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1999 Blackwell Science, Inc.


Applications of Ecosystem Health for the
Sustainability of Managed Systems in Costa Rica

Bernardo J. Aguilar

Centro de Estudios sobre Desarrollo Sostenible, The School for Field Studies, Atenas, Costa Rica


A growing body of literature explores the links between
the social and ecological dimensions of sustainability.
However, much remains to be researched, especially
concerning managed ecosystems. Costa Rica has ap-
proximately 25% of its area under some conservation re-
gime; many of these protected areas, especially in and
near urban areas, are under private ownership and man-
agement. Among these is the regime of the protected
zones (PZ) that seeks to protect watershed resources.
The achievement of conservation objectives in these ar-
eas will not only depend on ecological conditions but
also on social and economic ones. This framework pro-
vides a good field in which to explore the interrelations
between sustainability and ecosystem health. This study
summarizes the work I participated in the last three years
at the Center for Sustainable Development Studies in
Costa Rica. We developed a holistic ecosystem health in-
dicator (HEHI) for managed ecosystems. This indicator
was tested several times in seven PZs in the east, south,
and west sections of the central valley of Costa Rica. The
evaluation tool includes measurements of productivity,
organization, and resilience of the ecosystems. These
were combined with social indicators and resource use
patterns from the communities surrounding the PZs
studied. The use of this indicator and the conclusions of
this project could justify the use of an integral approach
to address conservation problems in developing nations.
The creation and management of these protected areas
should be the result of a combined effort between com-
munity organizations and government agencies dealing
with land distribution, zoning, and public health, among



In todays conservation efforts, growing impor-
tance is being placed on the need to protect en-
tire ecosystems. The sustainability of the individ-
ual ecosystem elements is increasingly recognized
as a function of total ecosystem health. While ac-
knowledging the interdependence of natural eco-
system components, science has tended to ne-
glect the role of human systems as a part of the
sustainability dilemma (Ll & Norgaard 1996).
In the field of environmental research, a shift
away from purely biological benchmarks is hap-
pening. Traditionally, ecosystem health was seen
as a combination of strictly biophysical features of
specific indicator components that point to a
freedom of distress syndrome. These characteris-
tics are qualified as objective measures in view
of the scientific methods used to find them.
This notion is criticized by several (Ehrenfeld
1992; Hannon 1992) because it is partial in its
perception of the whole system and it overlooks
nonbiophysical connections that are necessary to

Address correspondence to the author at his current address:
Bernardo J. Aguilar, Professor, Ecological Economics and En-
vironmental Policy, Prescott College, 220 Grove Ave., Prescott,
AZ 86301; E-mail
Aguilar: Ecosystem Health Applications in Costa Rica


understand the complexity of ecosystem dynam-
ics. The way in which ecosystems and social sys-
tems interact and influence each other is not yet
fully understood. Also, trying to define ecosystem
health according to the traditional scientific para-
digm is difficult, because such a definition relies
on informed but unmeasurable human percep-
tions of what is happening to the ecosystem.
Such findings caused the emergence of a sci-
entific trend that tries to understand the inter-
connections between social systems and ecosys-
tems. These studies have explored important
connections such as the causality between in-
equalities of wealth and power in social systems
and environmental degradation (Boyce 1994).
It is now recognized that a reflexive relation-
ship exists between human systems and ecosys-
tems in that the health of one is dependent on
the health of the other. For instance, Rapport
(1995) considers that healthy ecosystems must
not only be ecologically sound, but must also be
economically viable and able to sustain human
healthy communities. These dimensions cannot
be ignored, for there are tight linkages between
them and the ecological aspects. Ecosystems that
cannot support viable economic activity are often
over-exploited by local populations to compen-
sate for inadequate incomes. This situation cre-
ates a vicious circle under which impoverished
populations further degrade the environment for
short-term advantage at the expense of long-term
viability. Further, he declares that if healthy eco-
systems are to prevail over time, they must satisfy
more than biophysical (ecological) criteria.
This theoretical evolution results in the need
to quantify these interactions. Along these lines,
Costanza (1998) recognized that the rapid deteri-
oration of the worlds ecosystems has enhanced
the need for environmental monitoring and the
development of operational indicators of eco-
system health. In his words, Ecosystem health
represents a desired endpoint of environmental
management, but it requires adaptive, ongoing
definitions and assessment.
Thus, the development of indicators of eco-
system health that incorporate a holistic ap-
proach is a necessary theoretical step to under-
stand the system interdependence described
above. Several notions have evolved in this direc-
tion due to the impulse of the sustainable devel-
opment trend. The central problem has shifted
from solely preserving biodiversity and ecosystem
integrity to conservation and satisfaction of ever-
growing human needs.
This process has been enriched by the realiza-
tion that no one traditional disciplinewhether
it is chemistry, physics, biology, economics, sociol-
ogy, medicine, and so oncan deal by itself with
todays global problems. Therefore an interdisci-
plinary approach is required (Odum 1995).
Within the context of the specific problem ana-
lyzed here, Rapport

