San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bills to Reform Gulf Island Concessions Spark Controversy

If proposed land-law reforms are approved,islanders in the Gulf of Nicoya, on the Pacificcoast, could be proud owners of new propertytitles or packing their bags and glaring at thenew hotel owners who bought their land fromunder them.The package of reforms, proposed across partylines last year by legislators from the province ofPuntarenas, where the islands are located, is understudy in the Legislative Assembly. The bills wouldstreamline the land-concession and titling processfor the gulf islands with the intention of making iteasier and quicker to obtain both.Opponents say the reforms, if passed, will open thefloodgates to land-hungry developers looking for awindfall in the tourism industry. Proponents scoff at thatidea, saying they would simply give the islanders legalrights to the lands on which they live and at the sametime attract much-needed investment in those impoverishedareas.IRONICALLY, no one seems to know the totalpopulation of the eight islands mentioned in the reforms: Bejuco, Caballo, Cedros, Chira,Jesusita and Venado, as well as Alcatrazand Tolinga, the so-called Islas Tortuga.Neither the Municipality of Puntarenas,nor the National Institute of Census andStatistics (INEC), and not even two of thelegislators who proposed the bills couldestimate how many people live there whenquestioned by The Tico Times this week.The proposed “Law to Promote Social,Economic and Tourism Development inthe islands of the Gulf of Nicoya” wouldspeed up the land-concession process,dropping the current requirement that theLegislative Assembly must ratify the decisionsof the local municipality.Aspiring concessionaires would stillhave to apply for approvals and documentsfrom a small army of government offices,including the Environment Ministry, theNational Emergency Commission and eventhe National Museum. The bill proposes tocut out the Legislative Assembly’s roleonly, leaving concession approval in thehands of the other arms of national governmentand the local municipalities.“THIS reform eliminates the terriblecomplication of requesting ratification ofevery concession from the LegislativeAssembly. Now there are hundreds offamilies that have occupied lands in theseislands for many years and cannot makeuse of their rights because it is impossiblefor them to duly register their concessiongiven that they have to do all the procedures,including legislative ratification,”the bill’s congressional sponsors argue.One of those sponsors, Jorge LuisÁlvarez, of the Social Christian UnityParty (PUSC), and president of the specialtourism commission that is studying theproposal, said the bill would make the concession-granting process on the islands thesame as it is for the Maritime Zone onmainland beaches around the country,which don’t require legislative ratification.“What I’m concerned about is the situationof these families,” Álvarez told TheTico Times. “Without titles they can’t getcredit from banks. We think it’s a way tohelp them get their land titled and becomeresponsible members of their communities.”THE Association of Ecological UserCommunities of the Gulf of Nicoya(CEUS del Golfo) sees things differently.In a strongly worded statement, the 40-member community and environmentaldefense association condemned the billlast month for attempting to open protectedlands to developers and “encouragingthe expulsion and marginalization of theislands’ residents.”It says that by exempting concessionapplications for the gulf islands from theneed for ratification in the assembly, “itcould become political booty.”The bill also proposes to cut out therole of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute(ICT) in the process for those islands, nolonger requiring its approval for a concession.The association trounced on themove, calling it an “unprecedented piñata,”in which municipalities would haveunchecked reign over the land.“THOSE are the complaints of radicalgroups that oppose everything. They haveno idea about sustainable development,”Álvarez said.“They are always opposed to developmentand don’t propose anything as analternative. On the one hand we have conservationissues, on the other we have poorfamilies here. We have to find a balancebetween alleviating poverty and conservingthe environment, and they don’t proposeanything,” he added.The largest island in the gulf, Isla Chira,is owned by the state, considered part of thepublic heritage and impossible to divideinto lots to buy or sell. Any development onthem is done through concessions. Anotherbill, proposed by the Libertarian MovementParty, proposes to open Chira Island to privateownership, conserving only the zonefrom the high-tide mark to 200 meters inland as public property that cannot bedeveloped without a concession.“IN Chira there are 3,000 people. Idon’t believe there is anybody in thoseislands who can show a property title.They’re the owners of the land, but theydon’t have the titles,” Álvarez said. He isnot among those who proposed the bill, ashe did the first mentioned, but said he supportsit as part of a package of related billsthat will yank gulf islanders out of poverty.The current arrangement “does notallow the locals to be owners of the landthey live on, given that titling is notallowed,” the bill’s sponsors argue. Theyare stuck in dead-end jobs as small-timefishermen in a sea that is over-fished anddying, proponents argue.One of the bill’s sponsors, PeterGuevara, told The Tico Times, “The right toprivate property does not exist there today.Nobody who lives there possesses his or herown property. We want those who can showthat they live there and have lived there to beable to own the land.”GIVING them the opportunity to owntheir own lands would “guarantee theirrights to obtain bank loans and reinstallthemselves in society through businessactivities such as transportation, trade,agriculture and, primarily, tourism, the socalled“industry without smokestacks.”The gulf association, on the otherhand, sees the bill as a gateway to mega developmentprojects that would shove theislanders to one side, paving the way for arich investors’ heyday.“Residents of Chira Island would continueto have no chance of becoming ownersof the land, or bank loans, or be able toreinstall themselves in society throughbusiness activities… With the reform, theonly thing guaranteed is the concentrationof the state’s rights to cede everything totourism mega-projects,” the association’sstatement said.TWO other bills propose simplifyingprocedures for building marinas and docksand modifying the land-use law in the Gulfof Papagayo, in the northern Pacificprovince of Guanacaste, where a marinaproject is in the works.While Álvarez calls them incentives toattract investment, the association says out ofcontrol building projects will plague thecoasts with marinas and let prime CostaRican lands fall into the hands of foreigninvestors.

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