No Army? No Problem.

by | Jul 20, 2022 | What I'm Seeing and Hearing | 10 comments

A few months ago, I was writing a lesson on countries of North America for a middle-school social studies program. (This is how I earn most of my living.) The client didn’t provide a lot of guidance, except that I was to describe in broad terms Canada, the United States, and Mexico, along with general discussion of countries of Central America and the Caribbean. The client included photo suggestions. The suggestions for the US and Canada were the US Capitol and the Houses of Parliament. I don’t remember the suggestion for Mexico, but for Central America, the suggestion was the rainforest of Costa Rica.

Think about that. The US Capitol, the Canadian Houses of Parliament, the Costa Rican rainforest. One of these things is not like the others. The suggestion to depict Costa Rica, a country noted for its stable and democratic government and its consistently high rankings for happiness and sustainability with a picture of a rainforest implies that its people and its government are irrelevant.

Yet it is that stable government and commitment to sustainability that has led to Costa Rica’s famous rainforests, which have in turn, led to the growth of Costa Rica’s top economic driver: tourism. So my client wasn’t necessarily wrong to suggest we feature a photo of Costa Rica’s beautiful rainforest. But offering a picture of the rainforest without context would have been highly misleading. I only understood just how misleading after I had the chance to visit Costa Rica myself, both as an independent traveler with my spouse and partner, and then as part of an educational tour group.

A series of wise decisions have led to the lush landscapes that draw tourists eager to experience the unique environments of Costa Rica. In 1948, Costa Rica became the first country in the world to abolish its military. This was done to bring an end to civil wars, and as a result of this decision as well as the creation of other institutions, the nation has known stable and democratically elected governments since then. Money that had once gone to the military was devoted to education and public works. (According to the World Bank, Costa Rica spends 8 percent of its GDP on education, while the United States spends less than 5 percent.)

A stable government was then able to formulate and implement decisions that could benefit the nation. Among those decisions was a plan to offer Payments for Environmental Services, a program that pays landowners of past or present forests to preserve or reforest their lands.

Here’s something else a stable government has been able to do: integrate its public health and medical services. Costa Rica’s life expectancy is now longer than that of the United States, and one area of the country, the Nicoya peninsula, has one of the world’s highest proportions of centenarians, even though Costa Rica’s annual per capita income is one-sixth of that of the United States.

Costa Rica is not without problems. Economic inequality, poverty, and unemployment are very real issues. In the capital city of  San José, we saw apparent homelessness, and drug trafficking is a plague in Costa Rica as in other parts of the world. But lack of an army is not one of this country’s problems. Quite the opposite.

In 2010, Costa Rica’s northern neighbor, Nicaragua, began dredging the San Juan River, which forms much of the border between the two nations. According to Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s dredging and efforts to build a canal would negatively affect protected wildlife and wetlands in Costa Rica. But what, you might wonder, could Costa Rica do about it, with no army?

Costa Rica turned to the International Court of Justice, an institution created to resolve conflicts without the use of the military. Nicaragua filed a countersuit against Costa Rica, and over the next several years, the two countries fought it out—with their lawyers, in the Court. Compare this to the prospect of a border war resulting in the deaths of both soldiers and noncombatants as well as environmental destruction. After eight years (for reference, a number of other Latin American border disputes have continued for more than a century), the Court rendered a judgment, and Costa Rica received over $600,000 in damages from Nicaragua.

Imagine how different the outcome would have been had Costa Rica had an army that allowed it to go to war with Nicaragua.