A patch of more than 300 trees in the Maritime Zone between the beachside communities of Malpaís and Manzanillo, on the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula, on the Pacific coast, has become a brewing ground for a conflict of development versus conservation.
In a project that involves the Municipal Council of Cóbano, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT), and assistance from the German government, MOPT started working on expanding a coastal road – a project that requires 310 trees in the Maritime Zone to be bulldozed down, according to Zaida Hernández, forestry engineer for the regional office of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) in Jicaral, a town some 20 km from Playa Naranjo on the Nicoya Peninsula.
The first 50 meters of the 200-meter Maritime Zone, a strip of land parallel to the coast, is considered public land where development is prohibited by law unless it is for works of public interest,Hernández told The Tico Times.
Marks on the trees that suggested their imminent removal last week led concerned residents to bombard the regional MINAE office and other MINAE branches in the area with phone calls, fearful that the trees would be knocked down, according to Hernández.
One of the neighbors’ maincomplaints is that another road runs parallel to the one MOPT is expanding but inland, and could be expanded without damaging any trees, according to area resident Nathaniel Grew, who says he will stage a protest if any trees are cut down for the road project.
According to Hidalgo, MOPT marked 310 trees that would need to be removed for the road, but their removal is the municipality’s responsibility.
MOPT regional engineer Fernando Hidalgo, coordinator of the road project, told The Tico Times not a single tree has been torn down to complete the 18-kilometer stretch of road and can’t be unless MOPT receives written permission from the Environment Ministry.
“The community defined this (road) as a priority. The need exists to tear down 310 small trees – you need to sacrifice something, you can’t have both things (road and trees). But if any rejection (of the project) exists, let the community voice it and the road will not be constructed,” he said in a cell phone interview from the construction site.
Hidalgo explained the road requires an expansion of only 500 more meters to complete its route to Manzanillo.
“This road is indispensable to the (surrounding) communities. Everything comes in through that distribution route,” he said.
A gravel road has existed for a long time on this route, but it needs to be expanded on the sides and requires a drainage system to meet the requirements for a loan for paving from German banking group KfW.
The loan, channeled through the German Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), a German cooperation agency, would be taken from a total $22.3 million which the banking group has allotted for paving 1,400 kilometers of Costa Rican roads, as stated in an October 2002 contract between the Costa Rican and German governments, according to MOPT engineer Lillian Ramírez, director of the KfW project for the ministry.
The project consists of two stages, a participative first stage, when the community’s municipality will construct a road, with some materials obtained through the German cooperation agency, and a second stage, when the German loan kicks in to pave it, she said, adding that GTZ selected the communities to receive the loan from the country’s poorest cantons.
In the case of the Malpaís-Manzanillo road, Ramírez explained that when trees are at the side of roads, their shade generally produces humidity and their leaves fall and make the road dirty.
She said if the community strongly opposes tearing the trees down, they should voice their concern to Hidalgo, and MOPT could evaluate using the parallel route. Marcos Quirós, of Cóbano’s Municipal Council, agreed this option should be evaluated.
“This is not about staging a fight, there are other options,” Quirós said.
According to Grew, the route MOPT and the municipality want to pave is much more scenic and could form part of a plot to turn the area into an axis of development – something not all residents want.
MINAE’s Hernández said road project coordinators have not submitted a declaration of public interest to tear down the trees, although they did present a forest inventory Monday – the first step.
After submitting an inventory of the forest grounds that block the road expansion, project coordinators have 10 working days to present the declaration and proof of project approval from the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA).After this is submitted, MINAE evaluates the petition, and approves or rejects it, she explained.