San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

More Wins Than Woes for Environment in 2005

DESPITE what Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez heralded in January as a difficult year, 2005 seems to have brought more accomplishments than setbacks for the environment.


The year began with optimism from supporters of a long-awaited fishing bill, who watched a 10-year struggle come to an end when the Legislative Assembly approved the Fishing and Aquaculture Law in second debate in February.


The new law, which took effect in April, includes sanctions against fishing in protected areas and unlicensed fishing vessels, and made shark finning the practice of slicing off sharks coveted cartilage-filled fins and discarding the rest of the body punishable with prison and higher fines than those established in the country s previous fishing law, which dated back to 1948.


However, in May, the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), the agency in charge of enforcing the law, with authorization from more than 20 legislators, approved an interpretation of the law that appeared to create a legal loophole.


The new law establishes that shark finning will only be allowed when sharks are unloaded at docks with their respective fins attached to the body, but INCOPESCA was allowing vessels to unload fins tied to shark bodies with ropes and nylon, rather than ensuring the fins were never removed.


A German-based conservation group, the International Society for Conservation and Protection of Sharks, also known as Sharkproject, turned its eyes on the situation, and that month nominated President Abel Pacheco for the Shark Enemy of the Year award for failing to stop the finning.


In June, the Government Attorney s Office revoked INCOPESCA s interpretation of the Fishing Law when it pronounced that fins should be adhered naturally to shark bodies when unloaded at docks.


That month, the Japanese government released a report that at least 120 Taiwanese vessels had practiced shark finning near Costa Rican, Honduran, and Mexican waters, moving their fishing operations to Pakistani and Indian waters in 2004, after greatly reducing shark populations in the area.


TO avoid the unnecessary death of another marine species, the endangered Pacific leatherback turtle, the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) worked jointly with INCOPESCA to educate Costa Rican fishermen about the proper use of turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) meant to keep turtles out of their nets during fishing.


With a population that has dropped by 90% in the past 20 years, according to PRETOMA, the leatherbacks near-extinction fueled a debate regarding construction inside Las Baulas National Marine Park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, considered one of the leatherbacks top five most important nesting beaches in the world. Environmentalists in April filed a lawsuit before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) requesting an injunction against construction inside park grounds, which contain private property.


By July, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) had begun an expropriation process on properties in the park, and because of the April lawsuit, a moratorium on construction had been declared.


That month, environmentalists accused scientists from Drexel University in the U.S. city of Philadelphia of killing baby turtles during scientific experiments at Las Baulas in 2002, an accusation which the U.S. university denied, alleging researchers at the park had been the object of intimidation by developers at Playa Grande, the largest beach in Las Baulas.


On the country s opposite coast, authorities found the empty shells of more than 70 green sea turtles in three coastal areas in the province of Limón in August, massacred in what the local MINAE office called an act of retribution for an increased effort to restrain turtle hunting in the area.


OTHER animals found to be facing danger this year were frogs. In May, the U.S.-based National Wildlife magazine listed the golden toad, a species endemic to the mountaintop habitat of Monteverde, last seen in 1989, as the first species extinction attributed to global warming.


In an effort to prevent an impending climate crisis that could wipe out any other species and partially sink waterfront areas, such as the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, by 2100, according to Japanese experts, Costa Rica joined more than 140 countries in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a multilateral agreement to combat global warming negotiated in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997.


In Costa Rica, researchers this year announced they were completing a project to find out how the rain forest responds to climate change. The project of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) at La Selva Biological Station started in June 2003 and consisted of erecting a moveable tower that could reach up to 44 meters (144 feet) in more than 50 locations around La Selva s protected area to study the primary forest from top to bottom.


TRANSGENICS or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) also kept researchers in the area busy in 2005.


In February, a study by the Central American Biodiversity Protection Alliance revealed that 48% of 33 soy and corn samples collected in Costa Rica in 2004 contained transgenic material.


To protect their residents from transgenic crops, which lack studies determining their impact on health and the environment, and are genetically altered to exhibit certain traits, such as resistance to bacteria and fungi, two Costa Rican cantons declared themselves GMO-free this year.


The town of Paraíso, in the eastern province of Cartago, became the first transgenic-free territory in the country by a vote of the Municipal Council in March, while the canton of Santa Cruz, in Guanacaste, became the second GMO free canton in October by unanimous vote of its Municipal Council.


ENVIRONMENTALISTS were also pleased this year by the Costa Rican government s cancellation in March of a concession contract allowing Harken Costa Rica Holdings, a subsidiary of the North American firm Harken Energy, to explore and draw oil from the province of Limón (see News for recent developments).


Other positive news came from the Osa Peninsula, in the country s Southern Zone. This year, 67 new park rangers were trained at the Osa Conservation Area, thanks to a donation from the U.S.- based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. By August, for the first time in 15 years, Alvaro Ugalde, director of the conservation area, noted an increase in the area s peccary population, decimated by poachers throughout the years. He estimated an increase of 30-35 more peccaries that month than the previous one, and said this will likely result in an increase in the jaguar population of the park, which had reached a low point because of the loss of peccary, an important jaguar food source.


Despite all the good news, in October environmentalists agreed the country s environmental legislation is severely handicapped, particularly in the face of the possible ratification of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).


The Legislative Assembly did not help to improve the country s environmental legislation when it voted against prioritizing discussion of a bill to include a set of environmental guarantees in the Constitution. Discussion of the guarantees, submitted by President Abel Pacheco to the assembly in 2002, has remained pending this year.



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