et al.

(1998) reaffirm this idea
when they state that to link ecosystem health to
the provision of ecosystem services (functions that
satisfy human needs) and determining how eco-
system dysfunction relates to these services are
major challenges at the interface of the health, so-
cial and natural sciences.
Ecosystem health indicators have evolved ac-
cordingly. For example, Karr (1981) proposed an
Index of Biotic Integrity that is widely used. It con-
sists of 12 measurable biophysical attributes. Oth-
ers tried to use the physical properties of ecosys-
tem components. Such is the case of the Predicted
Index of Biotic Integrity (Hite & Bertrand 1989)
and the Universal Soil Loss Equation (Schaeffer &
Cox 1992). Gradually, purely biophysical indices
evolve into socioecologic, ecologiceconomic, and
sustainable communitiesdevelopment indicators
(Hannon 1992; Costanza 1994; Mageau

et al.


et al.

1995; Willapa Alliance and Ecotrust
1995; Cobb

et al.

1995; among others).
The development of such indicators opens
the possibility to analyze managed ecosystems
through the parameters of ecosystem health. The
particular nature of these ecosystems requires the
development of indicators that are highly influ-
enced by the management objectives of the eco-
system in question.
For example, an agroecosystem will not have
the same level of healthconcerning vigor, di-
versity, and resilienceas a pristine ecosystem.
Yet, within a context of developed geographic
regions, restoring the original landscape might
not be feasible. Nevertheless, conserving as many
ecosystem services as possible is desirable. So, to
define a healthy agroecosystem, we will be look-
ing for those features that help it to conserve as
many of those services while satisfying the objec-
tive for which it was created (likely the provision
of food products). Within a regional context this
system will represent a model to guarantee the
health of the whole region. In this sense, agro-
ecologists propose techniques such as integrated
pest management (IPM), agroforestry, biomim-
icry, integrated systems, and others. Here, ecosys-
tem health and the sustainability of the system be-
come synonymsa healthy ecosystem will be that

