Authorities recently halted the construction of a road that might have cut through a wetland in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where satellite images show 75% of wetlands have vanished in the past 30 years, according to Jorge Arturo Jiménez, director of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS).
The construction, which started Jan. 26, just a few days before World Wetlands Day Feb. 2, raised alarm among neighbors of the popular beach destination of Sámara, who contacted the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the Municipality of Nicoya, which has jurisdiction over Sámara.
The next day, representatives from the two government offices traveled to the construction site near the wetland, located inside the property of the Jiménez family, approximately one kilometer north of downtown Sámara, with an order from Nicoya Mayor Bernardo Vargas to stop the project immediately because it lacked construction permits and threatened the wetland, said Elizabeth Fernández, environmental coordinator for the municipality.
German environmentalist Berit Funke, who settled in Sámara five years ago and has taken an interest in this case, said this wetland, which environmentalists call Cantarrana and the property owners refer to as La Laguna (the lagoon), houses 42 species of birds, five of them considered endangered.
OTS director Jiménez (no relation to the property owners) said the Jiménez case is unusual because environmentalists like Funke got involved. Most of the time, he explained, the drying of wetlands inside private properties is left to the owner’s judgment, not the authorities.
“If they are not inside protected areas, wetlands are not usually defined as such,” he said, explaining that people usually are not aware they are drying up a wetland, and commonly mistake them for puddles.
Wetlands have a distinct soil and vegetation, specifically adapted to the moist conditions, and are breeding grounds for aquatic fauna and birds, he explained.
“They function as natural kidneys that filter river water and remove pesticides and other contaminants,” he said, adding they also work as sponges, absorbing and retaining water during floods.
Benefit of the Doubt
The Jiménez family now awaits the results of a MINAE technical report to determine whether their lagoon is in fact a wetland.
According to Norma Rodríguez, wildlife area specialist for the Tempisque Conservation Area, the local branch office of the Environment Ministry, this study could be completed within a month.
Until it is completed, construction must remain halted in accordance with the pro natura principle behind Costa Rica’s environmental law.
“When any doubt exists that nature could be affected, you give the benefit of the doubt to nature,” Fernández told The Tico Times.
Apart from ensuring the wetland will be protected, the Jiménez family must obtain environmental approval from the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) and then an earth-moving permit from the municipality, both of which it lacked before starting the construction project, Fernández said.
In the meantime, the family has agreed to await MINAE’s verdict before requesting any more permits, according to Yvethe Jiménez, 40, one of six siblings who own the land where the wetland lies. The property is between 6-7 hectares.
Jiménez, who lives on the property along with two of her brothers and their families, said she and her family will do as MINAE tells them, as they have in the past.
The road project, which is meant to facilitate access from inside the property to the main road, originally started in May 2005, she explained.
However, MINAE arranged a meeting with the family and explained the problems involved with the projects.
“We understood, and agreed,” she said, explaining that, of the four roads they were building back then, authorities told them construction of only one of them, which did not cross the wetland, could be pursued if all necessary permits were obtained.
“This (road) is the one we were building, and we thought that was OK. Maybe these people (the Sámara environmentalists) are confused, thinking we took up our old project, but they never speak to us directly,” she said, adding that what they need is to sit down and talk things out over a cup of coffee.
Coffee or not, the family lacked the necessary permits for one road. Jiménez said they plan to wait for MINAE’s study to be completed before requesting them from the municipality and SETENA.
Sámara environmentalist Funke said she fears this may not be the end of the problem because the Jiménez family wants to make lots and sell them – a charge the family denies.
Yvethe Jiménez said although they do plan to make lots, they are not meant for public sale, but to keep within the family. They will only subdivide with authorities’ permission, she insisted.
Funke, director of the Playa Sámara Environmental Committee, a conservationist group she and other concerned residents started four years ago, said the wetland is home to crocodiles, turtles, raccoons, frogs, toads and the endangered roseate spoonbill.
According to OTS director Jiménez, the country’s approximately 300,000 wetlands make up an estimated 7% of Costa Rican territory.
The U.S. satellite LandSat showed that in 1974, wetlands covered some 31,420 hectares, but by 2000, only 7,330 hectares remained, he said.
To preserve the country’s wetlands, Jiménez said Costa Rica’s Biodiversity Law, which loosely defines wetlands as ecosystems that depend on aquatic regimens – making any accumulation of water sound like a wetland – should be more precisely defined.
He added that the Environment Ministry requires economic strengthening so that once it declares a wetland as such, it can purchase and expropriate it from its owner if necessary, a step which the ministry’s lack of resources has made difficult.
Since 1992, when the Ramsar convention took effect in Costa Rica, 11 of the nation’s wetlands have become Ramsar sites, meaning wetlands of international importance that the government vows to protect and preserve. The Ramsar treaty, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, was created to protect wetlands around the world (TT,March 5, 2004).