GUANACASTE PROVINCE, Costa Rica — Andrea Meza stood before a vast, green field peppered with wind turbines and looked out at a volcano in the distance, its slope perfectly visible in the sky.
The view was stunning. But the 45-year-old Costa Rican environmental minister knew she was staring at an ecosystem in demise.
Twenty years ago, the top half of the volcano would have been enveloped with clouds, said ecologist Daniel Janzen, who stood beside her in the Guanacaste Conservation Area, which he helped establish in the late 1980s in a dry corridor of Central America known as one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change.
“For the organisms at the top, it’s hell,” Janzen said to the environmental minister. “We are going to lose the peaks of the volcanoes. Period.”
The lower parts of the volcano, though, could still be protected, the ecologist told her.
But Meza knew it was not up to Costa Rica alone.
Even as it pursues some of the world’s most ambitious plans to combat climate change, this tiny Central American country would need to somehow create a path for the rest of the planet to follow suit. And the obstacles to charting that path were far greater than the environmental minister could have imagined.
Appointed to the position last August, Meza took on the role of Costa Rica’s Environment and Energy Minister in the middle of the pandemic and as an economic crisis was slashing resources across the government. And she did so knowing she would likely have little time in the job before a new administration takes office next May and risks disrupting the country’s aggressive climate plans.
Costa Rica was the first tropical country to stop and reverse deforestation. It has managed to produce about 99 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, a rare accomplishment even among the wealthiest nations. And in 2019, it became one of the first countries to craft a national decarbonization plan — written by Meza in her previous job as director of climate change — which aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The plan was heralded as a model for the region and the world and prompted the United Nations to grant Costa Rica the Champions of the Earth award.
But then, the pandemic’s economic crisis forced emergency budget cuts across the environmental ministry, threatening to upend critical programs. Other environmental initiatives, including a bill to permanently ban oil and gas exploration, continued to face intense opposition in Congress. And in recent months, a massive public corruption investigation led to several officials in the administration being accused of accepting bribes from construction companies, further eroding trust in the government for many Costa Ricans.
Meza is now tasked with showing the world whether a small, developing country like hers can overcome these challenges and rebuild its economy in a way that protects the climate. If Costa Rica can do it, what’s stopping much bigger and wealthier countries from following its lead?
“If we can start this transformation, if we can demonstrate that it is possible, this is what Costa Rica is about,” she said. “We can give hope.”
The progress, so far, has been slow: By the end of 2020, the country had begun working toward more than 90 percent of its goals for 2022, the first phase of the decarbonization plan. The country has launched a pilot program with three electric buses in San José, a small step toward its goal of converting 30 percent of the public transport fleet to zero emissions by 2035.
Costa Rica has so far protected 2.9 percent of its oceans, and aims to reach 30 percent by 2030.
But Meza wants to meet that goal even sooner — in less than a year, before she passes on the job to a new environmental minister.
“It’s ambitious,” she said. “But possible.”
‘It’s my responsibility that they understand me’
As a young girl, Meza’s mother had a nickname for her — “cabra loca,” or crazy goat. Although she was raised in the city of San José, she was always happiest in the countryside, collecting bugs, climbing trees and running around her relatives’ farm in the neighboring province of Cartago.
In college, she focused her thesis on climate change and studied environmental law at a time when few other law students did. But Meza’s true introduction to this work came when she was a 22-year-old recent graduate, trudging through rivers in one of the most remote and untouched parts of Costa Rica — the Osa Peninsula.
She was asked to go to rural communities along Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast — on a peninsula known as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — and persuade landowners there to preserve their forests in exchange for income, a program known as “payments for environmental services,” or PSA in Spanish. The model proved essential to Costa Rica’s ability to reverse course after its deforestation rates were among the world’s worst in the 1960s and 1970s.
To reach farmers, Meza would travel plot by plot through the peninsula’s dense vegetation, sometimes carrying documents above her head while she waded through a creek.
