San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cloud Forest Water Conflict Continues

RESIDENTS of the traditionallypeaceful mountaintop community ofMonteverde, in north-central Costa Rica,remain immersed in an ongoing water rightsstruggle over a controversial irrigationproject.At the heart of the conflict is a waterconcession belonging to Rogumeca S.A., abusiness association of seven Monteverderesidents. Opponents say the concessionwas illegally granted and will damage theenvironment, but Rogumeca members saytheir critics have broken the law themselvesby staging a two-day protest thatinterfered with construction of the irrigationpipeline.The controversy has prompted a seriesof lawsuits, studies and appeals – so far,inconclusive.ROGUMECA members have filed acriminal complaint against 17 communitymembers opposed to the project, allegingthey tried to incite a riot earlier thisyear by blocking the machinery beingused to build a pipeline for the company(TT, Jan. 28).Rogumeca also filed a request for aninjunction against Environment MinisterCarlos Manuel Rodríguez before theConstitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV) because of delays withthe project.Company president Johnny Guzmánrecently told The Tico Times the companyfiled the lawsuit – on which the high courthas not yet ruled – in January, after theMinistry of Environment and Energy(MINAE) temporarily suspended constructionof a seven-and-a-half-kilometerpipeline meant to draw 12.65 liters of waterper second from La Cuecha stream inMonteverde.Critics say this rate, a daily extractionequivalent to what an average Monteverdefamily might consume in a year and sevenmonths, is too high and will deplete thestream.THE Environment Ministry made thesuspension of the project official in April.It will not be lifted until a MINAE councildetermines whether there are any inconsistenciesin the information Rogumecasubmitted to MINAE’s National TechnicalSecretariat (SETENA) to obtain the waterconcession in 2003, according to MinisterRodríguez.According to Guzmán, the projectwas conceived five years ago to irrigategrasslands and crops, and the concessionaireshave invested ¢35 million ($85,000)in the project, using a loan from BancoCrédito Agrícola de Cartago.Guzmán claims Rogumeca’s projecthas proceeded “correctly” and the waterconcession is “perfectly legal.”“Even an investigation by theOmbudsman’s Office determined everythingis in order – they did not detect anyanomalies,” Guzmán told The TicoTimes, referring to a report the officereleased in March stating that paperworkto obtain the concession was in order andthe project was not causing environmentaldamage.THE report’s release followed a meetingin early February between then-Ombudsman José Manuel Echandi, whoseterm expired earlier this month, and membersof opposing parties in the water dispute.However, on his last day in office June3, Echandi filed a lawsuit against theEnvironment Ministry, SETENA, theNational Subterranean Water andIrrigation Service (SENARA) and themunicipality of the Pacific port city ofPuntarenas before the Sala IV.According to the lawsuit, these institutionsgranted the water concession “inviolation of constitutional rights” andinternational human rights, such as theprinciple of citizen participation inactions to protect the environment andthe right to sustainable development.ECHANDI said his office reconsideredits earlier conclusions because of thecontinued complaints of Monteverde residents.According to Danilo Zamora, presidentof the Monteverde Development Association,the results of the original studyhad area residents upset with theOmbudsman’s Office.“Performing a study about waterresources is not a job for the Quality ofLife Department at the Ombudsman’sOffice,” Zamora said. “The Ombudsman’sOffice is not the appropriateagency to judge whether the concessionis right for the environment or not.”OF Rogumeca’s criminal complaintagainst the protestors, Guzmán said, “Anyconglomeration of people who gather toimpede lawful work is punishable by law.”He claims Rogumeca suffered huge lossesas a result of the blockade.Monteverde resident and biologistRobert Carlson – one of the 17 protestorswho was charged, along with his wifeSusana Salas – said the lawsuit is in itspreliminary stages and he hopes the prosecutorwill dismiss the case after thedefendants present their side of the storyin the coming weeks.LAST month, a water departmentinspector determined that 20 people havebeen extracting water from La Cuechawithout all the necessary requirements,including Vera Zeledón, a protestor amongthose charged by Rogumeca.She was the first person to denounceRogumeca’s water concession by filing acomplaint against the company at theOmbudsman’s Office in 2003.Zeledón, owner of Hotel Belmar inMonteverde, said this accusation is“absolutely false” and that she is beingpersecuted for taking the lead in denouncingRogumeca.She added she has a concession butdoes not have a water meter, somethingMINAE’s Water Department has given her30 days to install.GUZMÁN, owner of Johnny’s Pizzain Monteverde, claims the conflict hasbeen scandalously misrepresented as acase of conservationists vs. environmentalviolation.“This is merely a homemade brawl thatwas blown up by the national media,” hesaid.MINAE Water Department DirectorJosé Miguel Zeledón agreed.“I wouldn’t call this a ‘water war;’ thisseems like a conflict derived from somevery particular interests,” he said.“Unfortunately, a large majority of waterconflicts do not arise because of water, butbecause of personal reasons.”However, according to biologistCarlson, “there is nothing more absurd thanto call this a personal conflict of interests.They say that for lack of a better argument tosupport what they are doing. Almost 200protestors gathered in the streets in January.Can 200 people have a personal problemwith Rogumeca?” he asked.

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