Prosperity and Biodiversity in the Tropics: Challenges of Sustainability in Costa Rica

Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources
The University of Vermont

View our Video introduction

The Costa Rica Semester Abroad program integrates academic content across the biological and social sciences with the real world challenges and opportunities faced by a newly-developed Latin American country with unparalleled biodiversity. There are both fall and spring semester options.

The program begins with three weeks of travel around Costa Rica as you learn the foundations of sustainable development while meeting and visiting with:

  • government and NGO representatives in San Jose;
  • an ecotourism project in the Monteverde highland region;
  • a sea turtle conservation project at Playa Junquillal;
  • a watershed restoration project in the Guanacaste region;
  • a reforestation project in the northwestern tropical dry forest region;
  • a cooperative community on the Pacific coast near Quepos that features a 2,000 hectare palm oil plantation; and

The remainder of the program (12.5 weeks) will be based in the highlands of Panama and Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Named one of the “most biologically intense places on earth” by National Geographic magazine, the tiny Osa Peninsula – just a little larger than Chittenden County, Vermont  – is home to a startling 2.5% of the earth’s biodiversity. More than half of the peninsula is protected by Corcovado National Park and the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve.

People began settling on the Osa Peninsula only 60 years ago, and for decades it was described as a “wild west” of subsistence farmers, fishermen, gold miners, and loggers.  Over the past 15 years, outside pressures of economic and social change have begun to threaten the biological integrity of the Peninsula. The road onto the Peninsula was fully paved only 7 years ago. Development proposals include a large scale marina and resort, a nearby international airport, and new African palm and rice plantations. Small scale, locally owned businesses are at risk of being overwhelmed by a sudden influx of outside capital investment and well-meaning government and NGO development projects. In sum, the Osa Peninsula is a region poised at a crossroads, where hard decisions must be made about how to balance growth and conservation with local control.

Course topics for the final 12.5 weeks include rural development in a global context, ecosystem management and sustainability, and tropical ecology. Field-based labs and community-identified service learning projects are integral to this portion of the program.





Academic program directors Walt Kuentzel and Dave Kestenbaum have more than 20 years of teaching, research, and service experience in Costa Rica and on the Osa Peninsula.


* All courses are for UVM credit and grades will be reflected on your transcript. To determine the applicability of these courses to your School/College degree requirements, speak with your academic advisor.

Foundations of Sustainability – The Costa Rican Experience (3 credits)

This course will provide students with a general orientation to Costa Rica and serve as a group building educational experience. It will set the tone for the semester by introducing the academic concepts and theories from the sustainability literature and then bringing students in contact with a variety of real world situations where these concepts are being applied. Locations have been selected to provide a diversity of natural environments and social contexts to illustrate the complexities and challenges of sustainable development practices.

Rural Livelihoods in a Globalized World (3 credits)

This course builds off the previous introductory course on sustainability by situating rural development in a political economic context within the broader globalized economy. The course will explore the dynamics of how commodity agricultural production (timber, beef, rice, palm oil, etc.), direct foreign investment, and centralized government initiatives can interact (or interfere) with the dynamics of local entrepreneurial business development. The course will focus on how local residents of the Osa Peninsula can become integrated with local, regional, national, and global economies in a way that maintains local control and preserves the environment on which they rely for their livelihoods.

Tropical Forest Ecology in Costa Rica (4 credits)

This class provides the biological science counterpart to the Rural Livelihoods class. It introduces student to tropical forest ecology by focusing on the physical structure, species richness, and species interactions in the lowland tropical rainforest ecosystem of the Osa Peninsula.  Using a combination of lectures, natural history walks, and data-collecting field problems, students will gain extensive, first-hand experience with the rich biological diversity that supports resident livelihoods on the Osa Peninsula and at the same time draws an increasing number of tourists to the region.

Managing for Sustainability (3 credits)

This course builds on the three previous courses in the semester sequence. It draws from principles of sustainability to integrate tropical ecology with peoples’ land use practices on the Osa Peninsula. The course combines course content with onsite experiences to consider ecosystem health and integrity, ecosystem degradation, human needs, values and behaviors, and the application of management principles within a holistic context. The goal of the course is to understand and apply ecosystem management principles to the complex and changing array of challenges in the Osa Peninsula region revolving around agriculture, forestry, wildlife, protected areas, tourism, fishing, ranching, mining, water quality, and transboundary issues.

Community Engagement for Sustainability (4 credits)

This course serves as the integrative capstone experience for the semester abroad program. During the semester, students have been introduced to local organizations, the dynamics of sustainable development in Costa Rica, the political economy of rural development, principles of tropical ecology, and the variety of integrated approaches to sustainable land-use and management. The goal of this course is provide a platform for integration, where students draw from the depth of knowledge they’ve gained, and apply it to a specific sustainable development project on the Osa Peninsula. Students will work on a variety of community identified service learning projects such as mangrove restoration, ecotourism development, palm oil BMPs, entrepreneurial education and outreach, among others.


UVM students enrolled in any School/College are eligible to apply. Minimum cumulative GPA 2.5


Students participating in a UVM Semester program pay their standard UVM tuition rate and standard UVM fees. In addition, there is a $500 study abroad fee. The Costa Rica program fees for spring 2022 are $7,672. The program fee will cover all class related lodging, in country transportation, required entrance fees, guide services, and approximately 80% of meals for the 15 week semester. Airfare not included in the program fee is an estimated $950.


UVM grants and scholarships are eligible for use on this UVM Semester program, as is federal financial aid.