San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Marina Proposals Flood Pacific Golfo Dulce

Golfo Dulce, on Costa Rica’s heralded southern PacificOsaPeninsula, is blessed by geography.

One of only five tropical fjords – long, narrow ocean inlets characterized by plummeting ocean depths – in the world, and the only one of its kind on the Pacific coast of the Americas, it is angled just far enough south to shut out the brunt of the Pacific’s fiercest storms.

It also serves as a crossroads: Fish and marine mammals from both North and South America seek out its calm, fertile and deep waters (215 meters, or 715 feet), for spawning, feeding and resting before migratory journeys that can take them hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

And if plans for three proposed marinas around the gulf come to fruition, the region may soon sprout equally impressive habitat for an enormous fleet of luxury yacht and sportfishing boats.

Golfo Dulce, say marina proponents, is the first natural harbor north of the Panama Canal, making it the perfect pit stop for sailors and yachters rounding the bend from either California or Florida.

“Our customers are older, and they’re bored of the Caribbean. They love the idea that the marina is so close to the Panama Canal, and that such outstanding fishing is nearby,” said Phil Perko, a representative of Bahía Escondida, in Golfito, which will offer more than 200 slips and luxury accommodations for boaters.

Many of the qualities that make the region so attractive to visitors, say environmentalists and local residents, would be threatened if large-scale developments and marinas are allowed.

“This isn’t just any gulf. This one is unique – and it’s still pristine. It’s a lot easier to protect it now, before it becomes degraded, then to try to restore it afterwards,” said Jennifer Cruz, director of the conservation group Friends of the Osa.

She and others worry that boat fuel and cleaning agents, such as bleach and boat soap, will pollute the gulf, and that the associated shore-based development will threaten the area’s ecosystems, touted by National Geographic as among the “most biodiverse on Earth.”

A group of concerned Osa residents, recognizing its geographical and biological uniqueness, began circulating a “Petition to Protect the Golfo Dulce Area from Mega Developments,” at last month’s Earth Day celebration in Puerto Jiménez, calling on President Oscar Arias to proclaim Golfo Dulce a protected area and bar large-scale development.

The projects in question – Crocodile Bay Resort’s proposed marina expansion in Puerto Jiménez, the Bahía Escondida marina across the gulf in Golfito, and Osa Pointe, a proposed development on Playa Platanares, near Puerto Jiménez – could potentially create dock space for more than 900 boats, including luxury liners over 200 feet in length, while providing storage on land for several hundred more.

So far, only one – Bahía Escondida in Golfito – has been approved by government authorities.

Controversy Erupts

The conflict over the area’s marina projects made waves in Puerto Jiménez last Saturday at a three-hour community meeting called by the Puerto Jiménez Development Association to discuss the proposed 257-slip marina at Crocodile Bay Resort.

The lodge, which currently employs 180 people, recently announced plans to expand its “tourist dock,” which currently harbors its fleet of more than 40 fishing boats, and build a new marina, restaurant and bar, boat mechanic shop and Immigration and Customs post on its waterfront property.

“We have tried to be as open as we possibly can with this project, to bring it to the community,” explained Cory Williams, director of hotel operations, clarifying that the project is still in very early planning stages, without any permits. “We’re looking to gather support.”

According to Dennis Vásquez, secretary of the development association, almost 200 community members – most of them Tico residents – attended the well-publicized meeting, and many were left with questions, both environmental and social.

“People arrive at CrocodileBay by private shuttle bus or plane, they stay at the resort, they eat there, they use its boats and facilities and they don’t leave,” he said, expressing doubts that the marina expansion would do much, if anything, to help the community.

Williams said he would happily answer community concerns, and that the proposed marina would be a model of “green” development – using a floating wave break that wouldn’t disrupt the ocean floor or tides. He also said it would create 400 much-needed new jobs in the process.

Vásquez said the association, which will form a special commission to study the CrocodileBay proposal, is concerned about the quality of the jobs.

“These types of projects create jobs, but they are often limited and poorly paid,” he said. “We need to balance the supposed socio-economic gains with the environment.

