San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Environmentalists Express Doubts about Arias

Environmentalists’ expectations for the new government range from hopeful to bleak, though they all seem to agree on one thing: the second administration of Oscar Arias, a former President who has never been tagged as an environmentalist, will likely be more pro-industry than pro natura.

Arias’ decision to place the telecommunications sector of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) under management of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) has puzzled some environmentalists, who say they cannot see the relation between telecommunications and the environment.

Though the new administration will face numerous environmental challenges, including air and water pollution, shark finning and continuing deforestation and poaching threatening endangered species, Arias will most likely tip the scale of economic development and environmental protection toward the development side, says political analyst and sustainable development expert Alonso Villalobos.

“Arias is not interested in the topic of the environment. He did not mention it during his campaign. He has only cited it in a romanticized way and never comes to solidify his position (on environmental issues),” said Villalobos, who teaches development theory at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). He said Arias’ National Liberation Party (PLN) apparently did not view the environment as a topic of interest to Costa Ricans, and instead focused its campaign on issues such as the rising cost of living and public safety.

During his inauguration last week, Arias echoed his campaign promise that he will promote Costa Rica as a world leader of environmental conservation.

“Starting now, the protection of the environment and of the right to sustainable development will become a priority for our foreign policy. Our goal is that Costa Rica’s name becomes synonymous with basic human values: love of peace and love of nature. That will be our distinguishing mark as a country. That will be our calling card to the world,” Arias said during his inauguration address May 8.

However, Arias and his Tourism Minister, Carlos Benavides, emphasized this week that while the environment must be protected, investment and development must not be delayed by unnecessarily complicated bureaucratic processes. Arias said the “nightmares” investors face when trying to open a new hotel, for example, must be reexamined (see separate story).


An Energy Minister

Rather than choosing a Minister of Environment and Energy with a background in conservation, Arias appointed Roberto Dobles, an industrial engineer whose background in energy has led some environmentalists to dub him simply the “Energy Minister.” They also question MINAE’s role in overseeing telecommunications.

The telecommunications sector, formerly under management of the Ministry of Science and Technology, was put under MINAE’s jurisdiction through an executive decree signed the day Arias and Dobles took office, May 8, Dobles told The Tico Times yesterday.

The Arias administration plans to introduce a bill outlining the changes in management, entitled the General Law of Telecommunications, to the Legislative Assembly next month.

ICE labor unions disapprove of the changes, the daily La Nación reported.

During the administration of former President José María Figueres (1994-1998), Dobles served first as Minister of Science and Technology (1994-1995), then as executive president of ICE (1995-1998). He was the executive president of the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE) during Luis Alberto Monge’s presidency (1982-1986) and Arias’ previous administration (1986-1990).

Environmentalists interviewed by The Tico Times agreed that Dobles’ arrival at the ministry implies the Arias administration will focus more on energy than on the environment.

“His arrival has more to do with the fact that he headed ICE than any environmental factor,” said Mauricio Alvarez, coordinator of the energy group for the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), an umbrella group for more than 30 Costa Rican environmental organizations.

Alvarez charged that Dobles lacks experience in environmental topics, and said his appointment reflects the fact that the environment is “a secondary issue” for Arias.

Other environmentalists, including previous Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, said they are optimistic about the new minister and his administrative expertise.

“Roberto Dobles is a magnificent professional with a lot of experience in political management. We all think of environmentalists as field officials, but what goes on behind the scenes is what makes everything work – the administrative portion is fundamental to the ministry,” Rodríguez told The Tico Times.

Universidad Nacional (UNA) biology professor and researcher Freddy Pacheco agreed Dobles is an excellent administrator, but said he doubts MINAE should handle telecommunications.

“I would prefer that the MINAE minister dedicate himself only to functions attached to his ministry… I would ask myself why such an important area (as telecommunications) will fall under administration of a minister whose duties have nothing to do with it,” he said.

FECON leader Fabián Pacheco, former President Abel Pacheco’s son (no relation to Freddy Pacheco), said the switch baffles him. “The only link I can see (between MINAE and telecommunications) is that there are ICE towers inside national parks,” said the outspoken environmentalist.

However, Noah Anderson, from the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) expressed optimism for the new administration.

“I have heard the new minister is a very good administrator, that he is a man of his word, and we expect to work very well with him,” Anderson said.

PRETOMA and other marine conservation organizations have already presented to the new minister a list of their priorities, including enforcement of Article 40 of the country’s Fishing Law, which bans shark finning, Anderson said. Shark finning, the practice of cutting off sharks’ fins for generous profits and throwing their lesser-valued bodies back to sea, is depleting the nation’s shark resources, environmental groups have charged.


Oil Debate Re-ignited

Another of environmentalists’ main concerns regarding the Arias administration is the fact that officials have suggested they will lift the moratorium on open-pit mining and petroleum exploration that outgoing President Abel Pacheco established by decree right after he took office (TT, June 7, 2002).

Dobles told The Tico Times he would evaluate the economic, environmental and social viability of any proposed petroleum exploration and open-pit mining projects before approving them, and in the case of petroleum exploration, would attempt to follow the environmentally responsible example of Norway, the world’s third petroleum exporter behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.

“Costa Rica has a Hydrocarbons Law; this is not a prohibited activity,” he said, adding “you cannot go against something if legislation exists (that allows it).”

Former President Pacheco told The Tico Times he is worried about the possibility of petroleum exploration under the Arias administration.

“As you know, I oppose petroleum exploration, and I oppose open-pit mining. I believe we must respect ecology, which has traditionally been a very Costa Rican flag. I highly esteem Mr. Oscar Arias, but he hasn’t asked (my advice). If he asked, I would say no to that path; let’s continue offering an example of respect to the planet,” he said just before leaving office.


Previous Achievements

During Arias’ previous administration (1986-1990), his environmental achievements were resounding yet sparse.

In December 1988, Arias and First Lady Margarita Penón, from whom he is now divorced, won the prestigious Audubon Medal, awarded by the U.S.-based Audubon Society to individuals, including cartoonist Walt Disney in 1955 and several members of the Rockefeller family, for their exceptional contributions to the environment (TT, Dec. 16, 1988).

Minister of Natural Resources Alvaro Umaña also received several distinctions, including the U.S. environmental organization The Nature Conservancy’s President’s Public Service Award – awarded to a non-U.S.-citizen for the first time when he received it, in 1989, and the U.S. National Wildlife Federation’s Award for Special Achievement (TT, Dec. 22, 1989).

Also in 1989, the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) opened its doors, beginning a $50 million project to study and identify Costa Rica’s species of plants and animals.

Arenal Volcano National Park was also created under the Arias administration, on Earth Day, 1990 (TT, April 27, 1990).

Arias also signed an emergency decree in 1987 naming a national commission to oversee measures to slow the rate of deforestation in the country. By the end of 1988, these efforts had resulted in the planting of more trees than in the entire previous decade.


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