Environmentalists and other community members in the southern Caribbean coastal region say they are worried about the possibility of oil drilling, and have asked the Talamanca Municipal Council to ban petroleum exploration in the canton.
Grupo Adela, which opposes oil exploration in the Talamanca region, fears the outcome of a legal battle between the U.S.-backed oil company Harken Costa Rica Holdings and the Costa Rican government regarding an offshore oil exploration concession the government rescinded, according to Enrique Joseph, coordinator of the group.
A recent meeting between Brazilian oil company Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) and President Oscar Arias to discuss a possible oil exploration venture in the area (TT, June 2) has also sparked concern.
During a Talamanca Municipal Council meeting July 6, Grupo Adela representatives requested the renewal of a local oilexploration moratorium declared in April 2002, Council president George Brown told The Tico Times.
The moratorium stood under the administration of President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), who had decreed a nationwide moratorium against oil exploration and open-pit mining as one of his first acts in office (TT, June 7, 2002).
However, after Arias took over the presidency earlier this year and met with the Brazilian petroleum officials, doubt grew among southern Caribbean environmentalists over whether the Talamanca moratorium will be upheld, Brown explained.
The council has not yet issued a statement on the matter; Brown said it is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. He added that Grupo Adela’s position against oil exploration does not represent the opinion of all Talamanca inhabitants, and he pointed out that a moratorium banning oil exploration in the canton would not prevent it from happening neighboring cantons.
Joseph told The Tico Times Grupo Adela is worried about conserving the pristine coastline that encompasses CahuitaNational Park, a tourism magnet in the area.
“This is about protecting our coastal and marine resources,” said Joseph, who operates a restaurant in the nearby town of Cahuita.
According to indigenous leader Timoteo Jackson, after whose mother Grupo Adela is named, the indigenous community of Bribrí is also concerned about the negative environmental impact of petroleum exploration.
In a phone interview from Bribrí, Jackson told The Tico Times that the government of Costa Rica extracted 60 barrels of oil from the village of Bratsi in Talamanca in the 1960s. As a result, the neighboring WatsiRiver was contaminated for almost 20 years.
“We don’t want them to harm us anymore,” said Jackson, whom people refer to as a cacique, or indigenous chief.
Joseph said Adela is concerned that if Harken wins its case against the Costa Rican government, it might begin its oil exploration project because Arias’ administration has expressed no interest in maintaining Pacheco’s moratorium (TT, June 2, 9).
In July 1998, the government of Costa Rica, under former President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), signed a contract with MKJ Xplorations, which a year later handed over its rights to Harken, granting oil exploration and drilling rights off the coast of the Caribbean province of Limón.
The contract generated a number of protests, and eventually the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) rejected the company’s environmental-impact study (TT, Oct. 10, 2003).
Costa Rican officials considered Harken’s noncompliance with the study requirements a violation of the contract. However, Harken disputed this and filed a request for international arbitration seeking $57 billion in damages – about four times Costa Rica’s gross domestic product.
The request was later withdrawn and Harken entered settlement negotiations with the government in January 2004 (TT, Jan. 16, 2004). However, negotiations broke off several months later when the parties were unable to agree whether Harken’s initial investment was $3 million or $11 million (TT, March 19, 2004).
In March, Harken representative Brent Abadie filed a case before the Arbitration Center of the Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce regarding the cancelled contract (TT, April 7), but the Costa Rican government has refused to participate.
Abadie then requested a settlement of $13 million in damages (TT, July 7). Joseph said he is not as concerned about oil exploration by Petrobras because he thinks it is less likely to happen. Earlier this year, Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles announced that oil exploration would not happen unless it is economically, socially and environmentally viable (TT, May 19).
“If he (Dobles) keeps his word…I don’t think any petroleum project will meet the minister’s requirements,” Joseph said. Also, Petrobras has experience in production of fuels from renewable sources.
“We think working with Petrobras could be fruitful. Limón has great potential for production of African palm,” he said, referring to an example of a renewable source.