San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Long, Arduous Journey of a SETENA File

DEVELOPERS interested in any kindof project in Costa Rican territory thatcould potentially impact the environmentare required to obtain approval from theNational Technical Secretariat of theEnvironment Ministry (SETENA) to beginwork.As it stands, receiving such approvalrequires a rigmarole that, depending on theproject’s size, location and potential fordamage, could take anywhere from a fewmonths to more than a year.Anyone from a resident building ahome in San José to a multi-national hotelcompany building an entire complex insidea wildlife refuge must fill out a PreliminaryEnvironmental Evaluation form.Once that is done, SETENA opens a file onthe project.THE file begins its journey throughSETENA at the Preliminary EnvironmentalEvaluation Department. SoniaEspinosa, head of the department, said fouremployees work there, and they receivearound 100 files per month.She said at least one employee mustvisit the site of each project, includinghouses. Espinosa said scarce transportationresources and an archaic filing systemcause delays that allow the four to sendonly 20 files a week along to the next step,leaving them with a steadily increasingbacklog.After visiting the project site, the preliminaryevaluators determine whetherthey should request an “instrument of evaluation”for the project, or whether it can goahead as planned. The evaluation instrumentschosen are usually an environmentalimpact study, an environmental managementplan, or both.THOSE recommendations are sent toa commission comprised of representativesfrom the Environment Ministry (MINAE),the Agriculture Ministry (MAG), thePublic Works and Transportation Ministry(MOPT), the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute (ICE), the Ministry of Health andthe state universities. The commission willeither approve or ignore those preliminaryrecommendations.Espinosa said businesses have one yearfrom the date they are notified to presentdocuments proving they have completedthe studies or management plans.To do this, developers must assemblethe particular combination of experts outlinedby SETENA.For a marina, officials might requestthat an oceanographer participate. For ahotel in the forest, they might request aforest engineer and a biologist. For ahydroelectric dam, they might requestwater experts and fish specialists.IT is up to the developer to select andcontract the specialists. SETENA is notinvolved in this process, Espinosa explained,except for mandating that thedeveloper choose the experts from a specificregistry at its office that contains governmentofficials, private contractors anduniversity employees.Once the study or management plan issubmitted, at least two of the five employeesworking for SETENA’s Department ofEnvironmental Impact Studies must visitthe site. After the visit, three people fromthe department and one person from theLegal Advising Department will evaluatethe file. They have two days to eitherapprove the project for the next step orrequest additional information from thedeveloper.At any point in the process, if an officialinjunction or complaint is added tothe file, it must undergo review by one ofthree lawyers from the legal department.Elizabeth Araya, one of SETENA’slawyers, told The Tico Times there isnearly always opposition to sizeable projects.“Take, for example, landfills,” Arayasaid. “Nobody wants landfills. But theyneed landfills.”She said opposing parties often try tofinish their fight in SETENA, and theresult is a tangled legal mess.IF all the legal kinks are worked outand the environmental impact studyreceives an initial “OK,” the file is sentback to the multi-institutional commission.The commission then gives the projecta final thumbs up or thumbs down.If it gets a thumbs down, the developerreceives a list of reasons why the projectwas denied and has the option of makingthe necessary changes and resubmitting therequest.If it gets a thumbs up, the commissionrequests a Sworn Declaration of EnvironmentalCommitments, in which the developermust name an environmental regentto represent the company and work withthe government in the event any damageoccurs. At this point, the developer mustalso pay an environmental guarantee – adeposit to cover potential damage reparationcosts. The fee may not exceed 1% ofthe total cost of the project.AFTER handing in the declaration,developers have 30 days to file a legal documentreaffirming their commitment tokeep the environmental promises theyhave agreed to.If they fail to keep those promises, thecommission can suspend the project,revoke its approval and, depending onwhether the developer has committed acrime, send the case to a criminal prosecutor’soffice.Normally, SETENA officials said,developers don’t intentionally break guarantees,because they don’t want to losevaluable time or money.

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