Ecosystem Health Vol. 5 No. 1 March 1999

which can keep providing the same quantity and
quality of ecosystem services to all of its inhabit-
ants of present and future generations.
Freemark & Waide (1994) support this posi-
tion when they recognize that managed ecosystems
are more strongly influenced by societal goals re-
lated to commodity production/economics, rather
than those concerning aesthetic/recreational use,
preservation of biodiversity, or provision of ecolog-
ical services. They call such systems constrained
natural ecosystems. Even for such systems, they
conclude, appropriate/different measures of health
must be defined at different levels of ecological or-
ganization and at different spatial scales.
The evolution of this idea and its implications
become especially important for those countries
in which resource scarcity makes the balance be-
tween cash crop production and ecosystem con-
servation more critical, as is the case of Costa
Rica. This Central American country has approxi-
mately 25% of its total area under protection.
Also, its development pattern promoted produc-
tion policies that reduced its forest cover by 65%
of the total country area in the last 45 years. That
paradox shows how critical the balance between
resource use and conservation is in an underde-
veloped country with a growing population. This
is why Costa Rican governments, within one of
the most recognized conservation area systems in
the world, use conservation management objec-
tives that allow for multiple uses and different de-
grees of protection. One interesting example is
the protected zone (PZ) regime.
These areas are among the oldest manage-
ment models in the country, dating from the
early 1970s. They are created to regulate the hy-
drologic regime of an area, prevent soil erosion,
maintain climatic and overall environmental bal-
ance (Umaa 1995). The Ministry of the Environ-
ment (MINAE) has exclusive jurisdiction to moni-
tor the management in these areas that are mostly
privately owned. Out of 179,401 hectares in-
cluded in PZs in 1994, 97.25% were under private
ownership. The idea of creating them came from
the need to find intermediate conservation mod-
els for areas that were already under intensive
use, yet in key upper watershed areas of the coun-
try. They are mostly in areas colonized very early
in the Costa Rican history (Umaa 1995).
This location has made these areas especially
difficult to manage. Very old consolidated private
property rights, protected by the Costa Rican
Constitution, conflict with the societal goals of
conservation that are also recognized. Owners are
reticent to adopt practices voluntarily that limit
their profits or their right to use the land in any
way they wish freely (for example, to turn old cof-
fee farms into subdivisions on steep sloped hill-
sides). Nevertheless, their unsustainable prac-
tices may collide with the right that every Costa
Rican has to a clean and healthy environment by
hurting water catchment areas. Article 45 stipu-
lates: Private Property should not be violated; no
one can be disturbed on this right unless by le-
gally proven public interest and not prior to a fair
compensation By motives of public need, the Leg-
islative Assembly, by a vote of 2/3 of its members
may impose limitations based on social interest.
This conflict, scarcity of funds, and lack of politi-
cal will have resulted in a lack of management
plans or extension work from government agen-
cies in these areas. In short, they are paper parks.
Yet PZs cover 14.5% of the total area under
official protection in Costa Rica. They are found
in life zones that other management regimes do
not cover. In fact, national parks, biological re-
serves, and other more stringent regimes contain
only 11 of the 23 life zones represented in Costa
Rica (Powell

et al.

One of the most important watersheds of the
country (the Grande de Trcoles Watershed) has
a significant part of its sources protected by this
regime. It is in the most inhabited area of the
country (1/3 of the total population), the Central
Valley. The land uses found in the PZs along this
watershed include forest, agriculture, agroindus-
trial, and urban.
These characteristics make these PZs an ex-
cellent case study for the development and appli-
cation of an indicator of ecosystem health for
managed ecosystems. Previous research in these
areas has provided some insight as to the relation
between biophysical ecosystem health and social
indicators (Aguilar

et al.

Three years ago the Center for Sustainable
Development Studies, an international educa-
tional institution in Costa Rica, started a research
project with the objective to explore this issue. Its
first objective was to develop a holistic ecosystem
health indicator (HEHI) simple to measure/un-
derstand, yet comprehensive of the multidimen-
sional nature of the areas and useful for making
comparisons leading to regional policy making.
These characteristics would enhance its chance of
being applicable with less expense by Costa Rican
environmental agencies. The second objective of
the project was to show the applicability of this in-
dicator to several Costa Rican PZs.
Aguilar: Ecosystem Health Applications in Costa Rica


This paper seeks to summarize both the de-
sign and results of the application of the HEHI in
Costa Rica. This summary, and a technical report
prepared and soon to be handed to the Ministry
of the Environment of Costa Rica (Bradley-Wright

et al.

1998a), hope to give government agencies a
better basis for management decisions in these ar-
eas. Through this summary, this work may illus-
trate a useful example where a holistic notion of
ecosystem health is applicable to specific conser-
vation problems in developing nations.


