What started as a cloud of dust has turned into a whirlwind of controversy in the Guanacaste Pacific coast towns of Nosara and Sámara, where residents complain both their lives and livelihoods are threatened by the poor condition of a pothole-ridden road between their towns.
A recent letter-writing campaign led primarily by the Nosara Civic Association, directed at a range of public ministries, officials and the local municipality, alleges that dust is contaminating the air, coating trees, flowers and anything else in its path, and threatening the health of residents, school children and visiting tourists.
The road links the towns of Garza, Esperanza, Nosara, Arenales and Santa Marta, and serves as the primary transit route for a local population of about 6,000, in additional to the huge seasonal influx of tourists.
“These are some of the best beaches on the whole west coast, and right now you can’t drive because the dust clouds are 100 to 200 feet in the air,” said Don Haskell, a U.S. citizen and Nosara resident of 13 years, who recently survived a car-wreck with a Pepsi delivery truck. “Accidents happen all the time.”
The road, he added, has always been dusty during the summer months, but it’s the traffic, springing from a recent boom in construction, that has heightened the problem to near-crisis stage.
Accidents aren’t the only potential dust hazard.
According to Nosara doctor Kattia Porras, the particles are threatening the respiratory health of residents – including students, whose school is located along the road and who frequently walk to and from their homes enshrouded in dust.
In a letter directed to the Municipality of Nicoya, the National Roadway Council (CONAVI), part of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) and the Public Health Ministry, among others, Porras explained that she frequently attends to area residents of all ages complaining of symptoms relating to respiratory difficulties.
“Air pollution has turned into a real threat to the health of the residents of this district,” she wrote.
She attributes the air pollution to not just the road traffic, but also the accumulated dust and commotion from construction and the ever-present Guanacaste winds, which effectively prevent the particles from settling.
Residents have responded by printing and paying for their own road signs and placing them near developed areas warning of a “severe dust hazard” and “medical emergency,” and limiting the maximum speed to 20 kilometers per hour.
These problems, together, affect the health and well-being of residents, and also those who come to visit, according to Swiss trasplant Marcel Schaerer, vice-president of the Nosara Civic Association and owner of the Giardino Tropicale, a small hotel in Nosara.
In a recent survey, Schaerer said residents counted more than 800 vehicles in the eight-hour period between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., many of which were large trucks and buses.
For the sake of his tourism-dependant business, Schaerer deals with the problem by lathering molasses on the stretch of road nearest his hotel, which hardens the surface temporarily.
“Not everyone can afford to throw money away on the street like this,” he said.
On average, Schaerer spends $1,000 per application of molasses – a prohibitive cost for local homeowners and money wasted, he said, when one considers that an application of pavement would be far more effective, and of course, permanent.
One recent visitor, Kathleen Herrold, of Canada, has been visiting the region for the past seven years for six- to nine-week intervals.
“At first the roads were simply an inconvenience. This year they are in no worse condition but are very dangerous due to the great increase in traffic. This is the first time we are considering not returning,” she said.
According to Mauricio Céspedes, of the Guanacaste Tourism Chamber (CATURGUA), the development is of great concern, as it puts in jeopardy the hard work required to attract these tourists to Costa Rica in the first place.
“We don’t want people to get scared off by the lack of infrastructure,” he said.
Last month, workers from MOPT began work on an $8 million project south of Nosara, to improve a 21-kilometer stretch of road between the interior Nicoya town of Lajas and Carrillo, on the coast. The project, hailed in a statement by the ministry as critical in its goal to improve infrastructure in Guanacaste, would “facilitate access to beaches, towns and tourist areas on the Nicoya peninsula.”
The announcement of this project outraged Nosara residents, who wondered why this relatively isolated stretch of road, leading to a beach with far less development, was slated for paving and road repair ahead of Nosara.
In a letter addressed to the Municipality of Nicoya and various national ministries asking for some justification of the decision, Rolf Sommer, another Swiss transplant and Nosara-area resident, wrote that the Carrillo/ Punta Islita area had but one hotel, and that the chosen road had “but 10% of the volume of transit as the Nosara area.”
In an interview with The Tico Times, Tomás Figueroa, the civil engineer for MOPT charged with planning road projects in Guanacaste, explained that both are “national routes of strategic importance,” and that the ministry’s plan this year directed the National Roadway Council to pave each of them.
Lack of funding, however, prevents the council from achieving all the goals of the annual plan – and in this case, the Carrillo route was placed slightly ahead on a nearly bottomless list.
“It’s an important route because of its connectivity to the other major routes in Guanacaste,” he said, adding that the Lajas-Carrillo road would greatly improve access to the southern half of the Nicoya peninsula.
“But that is not to say we don’t see the Nosara route as being critical as well. We simply don’t have the resources to do it all at once,” he said.
If the Nosara road doesn’t get paved this year, Figueroa added, it will have a higher priority next year.