II LAND AND RESOURCES
Most of Costa Rica is rugged highlands, about 900 to 1,800 m (about 3,000 to 6,000 ft) above sea level. Several mountain ranges extend nearly the entire length of the country. These include the Cordillera de Talamanca, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera de Guanacaste. The highest peaks are Chirripó Grande (3,819 m/12,530 ft) and the active volcano of Irazú (3,432 m/ 11,260 ft). A central plateau, the Meseta Central, is located between the ranges and contains the bulk of the population. Wide lowlands extend along the almost unindented Caribbean coast. The lowlands along the Pacific are narrower. Here the coast is broken by a number of bays, the chief ones being the landlocked Gulf of Nicoya, the deep, open Gulf of Dulce, and Coronado Bay. The principal stream of Costa Rica is the San Juan River, which forms part of the country’s boundary with Nicaragua to the north.
The climate of Costa Rica ranges from tropical on the coastal plains to temperate in the interior highlands. Average annual temperatures range from 31.7°C (89°F) on the coast to 16.7°C (62°F) inland. A rainy season lasts from April or May to December. Annual precipitation in the country averages about 3,000 to 3,500 millimeters (120 to 140 inches).
B Natural Resources
Good agricultural soils in Costa Rica are concentrated in the Meseta Central and in the river valleys. About one-third of the total land area is covered by forest, much of which is commercially productive. Mineral resources, including bauxite, are believed to be extensive but remain largely undeveloped. Fishing for tuna, sharks, and turtles is carried out along the coast. Waterpower is abundant and is used to generate electricity for industrial operations.
C Plants and Animals
Costa Rica’s forests contain rich stands of ebony, balsa, mahogany, and cedar. More than 1,000 species of orchids are found in Costa Rica. Wildlife is abundant and includes puma, jaguar, deer, monkeys, and 600 species of birds.
D Environmental Issues
Costa Rica’s land is protected by one of the most ambitious conservation programs in Central America. Costa Rica was one of the first, and most active, countries to participate in debt-for-nature swaps, which cancel some national debt in exchange for the protection of a specified amount of land from environmental degradation. In an effort to bolster its economy while remaining responsible to the environment, Costa Rica has also established a booming ecotourism business. This form of tourism encourages travelers to learn more about the country’s natural wonders and to respect the environment in the course of their exploration.
Despite Costa Rica’s efforts to protect its valuable forest resources, much of what lies outside the country’s protected reserves is subject to deforestation. Land is cleared for cattle ranching and for harvesting valuable tropical timber for export. In addition, because some of Costa Rica’s protected lands are privately owned, their protection from future deforestation is not guaranteed. Deforestation places Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity in danger. The country’s location on the cusp between North and South America and its abundance of tropical forests make it home to a great variety of species, many of them rare and threatened. Deforestation also contributes to the country’s problematic rate of soil erosion.
Costa Rica is party to international treaties concerning biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, and wetlands.
A majority of the people of Costa Rica are of European (largely Spanish) descent. Whites and mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry) account for about 96 percent of the population; the small black community is largely of Jamaican origin. About 50 percent of the population is defined as rural. Spanish is the official language, but English is also spoken by many educated people and some of the ethnic Jamaicans. Roman Catholicism is the state religion, but freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution.
A Population Characteristics
The population of Costa Rica (2004 estimate) is 3,956,507, giving the country an overall population density of 78 persons per sq km (202 per sq mi).
B Political Divisions
Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces: San José, Alajuela, Cartago, Puntarenas, Guanacaste, Heredia, and Limón. Each of the provinces has a governor appointed by the president.
C Principal Cities
The capital is San José, with an estimated population in 2000 of 309,672. Important cities are Puerto Limón (84,986), a trading center and one of the country’s principal ports; Puntarenas (102,504), a major Pacific seaport; and Alajuela (222,853), a center for the production of coffee and sugar.
Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of literacy in Latin America, estimated at 96 percent. Primary and secondary education is free, and attendance is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 15. In 2000, 551,465 pupils were enrolled in 3,711 primary schools and 255,600 students attended public and private secondary schools. The prominent University of Costa Rica, in San José, was founded in 1843, and has an annual enrollment of about 29,000.
Costa Rica, with a relatively small Native American population, has been strongly influenced by the culture and traditions of Spain. Native American and African American influences have had relatively little impact. The Roman Catholic cultural pattern of Spain, with emphasis on the family and the church, has evolved into a national style of life. Festivals in honor of patron saints are a colorful part of village and town life. The guitar, accordion, and mandolin have traditionally been the most popular musical instruments, and the music reflects a Spanish heritage. Traces of the Native American culture survive in designs used in jewelry, leather goods, and clothing. The national sport is soccer.
The economy of Costa Rica remains basically agricultural, although manufacturing industries have been expanding since the early 1960s. In an effort to introduce economic diversity, more emphasis has been given to the raising of livestock. Overall living conditions are high by Latin American standards, and the country has a large middle class. Between 1970 and 1987, Costa Rica received about $1.2 billion in loans and grants from the United States. In 2001 annual budget figures showed revenues of $ 3.6 billion and expenditures of $ 3.9 billion.
