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Vanishing Monkeys, and Money

The titi's survival is a test for cash-strapped Costa Rica, which has staked its tourist-driven economy on protecting the environment.

October 18, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK, Costa Rica — In the still of the early morning in the rain forest, a crash shakes the trees. Then silence.

Maurilio Cordero jerks his head up, straining to see through the canopy and shafts of sunlight that slice through the jungle like headlights in the dark. He shakes his head.

"Just a bird," he says. "No monkey."

Cordero, a nature guide, is searching for the titi monkey, a type of squirrel monkey found only in Costa Rica and Panama. It's small, cute and furry -- and in danger of vanishing from the Earth.

Only 3,500 to 4,500 are left in the wild, and experts say they may become extinct in the next several decades. Their habitat is dwindling, chopped into smaller and smaller chunks by hotels, homes and businesses.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 268 words Type of Material: Correction
Endangered monkey -- An Section A article Friday on the titi monkey of Costa Rica misstated the title of Jim Damalas. He is vice president of the Assn. for the Conservation of the Titi Monkey.

Their survival has become a test for Costa Rica, which has staked its international reputation -- and its tourism-dependent economy -- on protecting the environment.

Fifteen years after casting off the taint of Central America's civil wars and positioning itself as a rain forest on a hill, the nation is struggling to fulfill its commitment to be a conservationist's paradise.

Government pledges to buy land to turn into national parks remain unfulfilled. Mega-hotels are pushing to build golf courses and beach resorts next to unspoiled rain forest. Water and air pollution remain a serious problem in parts of the country.

That is not to say there is a lack of political will. More than any other recent administration, Costa Rica's new government has put the environment at the center of its agenda, going to battle with transnational oil and mining companies.

The problem is a lack of resources. Although it is an island of prosperity and tranquillity compared with its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica still lacks the cash to pay for the country's extensive network of social services and its ambitious environmental programs.

Conservationists are watching the nation with concern: If Costa Rica cannot find a way to balance the demands of its growing population with its strong desire to protect its environment, they worry, what hope is there for other efforts around the world to promote sustainable development?

"This is a huge issue," said Martha Honey, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and the author of a recent book on ecotourism. "I don't think there's any developing country that has moved as far as Costa Rica has in terms of making ecotourism a business that involves locals and is part of national policy."

And yet the monkey is in trouble. There is no comprehensive government effort to save it, though it is perhaps the most recognized of Costa Rica's endangered species and is the main attraction at the country's most popular national park.

Instead, the monkey's salvation depends upon the uncoordinated efforts of several small groups of concerned business owners, nonprofit organizations and citizens who are struggling to find ways to buy up habitat and educate people on the dangers the monkey faces.

Jim Damalas is president of the Assn. for the Conservation of the Titi Monkey, a group of local business owners who have banded together to protect land where the monkeys live. The group stepped in, he said, because the government simply wasn't doing enough.

"If this symbol goes, it's the beginning of the end," said Damalas, owner of a hotel near this stunningly beautiful national park. "If we can't maintain the monkey as a species, everything else will go as well."

Costa Rica has long been at the forefront of the environmental movement, establishing some of the first national parks in Central America. More than 10% of the country has been set aside as protected habitat over the years.

During the 1980s, however, it suffered in the shadow of the Cold War conflicts that embroiled neighboring countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Though Costa Rica played no major role in the fighting, visitors shunned it and the rest of the war-torn isthmus.

Then, in 1987, President Oscar Arias was given the Nobel Prize for his efforts to broker peace accords in the region. The award put Costa Rica on the map as a haven, and it flourished as a tourist destination.

Tourists began arriving in droves to take in the country's natural beauty, from the gently rolling highlands dotted with green coffee bushes to breathtaking stretches of rain forest along its two coasts.

Suddenly, what had been a vague hope became reality: Costa Rica's commitment to protecting the environment began paying off through ecotourism, that sector of the tourist industry that puts visitors directly in contact with nature and wildlife.

Last year, more than 1 million tourists came to Costa Rica. Tourism has become the country's largest generator of foreign income, bringing nearly $1 billion per year. The country's high-tech and coffee businesses, meanwhile, have been hit hard by recent declines in those industries.

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