Costa Rica makes strides in the development of a tool that combines geospatial data and political priorities to promote conservation and sustainable land use

  • This pioneering planning methodology seeks to ensure sustainable development through a closer integration between human well-being and conservation of nature.
  • Costa Rica has the opportunity to become a world leader in this field.

May 20, 2020, San José. As part of their mission to protect, manage, and restore areas critical for human life and biodiversity, the Ministry of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica (MINAE) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have launched the second phase of “The Big Enchilada: Mapping Nature for People and Planet”, a project aimed at identifying the country’s Essential Life Support Areas (ELSAs).

“We are working with leading scientists and public policy experts, both national and international, to draw on the geospatial data available for Costa Rica and the rest of the world to develop a tool for optimizing land management, so we can scale up decision-making processes for conservation and sustainable development,” explained Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy.

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Ministro de Ambiente y Energía de Costa Rica

ELSAs are areas essential for conserving critical biodiversity and providing humans with essential ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, food, fresh water, water filtration, and disaster risk reduction.

By using this tool to process geospatial data, Costa Rica apply rigorous scientific methods to identify ELSAs and set specific objectives for their protection, management, and/or restoration. This process is one of the ways that the country is working to further national and international commitments such as the National Decarbonization Plan and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Initiatives like this provide a vivid illustration of Costa Rica’s ambitions in planning for inclusive, transparent, and environmentally-conscious development. The ability to generate accurate information, access unified data sets, and cross-reference data as needed will make a vital difference for decision making,” commented José Vicente Troya Rodríguez, UNDP Resident Representative for Costa Rica.

Armed with the results from this second phase, work on the project will continue in order to fine-tune the parameters of the tool and the data on which it draws. The final results will be presented at a high-level meeting in June 2020, with representatives from the national government in attendance.

The work under way in Costa Rica is inspiring similar initiatives in other countries committed to identifying their Essential Life Support Areas, including Colombia, Kazakhstan, Peru, and Uganda.

Rafael Monge, director del Centro Nacional de Información Geoambiental del MINAE.


Costa Rica embarked on the first phase of this project in 2019, with a proof-of-concept study reviewed by national experts at a workshop held in the country in October 2019. As part of this exercise, milestones for further methodological development were established. These included:

  • Identifying key policies
  • Setting targets and key indicators for these policies
  • Identifying global and national spatial data for mapping these targets
  • Using systemic conservation planning to map essential life support areas

To move forward with the project, a second phase was launched, with results to be presented at a subsequent workshop. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the workshop was moved online.

This second phase contributed to building Costa Rica’s capacities to take ownership of the project through the leadership of national institutions, and to improving the data sources used. Another significant outcome was the real-time co-creation of the second iteration of Costa Rica’s map of Essential Life Support Area, the first effort of its kind globally.

Sessions attracted wide participation from the environment, agriculture, and housing sectors and from other key national institutions involved in land use planning and technology-assisted decision making. Attendees included representatives from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) of Costa Rica, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG), the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlement, the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses of Costa Rica, the Central Bank of Costa Rica, the Costa Rica Electricity Institute, the PRIAS laboratory at the National Center of High Technology (CeNAT), the National University of Costa Rica, the University of Costa Rica, and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), among others. International organizations were also represented, with delegates from UNDP, the National Geographical Society, the University of Northern British Colombia, PacMARA, the FAO, and more. This project was made possible by financial support from the Global Environmental Facility and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Translation from the Spanish courtesy of Ruth Grant.