San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

SETENA Suspends Approval of Projects in National Park

THE battle over Las Baulas National Marine Park intensified Sept. 23 as the Environment Ministry announced that no approvals of environmental viability will be given to development projects in the park, effectively halting construction there.While the coastal park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, boasts some of the world’s most important beaches for leatherback turtle nesting, it is also home to million-dollar houses, hotels and other development, and remains 100% in private hands.Although the park was created a decade ago, the Environment Ministry (MINAE) only this year started the expropriation process on five properties, seeking to return the lots to their natural state in order to reduce human impact on turtles (TT, July 8).In April, a case advocating the park’s protection and demanding more timely expropriation of properties was filed before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) by international environmental groups. The court said no construction permits could be granted while it studied the case (TT, April 15).Last Friday’s announcement makes this halt on construction more permanent by suspending the study and approval of environmental viability – necessary for construction on any projects located in the park.The ministry claims it is a “fragile area, necessary for the protection of species in critical danger of extinction, such as the leatherback turtle,” according to Friday’s statement.According to scientists, 1,367 females turtles entered the park during the 1988-1989 nesting season. That number dropped to 48 female turtles during the 2004-2005 nesting season.But property owners maintain that their land is not in fact part of the park, and never has been, and that well-planned development will not hurt the turtle population. While MINAE maintains the park is made up of the 75 meters just beyond the 50-meter public zone – protected by law from development up and down Costa Rica’s coasts – people living in the zone say otherwise.Discrepancies on how the law creating the park was written have prompted the confusion.Furthermore, homeowners in the area, along with Universidad Nacional biology professor Freddy Pacheco, say the threat to leatherbacks is not on nesting beaches. Pacheco promotes “low-density” sustainable development, including height and light restrictions that will not affect nesting.He says the tragic decline of the leatherback population has happened at sea, during their migrations, at the hands of longline and net fishermen. Investments should be made on that end, not in expropriations of expensive beach properties, he says.Despite these arguments, MINAE said Friday their decision will stand, unless the Sala IV rules otherwise.Meanwhile, Pacheco is lobbying Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bruno Stagno, to take forceful steps to reduce the impact of long line fishing on turtle migrations when the United Nations begins discussion Oct. 6 of marine life protection.Pacheco maintains that the Pacific leatherback sea turtle could go extinct in five to 30 years if the threat of long line fishing is not reduced.

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