San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Decision Restricts Coastal Development

MORE protected coastal forests and less beachfrontdevelopment could be the result of a recent pronouncementby the Government Attorney’s Office.The office has ruled that municipalities cannotgrant concessions for development in forested areasof the Maritime Zone. Though the ruling is not anew law, but rather an interpretation of pre-existinglaws, it challenges the reality practiced for years bymunicipalities and developers up and down CostaRica’s two coasts.The Maritime Zone is the first 200 meters of landfrom the high tide line along most of the country’sshores and belongs to the state by law. The first 50meters are considered public terrain and cannot bedeveloped. The remaining 150 meters can be developedprivately for hotels, restaurants or homes,through concessions granted by municipalities.THE recently released Government Attorneyreport clarifies that forested areas in the MaritimeZone are part of natural patrimony and should beoverseen by the Ministry of Environment and Energy(MINAE).While natural patrimony is not an officially protectedarea, it “means you cannot build any projectthat goes against the conservation of the area,” saidAlvaro Ugalde, director of the Osa ConservationArea, in the Southern Zone.Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguezexplained that MINAE does not have the power togrant concessions.This, in effect, means concessions can no longerbe granted in the maritime zone where forest exists,explained Ligia Flores, an expert in the field of concessionsin the maritime zone.“The report is nothing new; it is just beingapplied… and it is absolutely right,” she said, adding itis in sharp contrast to municipalities’ existing practices.FLORES is owner of Consultores TurísticosAsociados, which helps developers acquire maritimeconcessions. She said she has at least 100 clients –from the southern port town of Golfito to the northernprovince of Guancaste – who are in the process ofsoliciting concessions and could be affected by theGovernment Attorney’s pronouncement.“They have already made large investments and could lose it all,” she said.NELSON Jiménez, a Maritime Zoneinspector for the Municipality of Osa, inthe Southern Zone, said the municipalityhas in the past given concessions in areaswith secondary forest, particularly inDrake Bay, but not areas containing primaryforest.Osa Mayor Gabriel Villachica said themunicipality will respect the GovernmentAttorney’s report, but added that he thinksthe pronouncement “is delaying development”and MINAE must immediatelyidentify what is forest.MINAE has begun inventorying whatforested areas the ruling applies to andcould be done by December, according tothe ministry’s press office.WHILE Villachica is respectful of theGovernment Attorney’s report, he addedthat he worries too many authorities fromthe central government are constantlybecoming involved in municipal affairs.The Municipality of La Cruz, near theNicaraguan border in the northwestprovince of Guanacaste, took these concernsa step further.Officials there reject the interventionof MINAE and are calling on other municipalitiesto do the same, the daily LaNación reported. They say MINAE isusing claims of conservation to intervenein the municipality’s jurisdiction and managementof the Maritime ZoneONE development project whose fatemay have been changed by the report is theone proposed for Playa Arco, located aboutfive hours south of San José and borderingthe Ballena National Marine Park.From the moment it was proposed in2003, a plan to build a dozen tourist housingunits on the beachfront property wasmet with resistance by some neighbors,who said the forested area would bedestroyed (TT, Oct. 10, 2003).Ugalde says because the coastal area isforested, it is natural patrimony and cannotbe developed.“The developers tell me they understandthis, and that their project willrestore the forest. Private homes are unacceptableunder these circumstances, andcertainly a hotel is not permitted.Therefore the concept (of the developers)has to be changed,” he said.Developer Steve Duvall told The TicoTimes in April, “there was some miscommunicationover the last two years… butnow we have sat down with our neighborsand are working toward a common goal.”He would not give specific details on theproject, however, or how it has changed.OSA Mayor Villachica said both thenew development plan, which omits constructionin the Maritime Zone, and a regulatoryplan for Playa Arco are being studiedby officials at the Osa Municipality.Ugalde said the developers own theproperty behind the 200-meter MaritimeZone, and may have a project planned forthat area. Within the zone, “only projectsto restore and improve the forest will beallowed. The only infrastructure that willbe allowed there will be trails, and maybesomething minimal and rustic, if anything,”he said.While Ugalde stressed that only theslightest infrastructure is allowed in thenatural patrimony, under the Forest Law,MINAE can approve projects if they relateto research, training or ecotourism.FORESTED areas in the MaritimeZone amount to approximately 29,000hectares overall, according to Rodríguez.The Forest Law defines forest as “a nativeor indigenous ecosystem… that occupies asurface of two or more hectares, characterizedby a presence of mature trees of differentages, species and size, with one ormore canopies that cover more than 70%of this surface, and where more than 60trees more than 15 centimeters in diameterexist…”Flores stressed the need for the laws tobe clearly understood by both the publicand the government, so that they can beenforced. Minister Rodríguez agreed.THE Government Attorney’s reportcame in response to a request byRodríguez for clarification of possibleunconstitutionalities of a controversialdecree allowing the cutting of trees in primaryforests for ecotourism projects.The presidential decree, supported byMINAE and the Costa Rican TourismInstitute (ICT), would allow the chopping of15% of a coastal property’s virgin forest and25% of a property’s secondary forest forecotourism construction (TT, July 16, 2004).Environmentalists have denounced thedecree, saying cutting trees in the coastalzone will result in further deforestationalong Costa Rica’s shores, of which only15% (137 out of 910 total miles) have primaryforest.However, President Abel Pacheco,Minister Rodríguez and Tourism MinisterRodrigo Castro maintained the decree providedsome protection where none existed.THE decree was to go into effect inMay 2004, but was suspended by theConstitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV) after environmentalistsand a MINAE workers’ union filed threelawsuits against it. It has been under studysince.While Flores would not say theGovernment Attorney’s report, releasedlast November, has killed the decree, shesaid she did not think it likely the Sala IVwould come to a different conclusion.“The Sala IV could come back anddecide the decree stands, but I don’t thinkit’s possible,” she said.

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