The system interactions implied in the PZ man-
agement regime are configured by ecological, so-
cial, and economic factors. These interactions (as
seen in Figure 1) include the use and impact that
the local residents and owners make of resources
found within the political borders of the PZ.
These components are naturally influenced by
the social conformation of the communities in
the area within and surrounding the PZ. Yet, as
some land is normally owned by absentee owners,
they will exercise a separate interaction with the
resource base of the PZs. Further, local applica-
tion of relevant environmental regulations will be
in charge of the local representatives of MINAE
and the Municipal Government of the county.
The landscape within the PZ is a combination
of preserved and managed areas. Costa Rican
regulations establish the obligation for private
owners to preserve forested areas around rivers,
streams, and other water bodies. Specific horizon-
tal distances are required according to slope and
location. In a PZ, the enforcement of this regula-
tion should be more strict. Also, the land uses
within PZs should be supportive of the manage-
ment objectives. The desirable situation would be
that the owners of property within the zone follow
this model. This would require appropriate zon-
ing and extension services from the agencies in
charge. This combination would create an array
of land uses that would go up the slope from the
river/stream beds and springs. It would start as a
forested buffer area and would be followed by di-
verse sustainable land uses (Figure 2).
The system of the PZ will include compo-
nents inside and outside the political boundaries
of the protected area that will affect its health.
Therefore, an effective method of assessing the
health of these areas should take into account
their multidimensional nature. The HEHI was de-
signed emphasizing the interrelatedness of eco-
logical and social factors, applying an interdisci-
plinary perspective to PZ management problems.
Further, this indicator was defined according to
the specific management objectives of the areas
involved. In this sense, the indicator components
try to take into account not only the connections
FIGURE 1. General model of a PZ system.

Ecosystem Health Vol. 5 No. 1 March 1999

between social and natural aspects but the spe-
cific characteristics of each area. Nevertheless, we
also seek to facilitate a comparative analysis be-
tween the PZs in a common biological region. In
this sense, the components of the indicator main-
tained a sufficient degree of generality.


The HEHI was divided into three primary catego-
ries: ecological, social, and interactive, with the in-
teractive category representing the interactions be-
tween human and ecological communities. Within
each of the three categories, specific indicators of
ecosystem, social, or interactive health were chosen.
A numerical system was used to standardize
the scores of the indicators, by which the higher
scores meant a healthier ecosystem. Each pri-
mary indicator category was worth one thousand
points. The indicators within each category were
assigned part of the total one thousand points.
The raw scores of each indicator were trans-
formed according to the maximum and minimum
defined for each. Point breakdowns were assigned
to these raw scores according to the existing litera-
ture and the professional expertise of the scien-
tists involved. The final score is a weighted aver-
age. The ecological indicators received a higher
weight of 40%, while social and interactive data
was each weighted at 30%. A higher weight for the
ecological category is due to the higher correla-
tion to the objectives of the PZ that this category
has. Also, ecological indicators can take longer to
manifest into changes in ecosystem health.
The specific indicator descriptions for each
category follow. This section relies on the excellent
summary made by Bradley-Wright

et al.



The ecological com-
ponent focuses on biophysical measurements of
ecosystem health. Specifically, we were looking for
characteristics of organization, vigor, and resil-
ience (Costanza 1992). These concepts were used
with the main objectives of these zones to define
the desirable features of biophysical health.
These broad notions were narrowed into
nine basic groups of ecological indicators: water
quality, soil quality, riparian zone regulation com-
pliance, biomass, land use, primary productivity,
regeneration, biodiversity, and erosion. These
nine categories of indicators were then ranked
and assigned points as high, middle, and low indi-
cators of ecosystem health according to the no-
tion used here. The interested reader is referred
to Bradley-Wright

et al.

(1998a,b) for a complete
breakdown of the indicators and tests used within
each category.
FIGURE 2. Basic diagram of the optimal protection desired with the riparian zone regulations in Costa Rican PZs. A mini-
mal forested area that varies between at least 50, 15, or 10 horizontal meters, depending on slope and location, should
border every river bed. Up the slope from this area, the land use practices should encourage soil and water protection.
Aguilar: Ecosystem Health Applications in Costa Rica



A wide range of socioeco-
nomic information is necessary in determining
the overall health of the area because acute social
and economic factors can be the fundamental
cause of resource exploitation (Winograd 1995).
Specifically, here the fundamental assumption is
that community characteristics reflect the state of
the economy and the condition of local resources
within the watershed (Wilapa Alliance and Eco-
trust 1995). For example, marginal communities
often put greater pressure on natural resources
through intensive land use (Rapport 1995), a situ-
ation that would be important to understand for
good PZ management.
Therefore, the social indicators were chosen to
describe comprehensively the social and economic
conditions of the communities that can influence
the PZ both within its boundaries and surrounding
them. Six categories were chosen: income, demo-
graphics, access to services, job stability, gender
roles, and community strength. These categories
were also ranked and assigned points as high, mid-
dle, and low indicators of ecosystem health. The
point values reflect the strength and accuracy of
the specific indicator in evaluating the social
health of the community (see Bradley-Wright

et al.

