By Donella Meadows
–November 5, 1987–
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee has a way of using the prize itself to strengthen ongoing peace efforts. That is one reason why it awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize for Peace to Oscar Arias Sanchez, the President of Costa Rica.
Arias is the force behind the difficult, daring peace agreement now being worked out among the nations of Central America. The agreement may not succeed. But even if it fails, a Peace Prize is most appropriate for Arias and for Costa Rica. Bjorn Molin, who nominated Arias for the prize, said, “Costa Rica is an example for peace.” And Arias himself, on the day he learned of the award, accepted it not for himself, but for Costa Rica and all Central America.
Costa Rica, with fewer people than Boston, with no special resources and not much wealth, has become a new power in the world — not an economic or military power, but a moral one. Costa Ricans are enthusiastic practitioners of democracy, tolerance, and free enterprise, which, they readily acknowledge, they learned from the United States. They have also adopted some ideals of their own — regional and global responsibility, environmental stewardship, and peacemaking. And they have proved that idealism can have worthwhile practical results.
In the 1940s Costa Rica was the poorest, most backward country in Central America. It had no minerals, no strategic ports, not much good agricultural land. More than 10% of its babies died before their first birthday. Its GNP per capita was only about $200/year, and its population growth rate was the highest in the world. Like its neighbors, it had a chronically unstable government and an army that used up about 20% of the government budget.
All those negatives turned out to be advantages. When Costa Rica’s people took control of their own country, there was nothing to stop them. Because the country was poor, the army was weak. The land was so rough and the Indian population so sparse that the Spanish settlers had had to work with their own hands — so there was no tradition of slavery, big haciendas, or entrenched landlords. There weren’t enough resources to interest outside powers, which were, in any case, embroiled in World War II.
So Costa Rica had a peaceful, not-much-noticed revolution. A labor code was instituted with a minimum wage, maximum working hours, and guaranteed job security. The people established social security, a comprehensive health care system, universal education, and their first university. They began to build roads and power plants, to bring telephones and electricity to the countryside.
To be sure that their democracy would be maintained by the will of the people and not the force of arms, they abolished the military. They wrote a new constitution forbidding the establishment of armed forces. That freed up a lot of money for education, health care, and economic development.
Forty years later, Costa Rica has, along with Panama, the lowest population growth rate in the region and the highest GNP per capita. Its infant mortality rate has been cut by a factor of five, its average life expectancy is close to that of the U.S. Virtually all its people are literate, 82% have electricity in their homes, 87% have clean running water. There are five universities for a population of 2.2 million people.
The richest 20% of Costa Ricans earn 6.5 times as much as the poorest 20% — the lowest rich/poor income ratio in Central America. In Honduras the ratio is 10 to 1, in Nicaragua 19 to 1, and in El Salvador, the country whose status quo the United States is most eager to preserve, it is 33 to 1.
Only 3% of Costa Rica’s government budget goes to police and defense. But 26% of the country’s land has been protected as national parks and forests. Costa Rica is beginning to see itself as a custodian of a rare global treasure — the tropical rain forest. The country also sees itself as an agent of peace. It donated the land and much of the budget for the United Nations University for Peace, which is just starting up outside San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital.
Thirteen years ago, when he was only 33, Oscar Arias Sanchez was his country’s Planning Minister. He sponsored a symposium that brought together the Catholic Bishop, the head of the Communist Party, and two past Presidents to discuss what kind of society Costa Rica should be in the year 2000. It was a typically inclusive Costa Rican sort of discussion; it must have been good preparation for bringing Daniel Ortega and Jose Napoleon Duarte to the table years later to discuss peace in Central America.
The announcement of this Peace Prize was not welcome in Washington, where some people still like to think of Central Americans as childlike, quarrelsome, and dependent on firm leadership from the North. But the children are growing up and becoming leaders in their own right, and that’s good news. Nothing could be better for the security and well-being of the United States than the maturity of the nations to the south, their growing ability to solve their own problems, and their willingness to take determined stands for democracy, for the environment, and for peace.
(I am indebted to Dr. Carlos Quesada of Costa Rica’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mines for much of the information on Costa Rica cited here.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987