AN ongoing debate regarding the legality of beach camping in Costa Rica heated up again during Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week), and it appears the question will not be resolved until the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) hands down a ruling on the matter.
The court is reviewing an injunction filed by the Costa Rican Federation for the Conservation of the Environment (FECON), and has yet to make a pronouncement on whether it is legal to set up a tent on the public zone of the country’s beaches, said Sandra Castro, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch.
The Public Security Ministry had announced it would comply with a request from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) to prevent beachgoers from camping during Semana Santa on Playa Panamá, across the bay from the PapagayoPeninsula in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, within the boundaries of the ICT-sponsored Papagayo Tourism Development Project.
ACCORDING to FECON, that announcement, coupled with restricted access and 24-hour patrols by police on the beach, successfully deterred the usual influx of campers – who normally number in the thousands on that beach during Semana Santa.
FECON vice-president Gadi Amit said he and several other members of the environmental organization were able to camp on the beach the night of April 8, and though police continually patrolled their campsite, they made no arrests and imposed no fines.
“They were only threats,” Amit told The Tico Times. “People can go and enjoy the beach, with the bother, with the discontentment.”
Amit said the beach was full during the day, though police were not allowing vehicles to enter through “traditional” access points. FECON members claim police blocked roads leading to the beach with boulders and are setting up a gate to prevent people from entering at another point.
He said he filed a complaint against the Public Security Ministry for destroying and blocking public beach access points, and that the Sala IV gave ministry until this week to respond.
AMIT was detained April 6 by police at Playa Panamá when he presented what appears to be a somewhat ambiguous statement from the Sala IV, issued April 2, ordering Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro to “adopt the measures necessary to the effect of allowing the free transit and stay of the general public in Playa Panamá, located in the canton of Carrillo, Guanacaste, unless there exists a superior motive of order duly demonstrated, which – in conformity with applicable legislation – justifies challenging this measure; this is until such time as the Sala resolves the injunction or makes other arrangements.”
FECON members interpreted this as a decision in their favor and issued a release that said, “In this manner, they have guaranteed that those Costa Ricans who wish to enjoy a peaceful Semana Santa on the beaches of their country can enter and enjoy their beauty without worrying about unjustified harassment by police.”
Amit said he was arrested when he presented the Sala IV statement to police at the Guanacaste beach on April 2. He said he was detained for about three hours and had been on the phone with officials from the Judicial Investigative Police when he was arrested. Amit said he is filing another complaint against the Public Security Ministry for unlawful detention.
SECURITY Minister Rogelio Ramos told Al Día last week that “stay” and “camping” are two different things, and that the law clearly shows camping on the beach is an illegal activity.
Those who say camping on the beach is illegal based their argument on several articles of the 1977 Maritime Zone Law – the same articles FECON members point to when they argue its legality (TT, April 2).
For example, Article 10 of the law states “those who use in the maritime zone temporary or mobile installations, such as tents for camping or trailers, shall do so in the designated zones, when they exist; in all cases they are obligated to observe the norms established by health authorities, remaining subject to the sanctions considered in the General Health Law.”
Although only a few people were able to camp in the public zone in Playa Panamá, beachgoers at other locations apparently were able to camp without any problems from authorities.
Al Día reported that there were dozens of families camping at Playa Iguanita in Guanacaste, near Playa Panamá, and campers filled a beach farther south along the Pacific coast at San Juanillo Bay, according to a property owner from that area.
IRONICALLY, though FECON, an environmental organization, has championed the cause of beach camping, the main complaint of opponents of the traditional practice is the environmental damage it causes.
“The Costa Rican attitude is that this is my country, I can do what I want with it. They’re the worst when it comes to destroying their own country,” said Karin Knappstein de Doglioni, who owns property near a small beach in San Juanillo Bay and is planning to build a small Mediterranean-style village there.
Knappstein, a Canadian, was quick to add that foreigners cause as much damage as Ticos and that she has seen groups of North Americans with their trailers on the beach for up to six months at a time.
“This kind of situation has been abused – not just by the locals,” she said.
She said campers park their cars alongside their tents and leave enormous amounts of garbage. She said she was so concerned about the potential spread of contagious diseases among the concentration of tents that she had garbage cans installed in the area and has them emptied weekly.
KNAPPSTEIN said she donated the services of her architect to design a more sustainable camping area near the beach that would be run by the community and include picnic tables, barbeque pits, showers and bathrooms.
ICT has maintained that basic sanitary services are necessary for beach camping to be legal, and officials from the institute pointed out that a recently opened camping facility at Playa Panamá provides bathrooms, showers, running water, and garbage collection. The private campground, called Maná del Pacífico, has room for about 200 people and charges 1,000 ($2.34) per person per night (TT, April 2).
ICT officials also point to Article 9 of the Maritime Zone Law, which says that while using the beach, citizens must “guarantee at all times access to the zone and free transit in it for all people.” Officials from the organization have claimed setting up a tent “interrupts the passage” of other beachgoers.
While most beach camping proponents claim it is ridiculous to say a tent interrupts the passage of others, Knappstein said that on the beach in her community, because of the number of people there, that is exactly what ends up happening during peak vacation times such as Semana Santa.