With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ takes it back to basics. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s leading sustainable travel experiences, as well as inspiring experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT tourism.
Interview by Rebecca Woolford
Retracing the steps of ecotourism…
Ever so often, it’s good to look back. To better understand how we got here. As the saying goes, ‘The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.’ So, let’s head back to a time when the CST (Certification of Sustainable Tourism) in Costa Rica first came into being. Before ‘green travel’ was ever coined and long before Costa Rica became a world-renowned leader in ecotourism.
Back to a time when great minds and pioneers came together to pave the way for others to follow.
One of the most striking facts about Costa Rica is that despite its small size – just 0.03% of the world’s landmass – an incredible 6% of the world’s known plant, animal and fungal species live there. Such a biodiverse and unspoiled landscape made Costa Rica the perfect destination to pioneer ecotourism, but it wasn’t always headed in this direction, and no one knows that story better than Glenn.
An author, farmer, speaker, and proud owner of Finca Rosa Blanca (named by National Geographic as one of the unique lodges of the world) Glenn Jampol is one of those characters who seem to have lived multiple lives.
I knew I’d be in great company but I didn’t anticipate just how captivating this conversation would be…
… an interview I’ll never forget.
On the left is Glenn Jampol and on the right is Sylvia, visionary of Finca Rosa Blanca
Welcome Glenn. I’m so excited about this conversation as I know there is so much to unpack and learn about. Let’s begin by talking about Finca Rosa Blanca. Today it’s both an organic coffee farm and a beautiful sustainable stay for guests. Take us back to 1985 when the vision was first born.
“It’s a great story. It all started with my mother Sylvia who wanted a home for her family, and friends. She was an extraordinarily charismatic woman who travelled the world profoundly and made friends everywhere she went.
She had decided at some point to spend her life savings on building a home, in an area away from San Jose in the central Valley, with beautiful views and a robust culture and no further plans.
My mother was quite a bohemian. She was probably born in the wrong era, she should have been born in my era. She was a “let’s enjoy life to its max” kind of person. A lot of people would say, “Your mother is a “glass half full,’” and I would always say, “No, my mother is the glass completely full.”
The business sense amongst our family was zero. We just lived on dreams and emotional optimism and the idea of reducing our negative impact on the planet.
So, we bought a farm in the middle of one of the premier coffee growing areas in Central America that was owned by a farmer who was having some trouble due to the very low price of coffee, and just he couldn’t afford to pick the coffee anymore.
So this farmer rented out the farm to somebody who had a motocross business. They built a motocross field on the farm for motorbikes, eradicating all the coffee, and cutting down all of the fruit trees and everything that was there. That motocross business lasted about a year and the farmer was left with basically no other options except to sell the farm.
And just at that exact time, my mother came around. It was pretty much a field of patches of grass and mud; it was a great canvas for us to paint on with sustainability in our hearts.
It is a beautiful area, about 15 kilometers from San Jose and at about a little over 4,000 feet in altitude where some of the best coffee is grown. We fell in love with the whole feeling, the coffee culture, the views, the authentic feel of the place. So, that’s how we started.
In 1987 when we were building the house for the family to live in, we realised about three quarters of the way through – when we were starting to put up the doors and windows – that we didn’t have enough money to finish. So, my mother and the family decided to rent some rooms out, like a bed and breakfast, and generate some income. We would live in some of the rooms and the rest of the building would be for the guests.
We then presented the plans to the tourism board, with the title: PROYECTO ECOTURISTICO Finca Rosa Blanca, stating that we wanted to be an official tourism business.
I will always remember that at the tourism board, the head of the planning commission said to me, ‘What does ‘ecoturistico’ (aka ecotourism) mean?’ And I replied… ‘Well, I’m not entirely sure. But I think it means that we try to be kinder to the planet, have a relationship with our community, and not bury our garbage in the ground.’
I went into this whole explanation, and looking back now, I see that intrinsically I knew what we needed to do. But really I had no idea how to connect the dots and what it all meant.
You know, my father used to say, ‘The only way to eat a whale is little by little.’ So, that’s what we did, one by one, step by step, focusing on recycling, then community, planting trees, etc.” Glenn
Finca Rosa Blanca was one of the first-ever carbon-neutral hotels in Costa Rica
Sustainability is a term so often thrown about these days that it’s almost unimaginable to think back to a time when so few were talking about it. Particularly in somewhere like Costa Rica, now a world leader in ecotourism. But as we both know, this wasn’t always the case, was it?
“Yes, Costa Rica in many ways is seen as the leader in this kind of thinking (along with countries like Bhutan). But in the late 80s and early 90s, we realised a trend that had been going on for some time.
Deforestation… Amazing forests across Costa Rica were just being decimated for short-term profit.
Despite having every law known to exist against cutting trees and with permits required, Costa Rica never had the income to pay for the kind of vigilance that we needed to protect the forested areas.
