San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fate of Islanders Uncertain

ISLA CABALLO, Gulf of Nicoya – The future has been haunting the fishing families of this small island for decades, as their nets have dragged in increasingly paltry catches from the gulf, on the country’s north central Pacific coast.

And now, with the imminent eviction of the families from their homes to make way for hotels and villas, history may relegate them to the footnotes of Costa Rica’s development success story.

Four families are under court order to demolish their homes and leave the beach on this Puntarenas province island, where they have lived for decades.

A consortium of tourism and real estate developers paid for a zoning plan that the Municipality of Puntarenas submitted to the Legislative Assembly in 2001. It does not include the fishermen’s shanties, located within the public maritime zone.

IN an attempt to save their homes, the fishermen hired a lawyer, Mario Medina, who defended them in a penal court hearing, which they lost. The fishermen signed the court’s decision, which said they had to demolish their own houses and evacuate the beach, but told The Tico Times last week that they did not fully understand the document.

For most of his 46 years, David Jiménez has fished off that island. He is raising his eight children there, and is among those who signed the court order with a thumbprint rather than a signature.

“We don’t know anything about the law. We don’t know how to read well,” he said. “When we got home, our wives read the papers that we had signed and told us that we had to demolish our own houses.”

Pedro Velásquez, 50, is as sun-wizened as the other older islanders and has a quick, gap-toothed smile that he flashes even when he talks about the evictions.

“I thought it (signing the papers) was a solution to the problem, but it turned out that we had to take down our own houses and leave,” he said.

THE islanders, it turned out, had faced criminal charges for the construction of buildings in the public maritime zone.

Medina, their lawyer, said that in the families’ defense during the hearing, he argued that they were entitled to a place to live.

But the court ruled against them and, according to Medina, both he and the judge explained the consequences of such a ruling to the fishermen and told them what they were signing when they put their thumbprints on the court order.

That was Oct. 2, 2003, and the document gave them eight months to comply with the order.

Costa Rica’s Maritime Zone Law, passed in 1977, declares the country’s shoreline a “national heritage” belonging to the public. The law says construction or alterations to an existing building within the first 50 meters of the high tide mark is not permitted, unless a concession is awarded in the public interest.

THE families of Isla Caballo, like many others on the country’s coasts, found themselves living in illegal homes once they rebuilt a dilapidated shack or added a room for a new child.

The law is not always enforced. Ana Catalina Brenes, head of the Concessions Department of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, which overseas the law’s applications, said enforcement is in the hands of the municipalities, which apply varying degrees of vigilance (TT, March 21, 2003).

In this case, the municipality’s attention shifted to Caballo when its beaches were in the sights of five Costa Rican development businesses and one U.S. investor, whose names were not provided by their representative, Alvaro Fernández.

Other houses on that island and others in the gulf are in the same zone on the beaches, but have thus far not been told to leave.

OMBUDSMAN José Echandi has defended the rights of a long list of people in various coastal communities like that of Caballo, including Dominical and Quepos in the Central Pacific coast, and Limón and villages south of there along the Caribbean coast.

When the Isla Caballo fishermen contacted him, he helped publicize their plight. “The Municipality (of Puntarenas) never should have ordered them to leave without guaranteeing them a place to live,” Echandi said.

PUNTARENAS Mayor Omar Obando was not in office when the municipality took action against the fishermen last year. He told The Tico Times he has no knowledge of the Isla Caballo situation, and that neither the fishermen nor the businesses involved have approached him.

The zoning plan, according to the business consortium’s representative Fernández, includes a section of the island for those who live there.

The businesses bought land on the island about ten years ago, Fernández said, adding that they are interested in helping the islanders move.

“We offered to help them apply for concessions but the Costa Rican Tourism Institute said that they need to do it themselves.”

Much of Costa Rica’s coastline is not zoned, according to attorney José Barahona.

Because most local governments lack the funds to pay for land studies, developers who want coastal land concessions often offer to pay for the zoning plan rather than wait for the municipalities to gather the funds, he said. Once the shoreline is zoned, only those who obtain concessions will be able to use the land within the first 200 meters from the high tide mark.

THE fishing families who live on the beach of Isla Caballo moor their boats there, where they can see them from their houses. If they move further inland, they will need to secure their boats somehow so they are not stolen, Jiménez said.

Constructing a dock, for example, would require a concession and funding.

Isla Caballo is home to an estimated 300 people. It has two schools, a medical center, electricity from solar panels, and water from wells. It is the recipient of several of development projects that have flopped.

Though he no longer acts as their legal counsel, Medina said he recommends the families apply for a housing loan or grant and build new houses in another part of the island.

The islanders are already suspicious of such loan applications, according to Felix Campos, a fisherman who lives in the public zone but who has not yet been told to leave.

“MANY people have come promising us things,” he said. “They say they will do projects to settle the situation here, meaning our way of life here, but we’ve been tricked a ton of times.”

In 1997, they applied for grants from Viviendacoop, an organization that makes small loans and grants for housing projects.

After completing all the requirements, they never received the money.

The company went bankrupt and has been liquidating its assets since 1999.

Manuel Estrada, administrator of the liquidation process, explained there were a number of grants they had approved in that period that they could not pay.

A large sign in front of one of the island’s two schools advertises a project of the Holland-Costa Rica Agreement for Sustainable Development. It advertises electricity service from solar panels, a water pump, freezer and icemaker for the fishermen’s catch, all at a cost of $350,000.

Campos said the water pump broke and was removed by people from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) for repair and never returned and the freezer was  never installed.

A half-finished medical center, paid for in part by the Social Security System (Caja) years ago, is overgrown with vines and weeds.

Carlos Veneg as, regional director of the Caja in the Central Pacific Region, said the investment was part of a government program between 1994 and 1998, called the Triangle of Solidarity.

It attempted to link the Caja’s funds with labor from municipalities and the communities in which the projects were located. The Caja completed its part in Caballo, Venegas said, by delivering the materials.

The unfinished health clinic is the responsibility of the other organizations involved, he claimed.


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