San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Southern Ecosystems at Risk

Recent growth in the number of illegal or irregular luxury hotel and condominium projects under way along the southern Pacific coast is endangering area ecosystems, say conservationists and government officials in the region.

Though the OsaPeninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean from Costa Rica s southwest corner and famously described as the most biologically intense place on earth by National Geographic is mostly under protected status and its remoteness has deterred large-scale development, it s a different story a bit further north.

Along the strip of coastline between Dominical and Cortés, just north of the peninsula, the Fila Costeña mountain range pours half a dozen rivers toward the ocean.

The waters feed the principal coastal communities and flow directly into the BallenaNationalMarinePark and the Sierpe-Térraba National Wetlands, a delicate ecosystem that includes the largest mangrove forest in the country.

The area is composed of fractured forests and abandoned agricultural land, contains great biodiversity, a high number of endemic plant and animal species and the Paso de la Danta biological corridor.

None of the mountain range or land below except Ballena and Sierpe-Térraba is protected by law. The two government bodies charged with monitoring development and the environment in the area the regional office of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and the OsaMunicipality are both drastically understaffed.

Still, officials are beginning to look at the area with renewed scrutiny.

I just was out doing inspections today, and the irregular and illegal development that is going on is truly alarming, said Sergio Gutiérrez, prosecutor with the Osa Prosecutor s Office. In the area of Dominicalito (south of Dominical), there are residential development projects that don t have municipal permits, nor permits from MINAE or SETENA (MINAE s Technical Secretariat, which must approve projects environmental-impact studies).

In Uvita, just inland from BallenaNationalMarinePark, Gutiérrez says he has found developments in wetland areas, and is investigating five complaints of infractions of the Forest Law and the Law of Conservation and Wildlife. Farther south, in the area of Piñuelas, the prosecutor said he discovered construction under way for a five-story hotel in a forested area, which is totally illegal, but somehow they have their permits, which we are going to investigate, he told The Tico Times last week.

In the area of Punta Mala, we have located three hectares of forest cut down along the top of the Fila Costeña, Gutiérrez continued. And all those properties belong to foreigners.

According to the prosecutor, his office is investigating 18 different complaints of illegal developments in the area.

Environmental Damage

With solitary beaches below and coveted ocean views above, forest is being cleared away to make room for luxury resort and condominium developments on an estimated 30-40 sites along the Fila Costeña, said Jorge Lobo, a researcher with the University of Costa Rica (UCR) who has been investigating development in the region.

Lobo said a minimum of hundreds of hectares has been deforested in the zone, leading to severe erosion of the land. The projects, which he said are almost all condos and luxury homes, are being built mostly high on the mountain as investors chase valuable ocean views. The terrain there, however, is steep and regularly drenched by some of the country s heaviest rainfall.

Many of these (developments) are on slopes with a grade of 50-60%. Just a 40% grade is difficult to walk up. It is total irresponsibility, Lobo said. The problem isn t the area, but the effects. This can produce tons of erosion.

To be exact, an estimated 3,000-5,000 tons of soil washes downhill for every hectare that is deforested, he said.

According to the researcher, the first step of many developers is to strip the protective layering of topsoil and foliage from the ground, exposing the soil underneath.

Rainfall, instead of filtering through this protective layer, runs unobstructed down the mountainside, taking more and more soil with it into streams and rivers heading to the nearby ocean.

Juan José Alvarado, who studied the coral reefs in the BallenaNationalMarinePark for more than two years for his master s thesis in biology, said sediment flushed into the waters from the construction in the hills above the coast is killing the coral reefs inside the protected area. The damage has increased drastically in the past three years to what he calls a severe to catastrophic level.

There is very little control by the municipality, and this has favored the destruction of the land, he said.

Jaime González, director of the regional MINAE office that oversees most of the Fila Costeña, said his office has only one inspector to check on development or complaints in the area, which he says is obviously insufficient.

The problem is big and serious, he continued, emphasizing that it s too much for any one institution to control. González said a concerted effort by government institutions and private organizations is necessary, and called on the Municipality of Osa to lead the effort.

UCR researcher Lobo laid most of the blame at the feet of the OsaMunicipality, located in Puerto Cortés, saying officials there have failed to watch over what s going on in their backyard. He accused the municipal government of issuing permits without checking up on what builders are doing.

Municipality Overwhelmed

Responsible for 2,384 square kilometers (920 square miles), including much of the Osa Peninsula and all the Fila Costeña, the municipality has an annual budget of $1.2 million and 51 employees, of whom only one is responsible for checking construction sites.

Recently elected Mayor Jorge Alberto Cole has been in office for one month and acknowledges there is a problem.

This is a concern that we have expressed as well, Cole said in a phone interview from his office in Cortés. The mayor, who said he has visited several construction sites with the prosecutor since taking office, described cases of developers carrying out projects much larger than their permits allow, or without any permits at all.

There are about 20 developers in this canton, and at least two prefer and they ve said this to risk going to trial and present reparation plans than wait for their permits through the municipality, Cole said.

But we are taking precautions so that our canton continues to be ecologically balanced, Cole insisted.While the municipality does not have a zoning plan, or plan regulador, to regulate where construction is allowed, it is currently drafting one for the entire canton with help from the UCR and financing from nonprofit group Conservation International.

I believe we are getting this under control, Cole added. The municipality is putting filters in the permits process. We have proceeded to place complaints (with the prosecutor s office).

Cole explained that he is pulling municipal workers from other areas to assist the one building inspector, and hopes to be able to increase the number of inspectors to five next year. The problem, he said, is funding.

He rejected researcher Lobo s suggestion that the municipality withhold all construction permits until the zoning plan is in place.

We are permitting only that which is strictly compatible with nature. Otherwise, where will we get resources? he asked.

Where is the employment for my people? Where is the development? Municipal budgets depend mainly on property taxes and fees paid for construction permits and local business licenses. In addition to a 56% rate of tax evasion, half of the canton is in the OsaPeninsula, much of which is protected.

Fifty percent of the territory is protected area, Cole said. It doesn t generate any taxes directly for the municipal government.

In search of more resources, which Cole says would be used to bolster the municipality s environmental controls, the mayor says he is cracking down on property taxes forcing developers to pay their taxes as a first step toward receiving their permits, and revaluing the often-undervalued land in the canton.

They always build. They are always going to build, and the municipality doesn t have the equipment or personnel to pursue it With more money, we could have sufficient engineers and equipment to go and close down buildings or houses lacking permits, Cole said.


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