Monteverde Residents Protest Water Concessions

January 28, 2005

ANGRY residents stood in front ofbackhoes nearly all night in the cloud forestchill and raised shovels to seal ditchesdug without their consent late last week inthe usually peaceful village of Monteverde,where a water-concession conflictthat started more than two years ago eruptedin protests.Concerned members of the mountaintopcommunity, founded by Quakers lastcentury and now fueled by tourism anddairy farming, physically blocked constructionof a pipeline designed to draw12.65 liters of water per second from LaCuecha Stream in Monteverde.More than 150 protestors took to thestreets Jan. 20-21 and temporarily stoppedthe project. Some filled ditches dug for thepipeline.The irrigation line extends about sevenand a half kilometers and only 140 metersof digging remain for its completion,according to Johnny Guzmán, owner ofJohnny’s Pizzeria in town and head ofRogumeca S.A., a business association ofseven Monteverde residents granted awater concession by the Water Departmentof the Ministry of the Environment andEnergy (MINAE).“WE have obtained a water concessionand this is a right every Costa Rican has.We are not going to dry any rivers and weare not stealing water from anybody. Thewater in this stream is not potable. We arenot leaving the town without water it couldhave actually used,” he said.The water rights were granted for theirrigation of grasslands and crops thatinclude lettuce, tomatoes and aromaticherbs, according to Guzmán, andRogumeca must pay approximately¢14,000 ($30) every three months to theWater Department for the concession.“Citizens are concerned about thedestruction of a biodiversity that attractsmore than 200,000 tourists to the spot eachyear,” said Vera Zeledón, owner of theBelmar Hotel.“Monteverde is recognized by NationalGeographic as one of the 10 most beautifulplaces in the world, and this situation is anenvironmental violation,” she added.On Monday, Ombudsman José ManuelEchandi met with Danilo Zamora, presidentof the Monteverde DevelopmentAssociation, the minister and vice-ministerof the Ministry of Public Works andTransport (MOPT) and several concernedresidents from Monteverde at his office.Afterward, he announced that work hadbeen temporarily suspended pending siteinspections next week.Government officials will inspect thesite Feb. 4, Echandi said, adding that hecould file an injunction to stop the pipelineonly if irregularities are found in the permitsRogumeca was granted.OPPONENTS to the project claim itentails private management of a publicresource and construction in inappropriatelocations – such as the main road that leadsfrom the neighboring town of Santa Elenato the renowned Monteverde Cloud ForestPreserve – and could dry up the stream andreduce water availability for the town.Geovanny Arguedas, another concessionaireand owner of El Sapo DoradoHotel, brushed aside those arguments.“This conflict has a first name and a lastname. It’s a matter of personal enmity, andthe greatest proof that these people don’treally care for the environment is the river,whose water they are fighting to save, iscontaminated as we speak. Why don’t theypoint fingers about this?” he asked.THE project was initiated five yearsago when the business owners ofRogumeca discovered the NationalSubterranean Water and Irrigation Service(SENARA) offers support in the designand supervision of construction for irrigationprojects, according to SENARAdirector Sergio Salas.The first resident to take action againstthe concessionaires, Vera Zeledón, filed acomplaint at the Ombudsman’s Office in late2003 and an injunction against the EnvironmentMinistry’s Water Department and theMonteverde Municipality. The ConstitutionalChamber of the Supreme Court (SalaIV) rejected the lawsuit that year.Rogumeca received the concession inSeptember 2004.THE director of MINAE’s WaterDepartment, José Miguel Zeledón, said ajoint inspection by his department and theOmbudsman’s Office Jan. 19 showed Rogumecais not yet extracting water from LaCuecha stream. Nor is water being takenfrom La Máquina stream near Santa Elena,though rights have been granted through asmaller concession to Guzmith S.A., abusiness owned by Guzmán and PabloSmith, owner of La Cascada discothequeand Fonda Vela Hotel, to draw five liters ofwater per second.“MINAE cannot rescind these concessionsunless they are being used for illicitenrichment – for tourism purposes, forexample, because they were granted forirrigation of grasslands and crops,” he said.OPPOSITION leaders insist farmlandirrigation is only a pretext.“These people are going to use theextra water for their own businesses,” saidRolando McAdam, president of theMonteverde Aqueduct, who was detainedby police along with several others duringthe protest the night of Jan. 20.Susana Salas, Monteverde resident andmember of the Private Costa RicanReserves Network, alleged the concessionaireshave a right to a daily amount ofwater that a Monteverde household mightconsume in 18 months.Opponents to the water project objectthat the concession was granted without anenvironmental-impact study, according toMcAdam.Guzmán said a study wasn’t necessary.Rogumeca initially asked the WaterDepartment for a concession of 30 litersper second, according to Guzmán. Butafter an environmental-viability evaluationby MINAE’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA)in October 2003, only 12.65 liters persecond were granted.The concessionaires told The Tico Timesthey have invested ¢39 million ($85,000)through a loan from Banco Crédito Agrícolade Cartago to finance their project.

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