. To sustain Costas Verdes, Uribe is building partnerships with hotels and other private businesses. “Our goal,” he says, “is to make Costa Rica understand that our forests must be saved.”
Daniel Uribe expects to graduate in 2015. There’s every reason to believe he will play a significant role in restoring his country’s forests—and be a model for how to grow Latin America’s base of social entrepreneurs.