How do you reconcile conservation and development in a developing country with a growing economy and population? That is the main theme of the first two weeks during our summer program at the SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies. Of course there is more than one answer to this question. It depends on a lot of variables that are subjected to constant change. Tomorrow the world is a different one with a whole new set of challenges, priorities and opportunities. We try to show our students different perspectives and real world examples that illustrate different approaches to solve the – often perceived – conflicts between conservation of natural resources and economic development.

Packed in a small area around Carara National Park we saw the sharp contrast of pristine rainforests, exciting wildlife, and the failure of the country to manage its solid waste. This area struggles with developing a local tourism industry in the face of massive pollution. In Poás Volcano National Park we have experienced firsthand the tensions between its objectives of conserving nature and providing opportunities for recreation, which ultimately generate funds for the entire national park system. A family on a remote farm in the Caribbean lowland taught us how agro-ecological practices make their farm a success, both economically and for the conservation of the environment. It operates carbon neutral and was just selected by the government as a model farm for sustainable cattle ranching that will hopefully inspire many others.

Sustainable development means something different to different people in different places and times. However, our case studies illustrate one common aspect. Even if conservation and development appear to be in conflict, in the long run they are two faces of the very same thing: human well-being. Understanding this is an important first step towards taking action.