She decided to live in the area for a year, to fully embed in the community. She remembers one day as she stopped by a corner store and a couple of men laughed at her, calling her “Doña Perpetuity” for the long jargon she used in her legal explanations. She realized she needed to change her approach. “It’s my responsibility that they understand me,” she said.
Those years cemented her decision to continue working as an environmental lawyer, first with a nongovernmental organization and later with an international consulting firm. Then, while on a work trip in Panama in 2015, she received a call from the environmental minister at the time, Edgar Gutiérrez Espeleta, whom she had never met. He asked her to take on the job of Costa Rica’s director of climate change — and start right away.
Just two weeks later she helped direct the country’s delegation to the United Nations climate conference in Paris. Costa Rica presented one of the most ambitious proposals at the summit, pledging to become a “laboratory for decarbonizing the economy.” And four years later, Meza wrote the plan that put this pledge into effect. The newly elected president, Carlos Alvarado, gave Meza and her team 100 days to lay out a detailed plan for decarbonization.
“I think it’s one of Andrea’s most important achievements,” said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, who served as environmental minister until late last year. “It was something that transcended Costa Rica’s borders,” and pushed other country’s governments to develop their own plans.
As the chief architect of the plan, Meza showed a unique ability to build consensus across different economic sectors and government ministries, Rodriguez said, including among many who asked: Why prioritize decarbonizing a country as small as Costa Rica, which produces a tiny fraction of the world’s carbon emissions?
“Andrea had a very clear idea that the decarbonization plan was not just about lowering carbon emissions,” Rodriguez said. It was about building a green economy and putting in place new infrastructure that could create jobs — from electric train engineers to electric car mechanics.
The 10-pronged plan prioritizes re-hauling the country’s transport sector, which is responsible for 54 percent of Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions in a country with the third-highest car ownership rate in Latin America.
By 2035, 70 percent of all buses and taxis are expected to be electric, and the government hopes to make it easier for drivers to gradually swap their gas-guzzling cars for electric vehicles and car-sharing.
To Meza, the decarbonization plan — backed by the president and supported with feedback from ministries ranging from transportation to agriculture — was the clearest sign yet that preventing climate change was a key priority for the entire country, and would guide its efforts for years to come. “We’ve reached the mainstream,” she said.
Despite the plan’s international acclaim, some critics argued it pursued lofty goals without assigning the funds needed to achieve them. “It’s pure rhetoric,” said Gutiérrez Espeleta, the former environmental minister. “What they presented is a plan of good intentions.”
Then, just months after the plan was released, Meza learned news that threatened to derail her health at the peak of her professional career. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told she would need to undergo a radical mastectomy. It was weeks before Costa Rica was set to host an international meeting ahead of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The day after the meeting ended, Meza went into surgery. Her husband and daughters, ages 10 and 12 at the time, were terrified. The experience forced her to take a step back and rethink her approach to her work.
“At the time I was obsessed with controlling everything. I would take parts of the plan and write them and rewrite them, even when I had a team to do that,” she said. “Now, I try to choose carefully and say, I can do this, or I can’t do this … there are some things that are out of my control.”
Those lessons would prove critical less than a year later, months into a global pandemic, when Meza was asked to replace the environmental minister after he left to become CEO of an environmental fund. She saw the position as the culmination of her work to decarbonize her country’s economy and a chance to leave the plan fully locked in for future administrations.
So on Sept. 1, 2020, wearing a face shield while she raised her right hand, she was sworn into office.
More than a slogan
Meza began this Thursday morning like many of her days as environmental minister — early. She arrived at her office before 7 a.m., before most of her staff and before the office coffee was brewed.
With a photo of a green mountainside on the wall behind her, she rested her laptop on a stack of three books on her desk. Through her screen, she spoke to environmental ministers and leaders from Norway, France, Serbia, Bahrain, Suriname, Burkina Faso and South Africa, among others.
“Good morning, good afternoon to everyone,” she said in the virtual meeting streaming to time zones around the world.