So, after a lot of consideration and contemplation, the government took the position of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ They figured out exactly how much these private landowners were being paid by the big organisations, which turned out to be something like $9 a tree, to cut all these beautiful forests.
They created a fund called the Forestry Finance Fund, and Costa Rica implemented a 3% tax on diesel, kerosene, gasoline, and all of the petroleum products to pay for this Forestry Finance Fund. And they went to every single landowner in the country who had vast amounts of land and were selling their woods and said, ‘We’ll pay you not to cut down the trees, and we’ll pay you every year to keep these trees standing.’
This government project was so successful that since the early 90s, Costa Rica has increased its green coverage by over 30%. We’re now at 53% green coverage, which is really just amazing when you consider that at one point we had the highest level of deforestation in the world!
I think we all can believe that a tree left standing is worth way more than one cut. This kind of depletion of natural resources to pay for industry is common throughout the world.
At this time we had our small-scale place at Finca Rosa Blanca in which to learn from trials, errors, and successes. I was part of a group of people soulfully attached to the idea of reducing our footprint and doing good alongside running successful businesses. The rest of the tourism community certainly was pleased and admired our approach and thinking, but their general response was, ‘Who’s going to pay for all of these great things that you’re doing and how do we incorporate that into our business model and still make the same amount of income?’
And so in the 1980s, Finca Rosa Blanca paved the way for the kind of tourism that was community-centered. We considered our waste and water, all the practices and elements that make up a very robust, sustainable tourism model that we still use today. I was one of the pioneers in developing these ideas, proving the concepts, and influencing others.” Glenn
I’ve heard the turnaround story of Costa Rica many times, but this is the first time I’ve heard big businesses putting a value of just $9 per tree. This reforestation success story is something I hope other countries will follow.
Finca Rosa Blanca is both an organic coffee farm and an Inn where people can experience coffee in new ways. A big part of what you do is to help reconnect people with growing food. Just how disconnected have people become from the ONE thing they do every day? Eat and drink.
“That’s a great question. You know, it’s a question that opens up many memories for me because our organic coffee was a great draw from day one: everybody loves coffee. It’s one of the largest traded commodities in the world.
In the early days, we started taking people on a tour of our organic coffee farm, and forest of native trees. We used to have a little pineapple patch next to the stairs going down towards the little creek where the steps went back up into our big coffee field. Often our guests on their way down would notice this pineapple field and would comment. Many people have told me that they had no idea how pineapples grow!
Sharing with people that pineapples are bromeliads and how they’re related to so many other kinds of plants began a journey of agro-ecotourism, where we use agriculture as a medium to help educate people about what they eat and what they drink and the connection between supporting a healthy soil and the flora and fauna who survive there.
One of the questions that we get asked a lot is: ‘Can you tell the difference in taste between regular high-quality coffee and your organic coffee?’ And I don’t think you can. But I tell people this…
If you drink 3-4 cups of coffee a day, you’re drinking around 70 gallons of a liquid which is one of the best sequesters of carbon. And considering what they spray on non-organic coffee, to keep plants down and insects away, you’re drinking 70 gallons of liquid from plants that have been sprayed with toxins that have been drawn into the plant. It’s scary as hell!
Organic coffee is not only better for the environment but also for our health. Guests at Finca Rosa Blanca leave with a better understanding of how everything is connected.
When you have a farm that’s non-organic and is then converted to one that is, the best way to watch how well you’re doing is to do a bird count. When we started, we counted 40 species of birds in our farm fields.
Then we planted several thousand native trees and planted our organic coffee following the curves of the earth. 20 years later… we have counted over 145 species of birds in the same area.”
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Growing organic coffee in Finca Rosa Blanca
Incredible… From 40 species of birds to over 145. Just imagine if every piece of farmland in the UK turned organic and was incentivized to plant native trees, what a vastly different place it would be. I’m glad you mentioned the planting of trees Glenn, as I’d like to learn more. Just how many native trees did you plant on your coffee farm?
“In the past 30 years, over 5,000 native trees have been planted here. Not all of them have survived.
When you have a big farm and you plant a lot of trees, you can’t tend to them all. You have to plant trees that can survive without any help from human beings because otherwise, you’re in a whole different realm of what nature has planned for that kind of area, climate, zone, etc.
The idea was primarily to reforest the land and still have an agricultural product to sell, as well as create a paradise for birdwatchers.
Over the many decades of trying to be creative and often failing miserably, I’ve become a little bit more pragmatic and have understood that all of these things that we do in our business to reduce our impact and to do the right thing are not necessarily where to put all your focus. These things have to be woven into the very fabric of the business.
You could have the most sustainable, beautiful, regenerative Inn in the world that’s not particularly comfortable or doesn’t have good access for visitors. You’ll get people one time, but they won’t come back. When you have a product that’s of high quality and exceeds the expectations of your clients, whatever that business might be, then your clients become the best advocates for your business. And in turn that sustains the sustainability work you’re investing in.”