1998a,b for specific information).


The interactive cate-
gory tries to account for the interface of the eco-
logical and social indicators. Interactive indica-
tors quantify the primary connections between
the people and the land. The relationship be-
tween land uses and the degree to which the land
is concentrated in a region affect the community
structure and agricultural practices. It follows that
these indicators are needed to depict a commu-
nitys relationship with the land. Thus, under-
standing this relationship to conserve natural re-
sources within a PZ characterized by private land
ownership is necessary. The interactive category
also measures the effectiveness of regulatory
agencies in carrying out management objectives
of the PZ. Further, we account for community in-
volvement in management decisions and aware-
ness of policies that affect them.
The interactive indicator groups are land use
and distribution, watershed protection, land deg-
radation, citizen involvement, implementation of
legislation, and environmental awareness. They
were also ranked and assigned points as high,
middle, and low indicators of ecosystem health.
Again, the complete breakdown of tests and indi-
cators can be found in the work of Bradley-Wright

et al.

(1998a,b). Figure 3 summarizes the com-
plete structure of the indicator.


The HEHI was applied in seven PZs in the Central
Valley of Costa Rica: El Chayote, Cerros de Es-
caz, Cerro Atenas, El Rodeo, Rio Tirib, La Car-
pintera, and Rio Grande. They are all located
within the Ro Grande de Trcoles Watershed.
Two of them are found in the eastern section, two
in the south, one in the north, and two in the cen-
ter of the watershed (Figure 4).
To collect ecological data, field tests were
done in several plots. These plots were estab-
FIGURE 3. Primary structure of
the holistic ecosystem health
indicator. Source: Bradley-Wright,
et al. 1998a.

Ecosystem Health Vol. 5 No. 1 March 1999

lished in the most representative land uses in the
PZ. Field data were also collected from the most
important rivers and streams originating in and/
or flowing through the PZ. Full land-use maps
were drawn for the PZs based on 1:10,000 meter
topographical maps, field surveys, and, when
available, historical data from aerial photographs
or older land use maps.
The social and interactive data was collected
from communities immediately surrounding the
PZ or within the boundaries, depending on the
case. The communities were chosen based on
their proximity to the PZ, accessibility, size, and
relative economic importance. For each commu-
nity, a sample of households proportional to the
size of its population was chosen. The sample was
surveyed through questionnaires and interviews.
Statistical data were also used to quantify some
social and interactive indicators. Sources included
national and local government agencies of the
communities and counties included in the sample.
The data set was completed through informal in-
terviews with government officers. The specific
tests and techniques used for the data collection
can be found in Bradley-Wright

et al.

The data was collected since May 1995. The
approximate time for the collection and analysis
for each PZ was 23 months. Some PZs were sur-
veyed more than once to try improved tests and
data collection methods. Table 1 summarizes the
timing of the surveys and the number of commu-
nities involved for each PZ.
Many constraints made collection of all indi-
cator data impossible. Thus, the maximum points
were sometimes less than one thousand. A weak
version (which we called WHI) of the indicator
was used for comparison purposes. We standard-
ized the data for each category in percentages of
total possible points. This allowed a comparison
of broad categories. Yet, for accurate conclusions,
government agencies would need to look at the
specific results for each zone separately.
Other specific methodologic constraints arose
from our aim to keep the methodology simple and
affordable for regulators and managers. These in-
cluded not using more sophisticated techniques
for some tests (for example, a GIS system for more
accurate mapping purposes). A full description of
those limitations is found in the respective report
for each PZ.