The environmental minister’s office used to be next door to this one, in a sprawling room with a spectacular view of the red-, green- and blue-colored roofs below and the mountains in the distance. The small room next to it was used for team meetings. Meza decided to swap the two, opting for a small desk that was closer to the rest of her staff.
It’s a choice that her employees say captures Meza’s leadership style — informal and open. She uses endearing words like “querido” or “querida,” when speaking to her staff. She begins each meeting with a warm smile, using big hand gestures when explaining complex topics. Instead of suits, she opts for wearing relaxed linen dresses.
This is what much of her brief time in the office has consisted of: back-to-back virtual meetings, juggling international U.N. conferences with local radio interviews, and phone calls with government energy officials to negotiate deals. Meza’s daily schedule almost always includes a conversation with groups outside of Costa Rica.
Some critics of the current administration are skeptical of this international leadership and recognition. At a time when many Costa Ricans have lost trust in their government, some residents here think the portrait painted of the country as a green leader on the global stage feels more like a superficial tourist grab than a pledge for concrete change.
“They put on one face for the world, but here in the country, it’s a different one,” said Xinia Borbón, a 53-year-old patient assistant and San José resident, as she walked to her car in a strip-mall parking lot on a recent afternoon. She thinks the government isn’t doing enough to make it easier for residents like her to stop depending on their cars. She wishes she could afford an electric car, or that it wouldn’t take her two hours to take the bus across town to work.
Oscar Mario Rodriguez Araya and his family have for decades participated in the government’s PSA program, through which they receive an income for preserving the forests on their more than 2,500 acres of land near San Carlos and Sarapiquí. But the program has faced cuts in part because it is funded through gasoline taxes, a pool of money that shrank as coronavirus restrictions kept residents off the roads, and Oscar hasn’t received any payments for new reforestation projects this year. Ironically, the country’s decline in car use — a major goal of the decarbonization plan — resulted in fewer funds for a key forest protection program.
Rodriguez wants to see the government take concrete steps that will help expand critical programs like this one, “not only a slogan, not only something that sounds nice to tourists, but something real.”
What many of her critics don’t realize, Meza says, is that her international role is essential to securing funding for local initiatives. It’s because of Costa Rica’s reputation that she was able to secure $100 million in non-reimbursable funds, in part to support the PSA program.
“Costa Rica isn’t attractive for its resources or its size,” she said. “We’re attractive because we’re leaders.”
Bold ideas with limited resources
As Meza toured the Guanacaste Conservation Area on that Friday in June, Janzen and his wife, fellow ecologist Winnie Hallwachs, introduced the environmental minister to the group of local women who have worked for them for years, collecting caterpillars from the forest to identify new or little-known species. The local researchers, some of whom finished only grade school, then track the species in an online database for people around the world to discover. They have identified more than 22,000 new or little-known species so far.
Shortly before the pandemic, Janzen and Hallwachs had launched a bold new project that would take their work even further. With the help of a scientist in Canada, the project aimed to use DNA bar coding to identify details about every species in Costa Rica and freely distribute this information around the world.
But then the coronavirus hit, much of his international funding options disappeared, and now Janzen feared that the program, BioAlfa, would have to “remain a dream.”
Just before Meza left the conservation area that day, she asked what she could do to help. Janzen was direct: They needed money.
“If we don’t get at least 1 or 2 million dollars this year, we’ll have to freeze it,” he said.
“Let me ask a couple questions in the short term to see if there’s an option,” Meza replied.
On her way home, Meza felt Janzen’s sense of urgency. She had met the ecologist several times before, but always as a student hoping to learn from a man seen as a legendary figure in the conservation world. This was one of the first times she was in a position to give him the resources he needs to continue his work, while the 82-year-old still could.
“I see him with this sense that he’s running out of time,” Meza said.
Nearing the outskirts of San José, the capital streets still packed with cars late at night, the environmental minister felt the same way.