A land dispute in the remote southern Pacific beach town of Pavones has pitted a group of Costa Rican fishermen against foreign residents who have obtained a government concession for a 13-hectare coastal property there.
Similar territorial conflicts in Pavones, compared by some residents to the “Wild West,” have flared into fatal shootouts, arson and a string of court battles in the past 20 years.
The latest dispute began when Patrick and Anne Weston received a concession from the Municipality of Golfito for 13 hectares of coastal property, including a two-kilometer stretch of shoreline, east of the village of Río Claro de Pavones.
The land concession was granted to the U.S. couple in late 2002 for forest preservation and scientific research.
A group of area fishermen has been trying to claim one of those hectares along the coast to build a pier and a storehouse for the fishermen’s catch.
Convinced that the concession awarded to the Westons was granted under unfair circumstances, the fishermen and their legal advisor, former Golfito Mayor Jimmy Cubillo, have appealed to the Supreme Elections Tribunal in an attempt to remove Municipal officials from office because of that decision.
Their case prompted the visits of two Puntarenas province congressional deputies from the Libertarian Movement party last year and has snagged the attention of a San José-based lawyer. All three have expressed sympathy with the fishermen’s plight.
THE Westons, according to their lawyer Marcos Araya and his documentation, went through the proper legal channels to obtain the rights to the land.
The couple submitted a proposal in 1990 for a new municipal zoning plan that designated much of the area as a protected forest. The Municipality of Golfito passed the plan in 2000, and the Westons received their land concession two years later.
Before applying for the concession, Anne Weston said she and her husband, who have been a part of the community there for 16 years, took into account the livelihoods of the area fishermen, asked them which part of the beach they wanted to use, and recommended they apply for a concession to guarantee their access.
Later, she said, once the process was under way and the maps, land studies, and approvals were passing under the stamps and pens of local authorities, a group of fishermen organized to oppose the Westons’ concession and claim part of the beach for themselves.
THE organization, called the Association of Fishermen of the Bay of Pavón (APEBAPA), founded in 2001, represents 20 fishermen and their families. José González, a member of the association, said local fishermen are worried because at any moment they could be evicted from their current base and denied use of their storehouse in the village of Río Claro.
He said they are unable to obtain the legal right to use that land because its proximity to the town prevents the municipality from granting them a concession there.
The rocky coast and the rough sea, González claimed, limit their options for a dock in the area. The area within the Westons’ land is suitable, he said, because of the relative calm of the waves there.
APEBAPA and the group’s legal advisor contend the fishermen were excluded from the process of zoning and doling out the land, and that something is amiss in the way the municipality granted the concession to the Westons.
One year before the municipality approved the zoning plan, APEBAPA had sent a letter to the municipality requesting that the plan grant them permission to build a facility on the beach.
Nobody responded, according to Cubillo. That and other attempts to gain a part of the land were ignored, according to APEBAPA, which has documents that verify those attempts.
“We find ourselves without the financial resources to fight our cause. We seem weak, but we’re not – we will fight because this is our livelihood and we must protect our families,” Gerardo López, president of APEBAPA, told The Tico Times.
THE association recently contacted Victor Lobo, a San José-based lawyer who is examining their case.
Lobo told The Tico Times that the Municipality of Golfito approved the zoning plan in violation of the Constitution.
“The government received the documents but did not respond or consider them. That is a violation of the due process of law,” he said, explaining that the Constitutional right to due process guarantees involvement in the legal process.
Golfito Mayor Mauricio Alvarado assured The Tico Times there was nothing illegal about the zoning plan or the concession.
“When the plan was passed there was a public audience, but nothing was heard from the fishermen. It was only afterward that they began to complain,” he said.
HE cannot alter the concession now, Alvarado said, but he can try to help the fishermen obtain land on the edge of the Westons’ property.
Former Mayor Cubillo said the reason there was no opposition is simple – the municipality did not notify APEBAPA of the public hearing. Rather, Cubillo said, they held a hearing alone and approved the concession immediately.
Mayor Alvarado responded that the government followed the legal procedures and did not hold an unannounced public hearing.
Cubillo has submitted a ream of documents to the Supreme Elections Tribunal that he claims will prove there were shenanigans not only in the public hearing, but also in other aspects of the municipality’s land concession process.
