In the late 1970s, a boat carrying a young English woman landed on a remote island in the tropical Pacific, some 400 miles off the coast of Ecuador. This was Cocos Island, a far-flung outpost of Costa Rica, the tiny Central American state famous for having no army and for its Nobel Peace Prize-winning President, Óscar Arias. The young woman was Deirdre Hyde, a recent art graduate from Reading University in the UK, who had come to explore the lush tropical vegetation and mountainous landscapes of Cocos Island with a group of British tourists who had invited her to join them as a kind of ‘artist in residence’ for the journey.

Prodigiously talented, Deirdre had assiduously painted and drawn the landscapes of her native Dorset since childhood. But the prospects of a life in painting did not fill her with happiness. Something niggled in her soul. Painting for its own sake felt pointless to her, for it seemed that its subtle self-indulgences were doing nothing to help alleviate the impending ecological crisis that she was acutely aware of even in the 1970s when she was a student.

It was with these disquieting thoughts that she first set foot on Cocos Island. She was immediately captivated by the exotic, luxurious wildness of the place. The island’s steep terrain, covered in verdant tropical rainforests, the mingled, criss-crossing sounds of tropical birds and insects, the warm ocean teeming with marine life, and the qualities of remoteness, beauty and fragility that permeated the island all conspired to increase her conviction that she should use her art in some palpable, down-to-earth way that could help to protect wild places such as this. She revelled in the sense of freedom that this realisation gave her.

Her friends left there after a month, but with the permission of the Costa Rican Parks Service personnel who looked after the island she stayed on with one companion for a further five months, painting every day – entering ever more deeply into the luscious green soul of the island and deepening her resolve to do art in service of the Earth.

When Deirdre returned to the Costa Rican mainland, she immediately volunteered as an artist for the Costa Rican Parks Service, where she saw an immense opportunity to put her artistic talents to use as an illustrator. They had a challenging project she could perhaps help with. High up on the precarious flanks of the Poás Volcano National Park lay their recently built, ultra-modern visitor centre, complete with a large exhibition space that needed filling with an educational exhibit of some kind. Here, in the early 1980s, Deirdre created an exhibit that to this day explains the importance of Costa Rica’s massive biodiversity in ways that inspire awe and wonder in anyone who takes the time to fall under its spell.

News of the stunning exhibit at Poás spread far and wide in Central America, and soon Deirdre’s work was in great demand. She completed six huge, magnificent paintings for the Neotropica Foundation depicting many of the key animals and plants in six major Costa Rican ecosystems, including the tropical dry forest and the cloud forest. These were made into posters that spread quickly into every school and university in the country, becoming classic icons that helped to forge the ecological sensibility that is now a hallmark of this minuscule nation, which protects 25% of its landmass in national parks – a higher proportion than any other country on Earth.

From 1986 to 1989 I was a professor of Wildlife Management at the National University in Costa Rica, and Deirdre and her partner Bob were my best friends. I would spend days at a time in their old town house in central San José, catching glimpses of Deirdre at work in her studio. Her productivity and the quality of her work took our breath away. Here, amongst many other things, she produced posters in support of marine turtle conservation, she illustrated a book on the seemingly arcane but vitally important subject of iguana ranching, and she created a series of eight posters for the Cuna people of neighbouring Panama, illustrating their traditional laws in vibrant colour. One such is “Respect the mangrove areas where the manatees breed, otherwise Nature will bite back and take her revenge on you.” Her posters helped the Cuna to value and strengthen their traditional culture in the face of the increasingly destructive onslaughts of the modern world. Then there were posters that fought back against the big banana companies that were deforesting large areas of the country in the 1980s.

Deirdre’s work has spread to all the countries of Central America, and beyond. In Italy she worked as artist in residence for the Abruzzo National Park, where bear and wolf still roam wild, respected to some extent by the various villages scattered throughout the park. In the Cape Verde islands her posters helped to re-ignite a sense of pride in the local culture and ecology. For the Ladakh Project she painted a series of posters contrasting the destructive aspects of the modern world with the human-scale, Nature-friendly practices of traditional Ladakhi culture: supermarkets versus traditional farming, motorways versus slow travel.

Her recent work for the Rainforest Alliance reaches out to global consumers of Costa Rican coffee and cocoa, showing them how traditional plantations in the forest teem with biodiversity and support rural livelihoods of grace and simplicity. Most coffee drinkers don’t know that growing the new light-tolerant coffee has wiped out these traditional plantations and doused huge areas of land with toxic agro-chemicals. Nor do most people realise that in buying organic chocolate from Central America they are supporting rural women who lovingly tend their cacao trees deep in the forest.

After three decades of art in service of the Earth, Deirdre has reached a turning point. Costa Rica now has several talented young illustrators following in her footsteps, and she senses that her work as the founder of the Central American ‘ecological art’ movement is complete. At long last she feels able to pick up the threads that she so deliberately let fall all those years ago when as a young woman she first set foot on Cocos Island. Now she is free to do art for its own sake, in which her messages about Nature can be more subtly expressed. Recently she told me how hard it had been as a young woman in the art world, and that despite her talent, she lacked confidence then. Her long and immense dedication to the Earth has put that right, and she can at long last paint freely from her heart.

Stephan Harding co-ordinates the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. His book Animate Earth is illustrated by Deirdre Hyde and is published by Green Books.