This paper reports only the results of the WHI.
The specifics of a detailed presentation of results
for each PZ go beyond the scope of this paper
and would make its size unmanageable. The re-
sults of the WHI are summarized in Figure 5. The
first three sets of columns present the individual
FIGURE 4. Position of PZs within the Grande de Trcoles Watershed.
Aguilar: Ecosystem Health Applications in Costa Rica


categories. A fourth one consolidates the total
weighted average for the WHI. For those PZs that
went through several applications, only the results
of the last one are reported.
El Chayote ranked first with 56.40% of the pos-
sible points, followed by El Rodeo with 53.10%.
La Carpintera with 46.64% and Ro Tirib with
45.49% had the lowest scores.
The scores reflect the interaction of the dif-
ferent indicator components. Even if the ecologi-
cal component received a higher weight, the indi-
cator showed more than the trend shown by any
single component. It is true that El Chayote and
El Rodeo rank the highest in ecological scores
(59.20% and 60.82%). Yet, the final ranking be-
tween them is determined by the substantial differ-
ence in the interactive scores, where El Chayote
has an advantage of almost 9% of the percentage
of possible points. Another important example is
La Carpintera that ranked third in the ecological
scores with 54.79%. Yet, concerning total points it
ranked next to last. An opposite situation is shown
by Ro Grande and Ro Tirib that rank high in so-
cial scores yet show such a comparatively low per-
formance in interactive and ecological terms that
they rank among the last.
These examples suggest that the WHI does
capture a complex reality. This reality, as said be-
fore, depicts the sustainability and ecosystem
health of the PZs. The results of correlation tests
between the main components of the HEHI that
Carlson (1997) performed appear to confirm this
General trends can be extracted from this
comparison of the general reality of the Grande
de Trcoles Watershed. Social scores are the high-
est of all the three categories of indicators rang-
ing from 56.03% to 61.47%. This reflects the gen-
eral high level of social stability in Costa Rica,
especially in the Central Valley. In terms of the In-
dex of Human Development of the United Na-
tions, Costa Rica has been scoring among the top
40 of 173 worldwide. Further, the level of social
spending, as a percentage of the GNP in the
1980s and 1990s, is above 14%, even if this level
shows some decrease compared with previous de-
cades (Ministerio de Planificacin Nacional y
Poltica Econmica 1995).
Interactive scores were the lowest in all the
PZs. This points to a failure to carry out the man-
agement objectives of these areas. Citizen involve-
ment and environmental awareness scores are the
deciding factors in these trends.
The process of creation and the institutional
management of these practices can explain this
situation. Their creation was done through execu-
tive decrees with very little participation of the
communities around and within them (Umaa
1995). Often, interviewees residing within the
borders of these PZs did not even know of their
existence. Further, the vigilance, extension ser-
vices, and general management of the areas have


Time line of the applications of the HEHI-WHI indicator; every period included some methodological modifications*

Protected Zone

Cerro Atenas X X
Ro Grande X X
El Rodeo X X
Cerros de Escaz X X
Ro Tirib X
La Carpintera X
El Chayote X
Number of communities
surveyed 4 6 15 7 20 9 5 6

*Original design is described in Carlson

et al.


Ecosystem Health Vol. 5 No. 1 March 1999

been the responsibility of agencies that lack the
resources and the technical personnel to do it in
an efficient way (Aguilar

et al.

1995; Aguilar

et al.

1996). Two important portions of the interactive
component were extracted and summarized from
the original reports in Table 2.
Low levels in land degradation indicators are
also common. Green revolution intensive tech-
FIGURE 5. A comparison of the seven PZs sampled in the Grande de Trcoles Watershed. Data consolidated from Ament
et al. (1997), Astaras et al. (1997), Averett et al. (1997), Azzopardi et al. (1997), Banard et al. (1996), Batista et al. (1997),
Beard et al. (1996), Bradley-Wright et al. (1998a), Brundage et al. (1996), Burns et al. (1998), Carl et al. (1996), Carlson et
al. (1995), Chen et al. (1996), Clements et al. (1997), Cohen et al. (1996), Cox et al. (1997), Fleishman et al. (1997), and
Linderman et al. (1996).