AS an example, he showed The Tico Times a copy of the contract for the Westons’ concession, which was signed at 8 a.m. on Dec. 16, 2002. The public hearing to field opposition began at 10:30 a.m. that same day, two and a half hours after the contract was signed, and APEBAPA was not represented.
Gerardo Soto, former Golfito Mayor who signed the concession contract, told The Tico Times that, though he did not have the documents before him, he did not think that there was any wrongdoing.
“I believe that we signed it after the public hearing and after all the proceedings had gone through,” he said.
Rigoberto Nuñez, president of the Municipal Council, who also signed the concession contract, told The Tico Times “we would have to look into it, but it seems to me that we approved something that had already met all the legal requirements.”
Cubillo is confident that the evidence he has will be enough to annul the contract and possibly topple Mayor Alvarado, Nuñez and others in the municipality “within four or five months,” he said.
LAWYER Lobo said the fishermen have not yet taken the case to court properly. “They don’t know what they’re doing. They need to present their case to the Criminal Court or the Constitutional court or both… I believe they have the right to work like you and me, and they don’t have too many options for work there. If this concession remains, it jeopardizes the entire culture of those people,” Lobo said.
Mayor Alvarado, Nuñez and the Westons all said they want the fishermen to have a piece of land, but an independent study proved the land in question is unsuitable for a pier.
Geologists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) carried out the study and concluded that the beach is prone to such severe erosion that building there would require a large investment.
THE Westons stressed they have followed the letter of the law throughout the entire process.
“What we’re doing is absolutely vital to the community,” Patrick Weston said. “We want to bring marine biology research here because the gulf is threatened.”
Patrick Weston was a lifeguard in the United States before moving to Costa Rica with his wife, who teaches English to children in Río Claro and writes children’s books.
Some area residents told The Tico Times they have long been frustrated by the actions of Patrick Weston in the community, especially regarding land use. To avoid what they claimed would be Weston’s retribution, many requested that their names be withheld from publication.
ONE of those with complaints against the Westons who did not speak on condition of anonymity was Billy Clayton, who had permission to use some of the land that is now in the concession, but lost it when the municipality awarded the land to the Westons.
Allan Weisbecker, a neighbor of the Westons, left the country recently after an argument with Patrick Weston in which Weston accused him of selling land illegally over the Internet. In a letter that
Weisbecker delivered to The Tico Times and the U.S. Embassy in San José, he wrote, “Patrick Weston has the community of Pavones – expats and Ticos alike –cowed. Weston is feared.”
Weston, however, said people are upset because he and his wife try to ensure that residents follow the land-use laws, and file complaints against people who sell land illegally.
“All the things you hear about us are from people who have an axe to grind,” he said.
SOME of the players in the recent controversy are veterans and witnesses of past Pavones land battles, some that ended in tragedy.
In 1997, Jimmy Cubillo was the Mayor of Golfito and gave permission to a cooperative called Coopeatur to build an ice factory in Pavones.
The site encroached on the ranch of Max Dalton, a 78-year-old U.S. citizen who was shot to death shortly after. Dalton and one of his alleged attackers, 55-year-old Tico Alvaro Aguilar, died of bullet wounds in a gunfight after Dalton contested the municipality’s authorization to build the factory on his land (TT, Nov. 21, 1997).
Cubillo later said he had made a mistake in granting the permission (TT, Dec. 19, 1997).
LAND disputes in Pavones also have roots in the demise of the United Fruit Company in the 1980s. The company pulled out of the area after debilitating strikes by unionized workers, leaving hundreds unemployed and opening the land to foreign speculators.
One of the buyers was U.S. fugitive financier Robert Vesco (TT Nov. 25, 1988), who later sold some of the land to Danny Fowlie, who has been imprisoned in the United States since the mid-1980s, convicted of drug trafficking.
The Westons own another 100-hectare property they bought from a corporation that Fowlie owned, Rancho del Mar; although they made the purchase through a legal representative of Fowlie and say they never knew Fowlie.
“Four-fifths of Pavones was owned by corporations in Fowlie’s name,” Anne Weston said.
Though the press often casts the southern region as a prickly mess of drugs and gun fights, Anne Weston said there is a positive side that is often overlooked.
That is partly what they are struggling to protect through their reforestation project, she said.