A presidential decree intended to regulate thecutting of Costa Rica’s coastal forests mayinstead be hacking away at the country’s longstandingmarriage between ecotourism andenvironmental protection.At the root of a growing national debate, thedecree allows the chopping of 15% of a coastalproperty’s virgin forest and 25% of a property’ssecondary forest for ecotourism construction.President Abel Pacheco, Environment MinisterCarlos Rodríguez and Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castromaintain the decree provides some protection wherebefore there was none.“What we are doing is being realistic. If we do thiswe are always going to have the 85%,” Castro said in anationally televised debate Wednesday, referring to thefact that the decree protects that much of the coast’sremaining primary forests.HOWEVER, the Costa Rican Federation for theConservation of the Environment (FECON) says thedecree allows deforestation and puts business interestsover environmental protection. The group maintains thecountry’s Forest Law already prohibits the cutting oftrees in the coastal zone.It has been left to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to resolve thedebate.The decree permits the removal of treesfor projects that promote environmentaleducation and socioeconomic developmentfor coastal zone residents. It applies to thepublic Maritime Zone, which extends 200meters (650 feet) from the high tide line,and does not include national parks or protectedareas.Of Costa Rica’s 1,466 kilometers (910miles) of coast, only 15% – 220 kilometers(137 miles) – has primary forest, accordingto the Ministry of the Environment andEnergy (MINAE).“ONE of the biggest ironies in the lastdecade and a half is that in Costa Rica therates of deforestation have been among thehighest in Central America, at the sametime that ecotourism has been taking off,”said Luis Vivanco, anthropology professorand author of the recently completed book“Green Encounters,’’ about ecotourism inMonteverde.“The reality is, the forest is almostgone, because of ranching, farming…”according to Environment MinisterRodríguez.This is exactly why it is worth fightingto save what remains, said FECON memberJuan Figuerola, who participated inWednesday’s debate, along with Castro,Rodríguez, and Patriotic Bloc DeputyQuírico Jiménez.Jiménez, FECON members and theMINAE Workers Syndicate (SITRAMINAE)have filed three actions of unconstitutionalityregarding the decree with theSala IV.OPPONENTS claim the decree violatesArticle 50 of the Constitution, whichguarantees all Costa Ricans the right to ahealthy and balanced environment.The decree has been suspended whileSala IV reviews the actions, as well asseveral related injunctions filed byFECON.The suspension by the court came afterat least one hotel was permitted to cut 36trees near Manuel Antonio, on the centralPacific coast, prompting FECON membersand Jiménez to worry the decree was pushedthrough by government officials to appeasethe desires of private developers.Rodríguez admitted last month to thenational press that there was presidentialpressure to sign the decree as soon aspossible.“We could have done a better job if wehad more time … but we are satisfied withwe did,” he said Wednesday.A commission formed by MINAE andthe Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) toanalyze the decree was dissolved prematurelyin February after three months ofdiscussion.Against the advice of the majority ofthe commission, the decree was signed andwent into effect May 14. That same day,Glenn Jampol, U.S. owner of Finca RosaBlanca hotel in Santa Bárbara, after yearsof effort received permission to removetrees for a new ecotourism project inManuel Antonio.Rather than bowing to business interests,Rodríguez said the decree wasrushed because of a need to bring clarityto articles 18 and 19 of the Forest Law,which allow businesses to cut 100% oftrees to build roads, bridges and recreationalfacilities. Reforming the ForestLaw in the Legislative Assembly willtake years, he added.However, FECON and Jiménez arguethe same articles prohibit the change in useof forested land, thus blocking developmentof undeveloped land.AS an example, they point to Jampol’sinability before the decree to obtain permissionto cut trees on his property.However, Jampol said it is partiallycoincidental he was awarded felling permissionthe same day the decree went intoeffect. Jampol, who was on the commissionto analyze the decree and is a boardmember of the National EcotourismChamber (CANAECO), said the permissioncame after years of “unprofessionaland inaccurate” actions by the ManuelAntonio branch of MINAE.For years Jampol and his family hadplanned an ecotourism hotel in ManuelAntonio, much like his Rosa Blanca, whichlast year won an international sustainabletourism award sponsored by BritishAirways.Despite approval from the TechnicalSecretariat of the Environment Ministry(SETENA), plans to plant 2,000 trees, asewage treatment plant within the hotel,and other “ecotouristic” characteristics,Manual Antonio’s MINAE rejected theplans, Jampol said.HE appealed the decision and on May14, the same day the decree went intoeffect, the appeal was found with cause andpermission to move forward with the projectwas granted.When asked why the plans were rejectedbefore the decree, Jampol said the localbranch of MINAE told him, “We don’t knowwhat ecotourism is. We have no legal regulationsfor what ecotourism is.”This confusion echoes national andinternational sentiment.The generally accepted idea of ecotourismis to cause no, or very little, impacton the surrounding environment while economicallyhelping the community. But thereality can be very different.“There is a lot of discussion now on theinternational levels trying to close thatgap,” Vivanco said. “Ecotourism is at acrossroads.”LIKE many ecotourism supporters,Jampol sees one tied to the other.“We can complain about the numberof trees being cut, and animals beingkilled, but nobody is coming up with anymoney for more park guards. I trulybelieve that sustainable tourism, whenreally done by all the rules, is the bestanswer,” he said.Realizing the significance of thisdebate, FECON has decided to form a specialdepartment to study ecotourism,Figuerola said.“We cannot sacrifice the environmentfor tourism,” he said.