Indicators of management effectiveness in seven protected zones of the Central Valley of Costa Rica

Protected Zone
Percent Compliance with
Riparian Zone Regulations
Number of Communities
Percentage of Points of
Environmental Awareness*

El Chayote 32.3 7 51.1
El Rodeo 71.1 6 45.3
Cerro Atenas 42.5 9 30.6
Cerros de Escaz 34.6 20 29.8
Ro Grande 57.8 5 18.2
La Carpintera 26.4 9 00.0
Ro Tirib 36.0 6 28.8

*Includes level of knowledge of the protected zone close to the community.
Aguilar: Ecosystem Health Applications in Costa Rica


nologies are common in coffee and annuals plan-
tations within the areas studied. Further, substan-
tial percentages of the PZs are still dedicated to
poorly managed pasture for cattle. This affects
land use scores. Added to this is a general trend
of high levels of land concentration (Gini coeffi-
cients above .6) in all PZs but Cerro Atenas

et al.

1997; Astaras

et al.

1997; Averett

et al.

1997; Bradley-Wright

et al.

1998a; Brundage

et al.

1996; Burns

et al.

1998; Clements

et al.

1997; Lin-

et al.

1996; Tull 1995).
In all but two cases, the highest-ranking PZs,
the ecological scores lie between the social and
interactive ones. This again suggests that the
main pressure over ecological resources in these
PZs could be coming from the interactive factors.
Yet it is interesting that the two highest-ranking
PZs are also comparatively among the three low-
est social scores (only La Carpintera scores lower
with 56.03%). One is tempted to think that this is
an indicator of lower levels of development corre-
lating to higher preservation of biotic resources.
However, this simplistic conclusion can be im-
proved by looking briefly at the specific realities
of the PZs.
El Chayote and El Rodeo PZs are found in ar-
eas that remain more rural. El Chayote has a
strong community organization that has taken
charge of the management of the PZ. Informa-
tion signs and well-marked borders are visible in
this area of 847 hectares. This would explain the
high level of environmental awareness found in
the area. The population in and around the PZ is
mostly made up of small and medium-sized farm-
ers (Clements

et al.

1997). This characteristic
helps understand the relatively lower social score
of this PZ.
El Rodeo also has some farming population,
yet the social picture in this PZ is a bit more com-
plex. Within the borders of the PZ lies part of the
Quitirris Indian Reservation. This is a marginal
community. Also, a substantial amount of the
population lives in Ciudad Coln, which is mostly
populated by salaried workers that commute to
the city of San Jos. Overall, the county of Mora,
where these communities are found, has an un-
employment level around 8% that is above the na-
tional average (around 6%).
El Rodeo has two interesting factors in its his-
tory that has helped its preservation. The north-
west section of the 2222 hectare PZ was mostly
one large property owned by a local conservation-
ist (Cruz Rojas Bennett) since the early 20th cen-
tury. He managed to preserve the existing forest
in the area. In the early 1980s, before he died, Mr.
Rojas Bennett donated most of his forest to the
United Nations University for Peace. Even if this
land was extracted from the PZ, the University has
managed it in connection with the rest of the
zone. The preserved land also offers the attrac-
tion of wildlife at less than 30 km from the capital
San Jos. This attracts ecotourists. Horseback
riding and biking are offered in the trails through
the forest. This explains why the PZ has 71.15% of
forest and the highest of all the scores in riparian
zone compliance (Table 2), trends that are con-
sistent with its second highest interactive and
highest ecological score.
On the other side of the spectrum, La
Carpintera and Ro Tirib have specific character-
istics that can help understand their ranking
within the WHI picture. La Carpintera, even if re-
taining more than 52% of its land in forest/sec-
ondary growth, showed extremely low scores in ri-
parian zone compliance. The area also presents
relative low levels of income. Further, land use
and distribution, land degradation, citizen involve-
ment, and environmental awareness all scored
35% or less of the possible points. This PZ retains
forested lands mostly due to the ownership of one
specific large coffee producer. Around this large
farm a very contrasting reality is the rule. The rest
of the area is part of the expansion of the city of
San Jos to the southeast. It is an area full of lower
class housing. In fact, a large portion of the land
was settled through squatter colonies. Thus, the
view of small, torn-down houses on steep slopes or
right next to the rivers and with inadequate sew-
age treatment is common. Further, the Municipal
Government of San Jos has the Ro Azul solid
waste dump, which receives trash from a substan-
tial portion of the metropolitan area, within the
borders of this PZ. The combination of these fac-
tors is captured by the WHI (Banard

et al.


et al.

