Costa Rica

Green peace

When Costa Rica’s new Ambassador to London Enrique Castillo was young all he wanted was his father to build him a bookshelf so that he could start his own library. It’s fitting that Costa Rica, a country famous for having more teachers than soldiers, has a bibliophile Ambassador.

He is also a polymath – a lawyer, sociologist, academic, politician, diplomat and writer. One could also add to the list ‘Peacemaker’ – an award was given to the Foreign Ministry of Costa Rica in 2013 during his tenure as Foreign Affairs Secretary, a high honour in a country so closely associated with peacemaking in the region, notably its Nobel Peace Laureate former President Oscar Arias. (Castillo was posted as Ambassador to Paris from 1986 to 1990 and worked hard to win over sceptical European leaders to supporting the Arias Peace Plan).

An army of lawyers
When Costa Rica was in a tense standoff with its neighbour Nicaragua over their shared border in 2010, Castillo raised the matter at the OAS where he was serving as ambassador. Later, as Foreign Minister (2011-2014), he took care of the case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where a ruling is expected soon. “We don’t have a standing army so the law is our only defence,” says the Ambassador, a professor in law who has trained an army of lawyers in Costa Rica.

Now in London, he sees his primary task to boost bilateral trade with Britain and promote Costa Rica as an investment destination. “We have an excellent political relationship with Britain but the economic ties are a fraction of what they could be,” he says.

Costa Rica has three clear commercial advantages, he adds. The first is Costa Rica’s political stability and business-friendly climate.

The second is the wide network of free trade agreements that Costa Rica has concluded as part of SICA, the Central American integration system, such as the US and the EU; and bilaterally with China or the Pacific Alliance partners, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile.

Finally, Costa Rica has a skilled labour force that has already attracted investors in its high tech cluster which includes the likes of Intel, Hewlett Packard and Infosys. Although the country has had to weather a global shift of operations to Asia, the Ambassador says Costa Rica has retained the edge when it comes to advanced engineering. Costa Rica also occupies a niche in light, eco-friendly manufacturing such as the production of surgical equipment.

Public-private partnerships to upgrade Costa Rica’s creaking infrastructure presents another opportunity for British engineers, whose expertise is needed in the building of ports, bridges, roads and railways.

Sustainable energy projects to increase Costa Rica’s power supply is especially critical adds the Ambassador. The country is currently 93% carbon neutral (100% on a good day) and aims to be fully carbon neutral by 2021 so there is a concerted drive to build hydro, solar and geothermal facilities, says Castillo.

Green at heart
Because of its enviable geographic location between two continents and two oceans and ambitious conservation projects (more than half of the territory, 53%, is covered by forests; 27% is protected parkland), Costa Rica boasts the highest biodiversity in the world making it ideal for biotech ventures – and a paradise for Britain’s many eco-tourists.

But such diversity means some of the most fragile ecosystems are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “It’s no coincidence that many Costa Ricans in the area of science and climate are leading the debate at the global level,” adds the Ambassador, referring to the feisty Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief who will be pushing for a ground-breaking deal at COP21 in Paris this December.

But Costa Rica’s strategic geographic location brings with it challenges, adds Castillo.

“We are on a transit route and while Costa Rica does not suffer in the same way that its neighbours in Central America does with the problem of organised crime, particularly in narco-traffic, it is a regional problem and we have to face it together.”

A leading criminologist, Ambassador Castillo has trained up generations of sociologists to analyse the underlying causes of this problem. Improving the criminal justice system in Central America, eradicating corruption and reducing persistent poverty will make the region less vulnerable to organised crime, he says.

Even in Costa Rica, one in five people is classified as poor, despite its enviable human development indicators and being a candidate for membership of the OECD.

So part of the Ambassador’s role in London will be to facilitate development cooperation to help Costa Rica climb out of the so-called middle income trap. “After the global financial crisis our traditional donors closed the funding tap. So we need to work smart and to look for win-win outcomes, such as investment and knowledge transfer.”

Increasing the FCO’s Chevening Scholarships in Central America has been a great start, says Castillo who believes that despite continued austerity, the UK will not disengage from the region.

A packed agenda leaves little time for what the Ambassador considers his true calling – writing. His volume of short stories is called Nightmare Of An Urban Man – but the only nightmare he faces in this dream posting is too much to do and too little time!

Elizabeth Stewart, editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of Costa Rica on 14 July and updated the text on 3 November