San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Conservation Saw Wins, Setbacks

Costa Rica teetered on the tight rope between developing its economy and protecting its natural resources this year as observers saw both victories and setbacks for the environment.

Early in the year, then-President Abel Pacheco brought international attention to Costa Rica’s marine protection – or lack thereof – when he was named Shark Enemy of 2005 by the Germany-based International Society for the Conservation and Protection of Sharks. The award criticized Pacheco’s inaction against the practice of shark finning – the slicing off of sharks’ fins, which are delicacies in Asian markets.

The shark-finning controversy continued throughout the year (see separate article).

New President Oscar Arias was received by some environmentalists with caution and skepticism after he waged a presidential campaign that said little about conservation.

Some questioned Arias’ announcements that he would lift ex-President Pacheco’s moratorium on oil exploration and mining, especially after he met with oil industry representatives from South America. Arias said that if a project’s environmental-impact study can get the approval of the Environment Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA), he sees no reason to block it.His administration, however, also called SETENA “collapsed” and began a reform of the institution that triggered speculation that the administration was attempting to stack the deck in favor of business interests.

Internationally, Arias pushed for forest protection, spearheading – along with Papua New Guinea – the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, which looks to create incentives under the anti-global-warming Kyoto Protocol for countries to protect their rainforests.

Back home, the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) announced in November that a United Nations-backed program had reduced illegal logging here from 35% in 2004 to 15% in 2006, and reforestation efforts had increased Costa Rica’s national forest cover to 51%, up from 21% in 1987.

Despite the efforts, the announcement came at the same time MINAE was investigating multiple complaints of illegal logging, including one case along the Pacific coast where more than 4,000 trees were illegally chopped down.

A study released in January by the Universidad Nacional (UNA) found that an increase in the number of vehicles filling San José’s choked thoroughfares – particularly diesel-fueled buses – has increased air pollution in the capital. In some areas, the air was so bad contaminants exceeded World Health Organization limits, the study said.

Then, in a move that could worsen the situation, the Central American Customs Unions eased standards for diesel fuel in November, allowing for higher sulfur emissions, which can cause and exacerbate a variety of health problems. Costa Rica’s Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP) said the move was a step backwards and called on the Economy, Industry and Commerce Ministry (MEIC) to set higher standards for Costa Rica.

But businesses and the government were not oblivious – in September, a transportation company began running 130 city buses on less-contaminating biodiesel, while a second company announced it was importing an electric bus that could be running at the beginning of 2007. Environment Minister Roberto Dobles commended the efforts and announced a commission would be submitting suggestions on how to foment a biofuel industry in Costa Rica.

Business, conservation and government representatives at the end of November officially announced the Osa Campaign, which seeks to raise $32.5 million dollars for the conservation of threatened areas on Costa Rica’s OsaPeninsula, on the southern Pacific coast.

Residents in that area joined environmentalists in protesting plans to build an enormous tuna farm outside of the mouth of the Golfo Dulce – the gulf created by the peninsula – saying the environmental effects could be disastrous. Though the plan received the green light from the government, the courts took up complaints that the environmental-impact reports were incomplete.

In other environmental news this year, President Arias formed a special commission to come up with solutions to the country’s widespread waste-disposal problems, legislators approved a $30 million loan from Japan to overhaul the metropolitan area’s sewer system and the Arias administration announced it would make the Barva Volcano sector of the expansive Braulio Carrillo National Park its own national park in 2009.


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