Right now, it seems more sustainable to preserve the ecosystem, which is more likely to pay off in the long term.”

For his part,Williams said he understands the cautious approach – and sees the need to work with the community.

“We understand people are skeptical,” he said. “They see other areas where people have said one thing and not done it. But we live here.We make our livings here, too. We love the area. The last thing we want to do is ruin it.”

Residents of the Golfo Dulce region are understandably weary after a recent scare that had many community members up in arms, according to Jennifer Cruz, director of Friends of the Osa.

The 1,000-member group, with offices in Washington D.C. and Puerto Jiménez, launched a letter-writing campaign last month after Osa Pointe (, a proposed project near Puerto Jiménez, announced grandiose plans for a 900-hectare luxury resort and community, complete with three golf courses, three luxury resorts and a 600-slip marina – all within eye-shot of the gulf.

“It’s disturbing. The plans posted on their Web site clearly demonstrate that they haven’t done their homework on the incredibly delicate ecosystem here,” Cruz said.

According to project representative Todd Enz, the controversial Internet site is “a test page…intended to get a handle on spendable demand.”

He acknowledged the project has yet to request any permits, but said, if approved, it would become the “greenest” and largest mega project in Central America – a social and environmental model for others to emulate.

“We will prove that you can create a mega development but do it in a environmentally and socially friendly way,” he said.

According to Oscar Villalobos, director of the Inter-Institutional Commission on Marinas and Tourist Docks (CIMAT), the 1998 Law of Marinas seeks to do just that – strike a balance between the natural world and the need for employment in isolated regions, such as the area surrounding Golfo Dulce.

He said the Bahía Escondida development in Golfito, promoted by Hacienda El Dorado, S.A., is one example. According to project representative Phil Perko, the marina, which had stalled temporarily, is now fully financed, under construction and 52% sold out, enjoying more than $30 million in sales among markets “within striking distance” in Southern California and Florida.

It will offer international boaters access to 217 slips (TT, Dec. 1, 2006) and provide hundreds of jobs for the community, he said.

While environmental groups and area residents have questioned the effects of such a large-scale marina in an area as sensitive as the Golfo Dulce, Villalobos contends that any marina which receives the government go-ahead, as Golfito has, is committed to operating in an ecologically friendly way.

“Through our process, projects become environmentally viable. It’s a give-and-take situation.

We want to create jobs, but we don’t want a project that pollutes,” he said, citing the success and lack of contamination problems at the country’s largest marina, Los Sueños, in Playa Herradura on the central Pacific coast.

He added that in many cases, a marina brings order to a region’s coastline, prompting people to use established, inspected facilities for fueling and sewage discharge, instead of doing it on their own, or at unofficial sites.

Cruz, of Friends of the Osa, agrees, but sees a greater risk in allowing these projects to advance without thinking of the bigger picture.

“Our larger concern with these projects is that they open the door to increased development of the coastline in such a fragile ecosystem. It’s already happened in Guanacaste, and we’re seeing the repercussions. Let’s not make the same mistakes all over again,” she said.

Osa Moratorium Making Progress

The public comment period on a proposed development moratorium for a coastal mountain range in the canton of Osa, in the southern Pacific, is over, and revisions to the plan are being made, according to Osa Mayor Jorge Alberto Cole.

“Most of the comments we received during the period were favorable. People want us to bring order to the development in this canton,” Cole said.

The moratorium, proposed in March, was initially intended to buy time for the municipality and a team of experts from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the Nature Conservancy to develop an adequate zoning plan for the delicate ecosystem of the Fila Costeña mountain range (TT, March 30)

After review of public comments and discussion at a meeting last week, Cole said the final moratorium will likely be expanded to include the entire canton, so that zoning plans can be developed throughout.

Developments associated with the proposed marina projects in the canton of Osa (see separate story) would fall under the new zoning plan, allowing the municipality more control over the process.

“We are not out to persecute private interests. We simply want to be sure that the interests of the environment, and the public, are protected,” he said, adding that the final document, which is now under review by the municipality, should be released by May 14.

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