San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Parks in State of Emergency

As the battle to protect Costa Rica’s national parks continues, Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez this week said the Environment Ministry is considering emergency measures to combat the problem on a national level.

Such measures might include requiring tourism businesses that profit from the parks to make financial contributions toward their maintenance, he said.

We are in a state of emergency,” Rodríguez told The Tico Times. “Many people who should contribute to the park do not contribute, starting with the state – the government.”

Rodríguez said the problems facing the parks are “very, very serious.”

Unless the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) can come up with additional funding, he warned, several parks may have to close as early as June – a move that could devastate nearby businesses who tout the protected areas and their wildlife as a main attraction.

IT is those business owners, Rodríguez said, who keep them open.

“The operation of national parks should be a complimentary effort between the state and the private sector: the state behind basic operation, and the private sector should pay for the environmental services that the national parks provide,” he said.

Rodríguez said “environmental services” include use of scenic beauty and  biodiversity for profit, as well as consumption of water coming from sources inside the national parks.

He said that if the ministry receives approval via executive decree, he could start applying measures to charge businesses for those services sometime this year.

THE lack of government funding, according to the minister, stems from a history of relying on international funds to operate the parks. He said that since the parks stabilized in the early 1990s, most international funding was diverted to protect areas in the Amazon region, Africa, or Asia.

The main thing lacking to operate the parks effectively, the top environmental official said, is more rangers to patrol the parks and prevent poaching.

The poaching problem in CorcovadoNational Park, for example, has become so critical that Central American jaguars and white-lipped peccaries could disappear from the park this year, according to scientists (TT, March 19).

PARKS nationwide face poaching problems, but Rodríguez said the situation in Corcovado has received special attention because of the number of scientists and activists involved in stopping the illegal hunting there.

He said the country’s national park system has 100 fewer employees than it did a decade ago.

The minister will make a presentation before President Abel Pacheco sometime this month outlining what is needed to keep the parks open, and said MINAE may seek a declaration of a state of environmental emergency.

Alvaro Ugalde, director of the Osa Conservation Area, which includes Corcovado, and one of the men who designed Costa Rica’s national park system 34 years ago, drafted an emergency decree and sent it to Rodríguez last week.

UGALDE said he completely agreed with the minister. He said it saddens him to see understaffed and overworked rangers “cleaning bathrooms instead of protecting the forest.”

Ugalde, named in 1999 as one of Time magazine’s Latin American Leaders of the Century, said closing the parks would send a message to tourism business owners:

“Chip in if you want to keep this thing.” “I was so sure, 10 or 15 years ago, that  we only needed time to see the parks producing money, and then the army of protectors would be huge,” Ugalde told The Tico Times. “The army of moneymakers is huge, but the defenders of the parks are very small.”

Some business owners do contribute to the parks. The owners of Bosque del Cabo resort on the OsaPeninsula, for example, provided enough funding to pay one park guard’s salary for a full year. Another business in the area, Lapa Ríos, did the same.

DAVE Thomas, owner of the Turtle Beach Lodge in Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, said he occasionally provides food for park guards and allows them to use his hotel as a base camp for patrols. He also sends the hotel’s security guard on patrols, he said.

“I’m very much worried about conservation, and not because I’m a tree hugger or anything like that,” said Thomas, who owns the only hotel inside the limits of TortugueroNational Park. “If my product disappears, I’m out of business… Without the turtles, I’m dead.”

Thomas called the idea of closing the parks “ridiculous” and said it would devastate the local economy. He said national parks have ample opportunity to make money. For example, he said, they could require tour guides, who charge about $10 per person per tour, to pay a small commission to the park for each of their customers, in addition to the regular park entrance fee.

ACCORDING to MINAE officials, revenue brought in by the parks is absorbed by the national budget, and rarely makes its way back in the form of park guard salaries or other much-needed funding.

The bottom line, according to various experts, is that if more money doesn’t make it back to the parks, what is now touted as the country’s main attraction may no longer be a viable source of revenue for the nation.

“People get so caught up in tourism they forget what tourists come to see. They don’t come to see our cathedrals,” Ugalde said, and then paused. “Well, they do – our green cathedrals.”


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