A fine mess you’ve left us with – the state of the Costa Rican environment (Part 2)

Former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias handed over the reins to Laura Chinchilla.  Part 2 of the “Environmental State of the Country Report” will critique Arias’ decision making related to the management of the country’s natural resources related to: coastal development, dwindling water supplies, the Environmental Secretariat (Setena), and Las Baulas (Leatherback sea turtle) National Park.

Coastal Real Estate Development
Almost two years into Arias’ administration, Executive Decree No. 34456-MP-MIVAH-TUR-MINAE-COM was issued to “regulate” real estate development in a four kilometer-wide coastal strip in Guanacaste, one that includes the Cóbano, Paquera, and Lepanto regions. The “justification” for the decree was that, in the absence of zoning plans, the government needed to enforce some kind of regulation to prohibit unsustainable development along the country’s biodiverse coastlines. 

The decree prohibits high-rise buildings in the maritime terrestrial zone (MTZ – the first 200 meters inland from the high tide line). It does, however, allow buildings of up to four stories to be built in this zone, and of up to nine stories between one and four kilometers from the beach.  While this type of permitted construction might seem benign, even innocuous (environmentally speaking) compared to that in Miami, Florida for example, consider this:  Population densities of up to 90,000 people per square kilometer without any environmental criteria were set for this urban development scheme.  All of this at the cost of the tropical dry forests, mangroves, buffer areas, and watershed recharge areas. 

Worse yet – it allows this type of development explosion to happen without requiring (or guaranteeing) that basic services such as water, sewage treatment facilities, and garbage collection will be available.  As these services are almost nonexistent in rural coastal areas, the decree is like saying “Build ‘um as big as you like, we’ll worry about all the trash and sewage later”.  The economic crisis in the United States put the brakes on real estate investment, but the danger still remains and the decree’s intent will not be erased by the present economic downturn.

The Hotel Riu in Guanacaste (photo: goriu.com)

Water and Sardinal 

Erroneous decisions concerning water now require urgent corrective action.  The case of Sardinal speaks for itself. Without consultation or the respective technical studies, the decision was imposed to extract water from the aquifer in the alluvial valley where the community of Sardinal is situated.  This was done in order to supply coastal real estate developments in Playa Hermosa and Playas del Coco – located in northern Guanacaste – and is a clear example of how the lack of a natural resource needs to be taken into account in development, planning, and zoning.  The Arias’ administration, after investing in and initiating construction of an aqueduct (designed to literally steal water from the existing community) had to halt work by order of the Constitutional Court after it was brought to light how technical justification for the project was obtained by “pressuring” various waterworks institutions.  The inauguration in September 2009 of the Hotel Riu in Playa Matapalo, with its 701 rooms in a semi-arid area where communities do not have sufficient year round water supplies, has exacerbated tempers even more.

Baulas and Protected Zones

Map of Las Baulas National Park. Will the proposed changes destroy this national treasure?

The outgoing administration has tried to open up real estate development in the Playa Grande area bordering the Las Baulas National Marine Park, where one of the world’s premier sites for leatherback turtle nesting is found.  Various means have been used to achieve this goal, including an attempt to pass a law for reducing the national park’s status to a wildlife refuge, under the pretext that funds are lacking to carry out court ordered expropriations (bill 17.383).  Ignoring the technical and legal position of various institutions, Arias’ administration maintained its desire to declassify the national park to benefit real estate development in the Park’s MTZ, an area qualified as extremely vulnerable and only apt for conservation initiatives because of shallow underground aquifers (it’s illegal in Costa Rica to build on top of an aquifer).

Added to this attempt to downgrade a national park is a series of executive decrees issued by the outgoing administration that reduce or eliminate various protected areas. The Arias administration is the first in many years not to create a new national park.  This could be seen as evidence that the government has “forgotten” the signed commitments made to the world in the Biological Diversity Convention for creating new protected areas and strengthening the national system for safeguarding critically endangered biodiversity. The administration has also stalled on the issue of creating more marine protected areas and has irresponsibly ignored the problem of shark finning.

Competitiveness and SETENA
One of the main duties of the Competitiveness Minister (oversees foreign investments in this country) during the outgoing administration was to reinforce and modernize SETENA, the institution charged with granting environmental feasibility to new investment projects by means of a highly technical, impartial environmental impact study. Thus, an organization whose independent criteria should be free of any political influence, was placed under the “support” and “care” of the Minister of Competitiveness. It is not surprising that environmental feasibility for the open pit, gold mine project “Crucitas” was granted in just six weeks, while projects of lesser impact routinely have to wait months for approval.  Even less surprising is why SETENA has issued new procedures by decree in these last two years, arbitrarily and without consultation – some of which are even illegal.  Headlining this list is the environmental viability granted to and massive tuna aquaculture project in the Golfo Dulce after the Constutional Court ruled that no permission could be granted to the project until detailed studies were done to determine where local oceanic currents would sweep the fish excrement.

The good news in all of this is that, with the exception of shark finning, all of these environmental issues are local problems that can be solved with sustainable decision making.  And that’s what we environmentalists will expect and pressure Laura Chinchilla to do.

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