Some 10.3 percent of Costa Rica’s land area is under cultivation or used for plantation agriculture. Apart from banana plantations, most of the agricultural landholdings are small. Coffee, one of the most valuable crops, is cultivated mainly in the central plateaus. In 2003, 132,000 metric tons of coffee was produced. Bananas are raised in the tropical coastal regions on plantations. In the late 19th and early 20th century a United States firm, the United Fruit Company (now United Brands), opened the largest banana plantation in the world on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and constructed the ports of Quepos and Golfito as banana-shipping points. Cacao, sugarcane, and pineapples are also raised primarily for export. Corn, rice, vegetables, tobacco, and cotton are generally cultivated throughout the country. In 2003 livestock included 1.2 million cattle, 500,000 hogs, and 115,000 horses.
B Mining and Manufacturing
Gold and silver are mined in the western part of Costa Rica. Deposits of manganese, nickel, mercury, and sulfur are largely unworked. Petroleum deposits have been found in the south, but not exploited. Salt is produced from seawater.
Most of the country’s industry is of small-scale enterprises such as coffee-drying plants, cheese factories, sawmills, woodworking factories, breweries, and distilleries. Costa Rica has factories that produce petroleum products, furniture, paper, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, candles, boots, and cigars and cigarettes. Costa Rica produced 6.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2001; 82 percent of the power was generated in hydroelectric facilities.
C Currency and Foreign Trade
The unit of currency is the colón, consisting of 100 centimos (359.82 colones equal U.S.$1; 2002 estimate). The Banco Central, established in 1950, is the bank of issue and administers foreign reserves. In 2002 the value of imports was $6.9 billion and of exports, $5 billion. The chief exports included coffee, bananas, beef, textiles, and sugar. Principal imports were manufactured goods, machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, crude petroleum, and foodstuffs. Chief purchasers of exports are the United States, Germany, Italy, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France. Leading suppliers of imports were the United States, Japan, Mexico, and Guatemala. The entry in 1963 of Costa Rica into the Central American Common Market brought about major increases in trade in that region although its importance has since waned. In 1995 Costa Rica joined in the formation of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). A free-trade organization, the ACS comprises the members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) as well as 12 Latin nations bordering the Caribbean.
Railroad lines in Costa Rica total 424 km (263 mi) and link San José with both coasts. Roads total 35,881 km (22,295 mi); some 680 km (some 425 mi) of roadway forms a portion of the Inter-American Highway. San José is linked by road with the cities of the surrounding plateau region. Several domestic airlines provide service within the country. Juan Santamaría Airport, which is located near San José, is served by the Costa Rican national airline and several foreign airlines.
In 2001 Costa Rica had 8 daily newspapers. There were 3,045 radio receivers and 930 televisions for every 1,000 residents. In 2002 Costa Rica had 251 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people.
Agriculture employs 16 percent of the labor force while industry employs 23 percent. The remainder was employed in the public and private service sectors. Labor unions are relatively weak in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a republic governed under a constitution of 1949.
Executive power is vested in a president and two vice presidents, each of whom is elected by direct popular vote for single four-year terms. Each candidate must receive more than 40 percent of the total vote. Voting is compulsory for all citizens over 18 years of age. The president is assisted by a cabinet of some 20 ministers.
Legislative power in Costa Rica is vested in a single-chamber Legislative Assembly, with 57 deputies, elected for four-year terms.
C Political Parties
The leading political groups in Costa Rica are the National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN), a reformist organization, and the Social Christian Unity Party.
Judicial power in Costa Rica is vested in a Supreme Court, appellate courts, a court of cassation (highest appeals court), and subordinate provincial courts. Capital punishment has been banned.
E Social Services
The average life expectancy in Costa Rica is 77 years, the highest in the western hemisphere. A national health plan was established in the 1970s. Health services are concentrated in urban areas. A social security program has been in operation since 1942, with participation compulsory for all employees under 65 years of age.
Costa Rica has had no armed forces since 1948, when the PLN came to power and abolished the army. The only security forces are the 4,500-member Civil Guard and the 3,200-member Rural Guard.
Human habitation of Costa Rica dates from at least 5000 bc, but in comparison with the great civilizations of pre-Columbian America the Native Americans of Costa Rica were neither numerous nor highly developed. When confronted by Spanish soldiers and missionaries, they resisted violently. Those who did not succumb to the epidemics that swept over the isthmus either died fighting or fled to remote areas.
A The Colonial Period
Christopher Columbus sailed along Costa Rica’s Caribbean shore in 1502 and gave it its name (“rich coast”). Spanish conquest, however, came later than in most of the rest of Central America, delayed by the hostility of the natives and the absence of obvious wealth. After Juan de Cavallón led the first successful colonizers into Costa Rica in 1561, Juan Vásquez de Coronado followed from 1562 to 1565 with the establishment of Cartago and other settlements in the central valley, where most of the population is still concentrated. Within the kingdom of Guatemala (in the viceroyalty of Mexico, called New Spain) from 1570 forward, Costa Rica was principally a small dependency of Nicaragua throughout its colonial period. Such circumstances as its remoteness from Guatemala City and its lack of wealth allowed it to develop with less direct interference and regulation than the other provinces of Central America. Costa Rica’s relative obscurity gave it some of its unique characteristics. The Europeans were unable to subjugate a sedentary native population, nor could they afford to import African slaves, as was done in areas of more apparent commercial agricultural or mining potential. Costa Ricans consequently turned to subsistence farming on small land grants, without the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized so much of Latin America. Government and church officials were fewer than in the centers of authority and production. Thus, Costa Rica played only a minor role in the kingdom of Guatemala, and it developed to a large degree apart from the mainstream of Latin American history. It was first in the late 18th century, when Spanish emphasis on commercial agriculture led to the growth of tobacco as a major export, that the colony became of some importance to the Guatemalan authorities.