San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Park Debate Rages As Turtles Vanish

As the battle rages on over the interpretation of the 1995 law that created Las Baulas National Marine Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, one sure loser has emerged: the leatherback sea turtle.

According to the Leatherback Trust, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that monitors the park, the arrival of female leatherbacks at Playa Grande, the park’s principal nesting beach, severely declined this year, plummeting to just 57 individuals during the October to March nesting season, compared to 125 last year and 1,367 in 1989 – a veritable freefall that has the species on the brink of extinction.

Playa Grande ranks as the most important nesting beach in Costa Rica and one of the five most important in the world (TT, Jan. 28, 2005).

While the technicalities of the legal debate over park boundaries are complex – the subject of thousands of pages of judicial review and assessment – the issue is simple: Environmentalists and government attorneys argue the park’s law of creation should have included a 75-meter terrestrial portion in addition to the 50-meter public beach zone, for a total of 125 meters (TT, April 22, 2005).

Development any closer to the beach, environmentalists say, will surely inhibit the arrival of the already critically endangered leatherback.

The situation of the baulas, as the turtles are known here, is so dire, discussion of the 75-meter swatch of land would seem ludicrous if not for the fact that so much is at stake – for the turtles, and for the largely foreign landowners who have millions of dollars invested in the beachfront property. The land is particularly valuable because it is privately owned, a rare exemption to the Maritime Zone Law, which sets aside the first 200 meters of coastal land for public use, or private development by concession only.

“Which is better for the turtles: some development, or none? We must err on the side of caution when a species is at stake.We wouldn’t be asking these questions if there wasn’t so much money involved,” says Randall Arauz, director of the nonprofit Costa Rican Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA).

Landowners scoff at this sentiment, claiming the legislators’ intentions were clear,   and that the park, as its name seems to imply, is strictly “marine” in nature. Their rights as investors should not be violated by “senseless” government land expropriations, they say, and low-impact development, taking into account the needs of the turtles, should be allowed to continue.

“We are reasonable people. We want to protect the turtles, too. But if the Costa Rican government chooses to steal our property, we will be forced into an international court,” said Alejandro Berkowitz, a U.S. citizen, surfer and self-proclaimed “baby boomer” who fell in love with Playa Grande and bought property there 15 years ago – with the understanding that development would be allowed.

“This is not the image a country wants to have on the international investment scene,” he said.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, ask the same question about Costa Rica’s image when it comes to protecting the endangered turtle species.

Dwindling Numbers

The heated Playa Grande argument – a convoluted mess of legal technicalities unlikely to be resolved anytime soon – comes at a critical time in the history of the 60-million-year-old leatherback turtle – one of the world’s oldest, and now most threatened, species.

Leatherback are the largest of all sea turtles – weighing upwards of 700 kilograms –roughly that of a Volkswagen Beetle. Scientists say they can dive up to 700 meters in depth, and have been known to travel as far as 4,000 kilometers from their nesting beach.

According to the Leatherback Trust, the number of turtles arriving at Playa Grande has been in nearly continuous decline since the 1980s, when 200 or more nested there per night. By 1994, that figure had dropped to three turtles a night, and last year, many nights passed without a single new turtle lumbering ashore to lay her eggs.

Other important nesting beaches in Costa Rica, including nearby Playa Junquillal, saw similar declines in turtle populations this year. Turtles face countless problems worldwide, say scientists, including offshore netting, dragging and long-lining, which kills an untold number of juvenile and adult turtles, as well as coastal development, pollution, predation and even global warming.

“The decrease this year is likely related to the El Niño effect,” said James Spotila, president of the Leatherback Trust.

The well-known weather phenomenon elevates Pacific Ocean temperatures and scientists argue this affects turtles’ metabolism, limiting their ability to swim and arrive at the ocean shore.

Spotila did highlight some good news in an otherwise dim season: one third of the turtles that nested on Playa Grande this year were unmarked, leading scientists to believe they were first-time nesters since leatherbacks are known for always returning to the same beach to procreate.

“That means they were probably produced since the park was established, which tells us something’s working,” he said.

Leatherbacks reach sexual maturity around the age of 10, and can live up to 40 years. At Playa Grande, Spotila attributes the long-term decline in part to the rampant increase in poaching more than 20 years ago, when improved roads and highways began attracting turtle egg poachers and dealers from other regions.

“The poachers have now become guides, and park guards, and poaching has gone down to almost zero,” he said.“Now we need to get the land and finalize the park.”