Sustainable travel experiences are not a new concept to Finca Rosa Blanca. It’s not a part of what you do because it’s now on-trend. This approach has been an integral part of what you’ve done from day one. You were a pioneer of the CST (Certification of Sustainable Tourism) right?
The story behind the CST (Certification for Sustainable Tourism), created in 1995, and put into action in 1998, is that Costa Rica had been growing well from the mid-80s to the early 90s. There were several pioneers, ourselves included, who were changing how tourism in Costa Rica could be presented to global markets.
Combining the kind of middle-of-nowhere incredible life-changing travel experiences, with the comfortable and more accessible ones.
I had the great opportunity and was honored to be one of the people who helped write the standards for the CST. We took into account four key pillars.
- The first pillar was to include healthy and environmentally sound practices (such as biodegradable cleaning products, reducing your need for plastics, and so on).
- The second was to educate people to build a better understanding of the sustainability approach. This includes training staff and clients alike.
- The third pillar was to provide training for local people from the community about best practices and why it makes sense to do it this way.
- The fourth pillar was client services; quality and a sense of place, a safe environment, authentic experiences, and so on.
100% of all of our employees at Finca Rosa Blanca are from our local community. Providing good jobs and training to local people is the best sales strategy a hotel or eco-lodge could ever have because they know their homeland best and are proud of it, they want to share this local knowledge with guests.
As tourism began to grow in Costa Rica in the 90s, the Institute of Tourism (the ICT) hired a consulting company that came to interview various people in tourism, including myself. They asked us to describe who our client was and when they were done with the interviews and research, they determined that what was really drawing travellers from around the world to Costa Rica was not mass tourism, but a personalised, environmentally friendly one.
This consulting company then recommended to the ICT that the best model for Costa Rica to move forward with was a sustainable and regenerative one, which meant tourism based on protecting nature, community-based experiences, and reducing our footprint.
This was a key time because it’s when the government realised that Costa Rica’s future lay in sustainable tourism. And so the tourism board in 1995 with the new administration that came in, decided to create a national certification program to persuade tourism-based businesses to follow certain guidelines. This is the story of what led to Costa Rica’s ecotourism brand and to what it is renowned for today.
Over 500 companies participate in the program which is free of charge, as it is run and funded by the Tourism Board (ICT). Today Costa Rica is renowned as the leader in environmental conservation.” Glenn
A sunset at Finca Rosa Blanca in Costa Rica
I ask every guest 2 questions at the very end. The first is: Can you tell us about a travel experience or place that deeply moved and inspired you? And why it was so profound.
“I have two. The first one is one of the most inspiring travel experiences of my life, it was in Kenya in the Maasai Mara. I stayed at an indigenous-owned lodge called Il Ngwesi, which is run and owned by the Maasai people. The rooms were completely open, there were no windows, you just had a roof, but it was very comfortable. The people were wonderful, and the whole community participated. I had such a great time there. I was so impressed.
The second place that inspired me was during a time when I was the president of the Costa Rican Ecotourism Association (CANAECO). This commission puts the final stamp on the level of sustainability that a hotel or a tourism entity would receive after being inspected and one day we were presented with a business hotel in San Jose, which is in one of the suburbs in Costa Rica.
We just couldn’t believe what this hotel was claiming they were doing, it was beyond anything else we’d seen before in terms of sustainability. As a group we went to visit this small business hotel in San Jose to see what they were doing. This hotel monitored and measured everything and then communicated this information to the customers. For example, ‘Mr. Jones, it’s great to see you again. Last time you stayed with us you used 0.50 kilowatts of electricity. And if you could lower that during this stay we will buy you a free dinner on your last night as a thank you.’ It was incredible.
In the elevators, they had videos playing that showed guests how to act like a responsible tourist. They also did educational classes with other businesses to show their sustainable model. That hotel opened my eyes. It was one of those chain business hotels and it’s still there today, but the management has changed so I don’t know how it’s run these days.” Glenn
What’s next for Finca Rosa Blanca in Costa Rica?
“That’s such a good question. Thank you for asking. And thank you for having me here.
I’m currently the chair of the Global Ecotourism Network, we’re an umbrella organisation for all the ecotourism associations networks around the world. We have six regional and global areas. Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa and Europe.
I get the opportunity to travel to different countries to speak at conferences and provide consultation.
I feel like the single most important area to focus on right now is reducing the impacts of climate change. That’s the most existential threat we now face. And because I’m also an organic farmer and work with soils, the thing that interests me the most is the sequestration of carbon in the soil. Which means drawing down excess carbon from our atmosphere and locking it away in the soil.
Soil is the greatest sequester of carbon on the planet. By working with the soils we can neutralise our carbon emissions and start to bring them down. So, what’s next? For me, it is regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and focusing on this climate change solution. The sequestration of carbon into soils.” Glenn