1996; Lindermann

et al.

Ro Tirib is a 650 hectare PZ in the eastern
border of the Grande de Trcoles Watershed.
This area presented very low interactive scores
even if it still has more than 50% of its land for-
ested. Most of the forested area here is also in the
hands of one owner, the Costa Rican national
electric company ICE. They have a set of small
generators along the Tirib River, that allows for-
est preservation. Nevertheless, around the forest,
very intensive agricultural practices happen, espe-
cially dairy cattle and potato production. Also,
since ICE is there, MINAE does not see a need to
get strongly involved in the management of the PZ.

Ecosystem Health Vol. 5 No. 1 March 1999

The result is that people living or farming within
the PZ do not know of its existence (Beard

et al.

1996; Brundage

et al.

1996; Cohen

et al.

To summarize, these results show that the in-
dicator captures the general trends determined
by global and regional effects. It is also sensitive
enough to capture the site specific peculiarities of
each PZ. Within each zone, it provides a more
comprehensive picture of all the factors that de-
termine the state of ecosystem health. Even if the
indicator does not depict causalities it can help
managers focus their resources on the weakest as-
pects of ecosystem health. This, of course, re-
quires the acceptance of the preanalytic vision
presented in the introduction of this paper.
For instance, areas such as the La Carpintera
PZ might benefit from higher social spending in
the qualitative improvement of living conditions.
Obviously, the biophysical indicators of ecosystem
health are suffering from the adverse social con-
ditions; inappropriate sewage systems, unsustain-
able urban development, and a municipal dump
speak for themselves. Perhaps social workers
could do more for the environment here than
From a regional perspective, it is interesting
that the comparison allows the agencies in charge
to see the location of the areas with lower levels of
health. In the specific watershed analyzed this was
evident in the upper parts, east of the city of San
Both these findings are important for policy
design. Agencies in charge can focus their re-
sources with a holistic bioregional perspective on
the aspects and regions that need more attention.
More work is needed to develop methods that
allow for the collection of the data included in
the indicator in a shorter period of time. Also,
continued application will lead to improvements
in the structure of the HEHI so that more reliable
comparisons for each PZ will be made in the fu-
ture. The methodology is mature enough to be
adopted by the agencies in charge, however, con-
tinuous revision and evolution are desirable in
any theoretical tool of this kind.
In summarizing the advantages of the HEHI
indicator, the first feature to highlight is its tailor-
ing to the management objectives of the PZ man-
agement model. It is multidisciplinary, compre-
hensive, and quantifies the types of interactions
present in PZs. Applying it is also quick and easy,
and the methodology requires little training and
few personnel. Thus, it is likely to be cost-effective
for any agency that uses it.
Further, the structure of the indicator en-
ables comparisons between different PZs. Apply-
ing the indicator through time to monitor the
health of the areas is also possible. However, the
evolution of the methodology did not allow for
this in the work presented here. These two char-
acteristics are instrumental to a notion of ecosys-
tem health that extends to whole biological re-
gions and beyond a limited time.
The HEHI and its components allow an effi-
cient allocation of resources to where they will
have the greatest positive impact. It provides the
possibility to understand what aspects or specific
regions need more attention. Thus, it provides an
example of how a holistic notion of ecosystem
health is applicable to specific conservation prob-


I owe deep gratitude to Mathew Moore and Tho-
mas J. Semanchin, without whose drive and help
this project would not be a reality. I would also like
to acknowledge the help of my colleagues at the
Center for Sustainable Development Studies in
Costa Rica, especially Lisa Bradshaw, Jos L. Daz,
and Jorge Barrantes.


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