San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gandoca-Manzanillo: Sanctuary in Danger?

LIKE a child caught in a legal battlebetween divorced parents, the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, inthe Caribbean province of Limón, remainsat the center of a struggle among concernedresidents, environmentalists, developersand government agencies that claimequal dedication to the area’s welfare.The conflict, which began more than adecade ago, has its roots in Gandoca-Manzanillo’s status of “mixed” refuge, atitle it was awarded in 1994. The designationallows ownership and sale of privateproperty within parts of the refuge.Recent complaints of environmentalgroups include the alleged drainage anddrying of wetlands, pollution of areastreams and illegal construction in theMaritime Zone, a stretch of 200 metersfrom the high-tide line that is state-owned.THE Municipality of Talamanca,which has jurisdiction over the area, hasallegedly granted construction permits forareas it shouldn’t have inside the refuge,and signs advertise lots for sale in certainareas of the Maritime Zone, according to aletter written by the Conservationist LaborUnion of the Ministry of the Environmentand Energy (SITRAMINAE) to EnvironmentMinister Carlos Manuel Rodríguezlast October, after union representativesinspected the refuge in September 2004.According to Edwin Cyrus, regionaldirector of the Amistad-Caribe ConservationArea, the Environment Ministry(MINAE) announced it would grant nomore land-use permits after January 2004until completion of evaluations of the controversialmanagement plan – a set ofguidelines for zoning and development inthe refuge. The deadline for evaluationshas been scheduled for April 1.ON a Tico Times visit to Gandoca-Manzanillo last week, smoking piles ofbranches and chopped up trees tossedacross a construction site on private propertyinside the refuge were observed.Oscar Brown, an official from theMINAE office in Manzanillo, said no onecut those trees.“The wind blew them down. Ask anybodyin this area and they’ll agree – treeshere cannot grow strong roots. Our soil istoo swampy,” he explained.Ironically, MINAE issued a warningagainst illegal felling for this constructionsite recently, Brown said, adding that a permitis required for felling whether it isinside or outside a conservation area.“Now they are no longer cutting downtrees, everything is in order. We haveissued their land-use permits according tothe management plan,” he said, confirmingland-use permits were granted to thosewho met the necessary requirements duringthe last year – in contradiction withCyrus’ statement regarding a temporaryfreeze on the permits.THE Manzanillo office of MINAEgrants land-use permits in the area with therecommendation of an area committeeformed by representatives of theEcological Development Association ofCocles, Manzanillo and Gandoca (ADECOMAGA),the Manzanillo Associationof Community Development and MINAE.After obtaining land-use permits, anyoneinterested in building in the area mustalso obtain a construction permit from theTalamanca Municipality, according tomunicipal inspector Dennis Peralta.Aside from requiring permits for felling,Environment Ministry spokeswomanPatricia Alpízar told The Tico Times, thecurrent Forestry Law strictly forbids burningrefuse inside a conservation area.However, Adelino Aguirre, forestranger for the Manzanillo office ofMINAE, said “Although it’s a refuge,garbage can be burnt inside private property.People live here and it’s impossible tocheck every home for burning.”ANOTHER source of conflict, the LasPalmas four-star hotel inaugurated in 1990in Punta Uva, inside the refuge, has beenthe center of a 12-year legal battle overalleged environmental violations.The $6 million hotel, expanded sinceits inauguration to include 80 rooms andtwo pools, was granted permits by MINAEfor its construction, which started in 1988.However, since 1992, different environmentalgroups have accused ownerJan Kalina, from the Czech Republic, ofdraining marshlands, cutting down treesand building in the Maritime Zone (TT,March 12, 1993).The conflict culminated last April,when the Supreme Court’s Civil andAdministrative Law Branch (Sala I) confirmedan order to demolish Las Palmas(TT, June 25, 2004). The order has not yetbeen put into effect.On March 5, 1993, the Ministry ofNatural Resources (now MINAE) originallyordered the hotel’s demolition and areturn of the property to its original statebefore construction began. In the years thatfollowed, the ministry’s order was postponedby a series of court battles.MEANWHILE, Las Palmas Hotelstill stands, and Kalina says he is not goinganywhere.“This place was not officially declaredpart of the refuge until 1994. Basically, wehave been fighting more than 12 years andruining my economy for nothing,” he toldThe Tico Times, adding that he received aletter in January from Minister Rodríguezconfirming this information.However, conservation area directorCyrus told The Tico Times the SupremeCourt order upholding demolition is final,although the deadline for Kalina’s departurehas not yet been established.Environmentalist and SITRAMINAEvolunteer Marta Castro blames thewildlife refuge’s management plan. Theplan declares zone one, where the hotelsare located, a recreational tourism developmentarea.“THE problem is not just LasPalmas. Other hotels and cabinas haverequired drainage of wetlands for construction,”she said.In 2002, Castro, along with Candelariadel Azar, Claudia Eppelin and SophieAndrieux, residents of Cocles, in the vicinityof the refuge, formed the environmentalistorganization Grupo Ceibo, one of thefirst associations to denounce alleged illegalfelling in the area.Together with the non-profit, San José basedenvironmental organization Yiski,they have expressed their opposition to therefuge’s management plan for allowingconstruction of hotels and recreationalfacilities inside the refuge.In fact, Yiski president María ElenaFournier denounced damages to therefuge’s wetlands and coastal forestsbefore the ecological branch of theProsecutor’s Office last October.Yiski’s motion prompted theOmbudsman’s Office to issue a report inJanuary with a series of recommendationsfor MINAE to repair environmental damagein the refuge.THE women also oppose some membersof ADECOMAGA for allegedly seekingtheir own enrichment from tourismdevelopment rather than protection of therefuge.According to ADECOMAGA presidentFernando Arias, members of thedevelopment association own an estimated10% of the refuge, which extends over4,000 hectares on land and 5,000 hectaresat sea.The association also has members whodo not own property inside the refuge, butdo in the surrounding area, while otherowners of property inside the refuge arenot members of ADECOMAGA.The association, which Arias said wascreated in 1994 by a group of area residentsconcerned about conservation ofthe newly formed “mixed” refuge, nowhas 80 members. The group’s objective isto “contribute to the organized collaborationof individuals, national and internationalorganizations, to guarantee sustainabledevelopment and respect for therefuge and the Caribbean in general,”Arias said.CASTRO alleges she has receiveddeath threats, as have the other women sheworked with.“No one has any idea of the powerfulinterests that stand behind this refuge,” shesaid.“Candelaria (del Azar) was threatenedwith her life and this forced her to moveout of the area; she has a child,” she said,referring to del Azar’s return to Argentina,her country of origin. “Ana Cristina Rossiwas threatened too, and so was I.”Rossi, Costa Rican author of “La Locade Gandoca,” a novel that describes awoman’s struggle to preserve the area fromtourism development, published a letter inthe daily La Nación last January, announcingher decision to conclude her activismtoward conservation of the refuge, sayingher life was on the line.She recently declined an interviewwith The Tico Times, saying she fearedputting herself in danger.CASTRO blames ADECOMAGAmembers.“ADECOMAGA members have verypowerful interests,” she said.Arias, who calls the death threats a“complete fabrication,” says the dynamicsof property ownership in Gandoca-Manzanillo are the same as anywhere elsein the country.“In her writings, Ana Cristina Rossiaccuses us of being part of the negativeforces here. But we are interested in goingby the law, and this protected area has adynamic management plan that is in constantrevision,” he said, adding that he“cannot think of any ADECOMAGAmembers capable of the atrocity of a deaththreat.”Next: Proposals for reforming the controversialmanagement plan governingGandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge.

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