According to Gloria Solano, a representative of the Government Attorney’s Office, the land controversy was resolved in a decision issued Dec. 23, 2005, establishing, once and for all, that the park includes the aforementioned

125-meter buffer zone.

“This is no longer open to interpretation,” she told The Tico Times in an interview this week, insisting the decision is binding. Landowners and others, including the local Municipality of Santa Cruz, refuse to accept the Government Attorney’s decision, claiming it is mistaken.

In July 2006, six months after the decision, the municipality decided to take matters into its own hands, publishing a Playa Grande-specific zoning plan in the official government newspaper La Gaceta.

The plan, which enlisted the help of National University (UNA) biologists, allows for limited development beginning 65 meters from the water – in the same zone declared national park by the Government Attorney’s Office – and calls for controls on lighting, pets and building heights.

Solano, of the Government Attorney’s office, maintains that things are clear from a legal standpoint: the new regulatory plan, despite approval by the Municipality of Santa Cruz and publication in La Gaceta, constitutes an “invasion” of park boundaries, and a clear violation of the law.

“They can not ignore a binding decision by the Government Attorney’s Office,” she said.

Jorge Chavarría, the new Mayor of the Municipality of Santa Cruz, who inherited the plan from the previous administration when he took office in February, told The Tico Times this week that the zoning plan still stands.

“We are currently in the process of discussing what to do next,” he said, declining to comment on a possible annulment.

Freddy Pacheco, the UNA biology professor who helped author the plan, told The Tico Times this week that fishing and netting offshore is the culprit in the collapse of the leatherback population, and claims halting all development is excessive and unnecessary.

“These turtles are living fossils. They’ve survived meteors, glaciation, changes in ocean currents. Their survival instinct is so incredible that lights on the beach can’t be affecting them,” he said.

The zoning plan affords more than enough protection for the turtles, he said. Many biologists, including Spotila, of the Leatherback Trust, strongly disagree.

“The buffer is absolutely essential. We’d like to see it larger.As it stands, it is a bare minimum,” he said, citing numerous studies showing the negative impact of development and associated lights on turtle nesting success.

Turtles at Stake

Clara Padilla, now executive director of the Leatherback Trust in Costa Rica, grew up in Santa Bárbara de Santa Cruz, in Guanacaste. Her eyes light up when she talks about trips to the nearby beaches as a girl, to see the turtles arriving onshore en masse.

“They came to all the beaches back then.

Tamarindo, Playa Grande, Flamingo, everywhere,” she said.

The Trust, she said, has raised upwards of $5 million dollars from private donors, all of which it intends to turn over to the Costa Rican government for the purpose of expropriating property along the beach as the park creation law mandates. Next week, the trust hopes to raise additional funds through The Great Turtle Race, a fundraising effort and awareness campaign (see separate story). Meanwhile, the government is trying to advance with the Playa Grande land expropriations.

According to Elizabeth Solano, an attorney with the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), which oversees Las Baulas National Marine Park, 13 properties are in the process of legal review, and 58 are in trámité. The expropriations stalled last year, she said, but re-started this February. She said the process has been ongoing, but slow, as many property owners have contested the expropriations, leading to a backup in the court system.

Environmental groups, including the Leatherback Trust, have since filed two suits, both of which were recently accepted by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV). The suits allege the zoning plan put forth by UNA and the municipality is illegal, and that the expropriations must continue at once.

In the meantime, Padilla said she and coworkers at the Leatherback Trust have received death threats – an attempt, she believes, to halt their work on the project. Last week, 10 environmental groups – from Costa Rica and abroad, published open letters in major Costa Rican dailies and The Tico Times, seeking signatures and urging Arias to carry on with the expropriations. “We have donors who will double their gifts the moment that there are advances in the expropriation,” she said.

Landowners, meanwhile, continue to fight the expropriations, which they claim offer them only a small percentage of what they’re rightfully owed, at market value – and which they insist is not necessary for protection of the turtles.

Berkowitz, whose plans to build a home on Playa Grande are on hold, said the thought of the government spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the properties is absurd, considering the needs of Costa Rica – and the fact that the turtles continue to decline despite a still largely-dark beach.

“How many hospitals, how many computers, how many schools could that money go to,” he said. “The beach is still dark, that hasn’t changed. What has changed is the number of turtles. This isn’t about lights on the beach,” he said.

Padilla, for her part, said she understands landowner’s pains – particularly those who bought their land in good faith, not realizing that the region would soon be enshrouded in a sticky legal debate. But she insists the law and the turtles demand action now.

“This is a park by Costa Rica law – it is for the people of this country, for the communities around it, and for the turtles, not for private owners. It must be protected,” she said.


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