San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Concerns Grow as Osa Airport Plans Proceed

With a wingspan of 117 feet and a weight of 154,000 pounds, the Boeing 737 is a steel beast that could someday replace the scarlet macaw as the OsaPeninsula’s most impressive flying object.

The arrival of this passenger plane, which carries 137 people and 6,875 gallons of fuel, is the end goal in a government-sponsored project to bring an international airport to the remote southern Pacific zone of the country, according to an agreement to begin feasibility studies signed by President Oscar Arias.

Though no one expects the airport to get finished overnight – the process has moved about as quickly as continental drift – environmentalists are on edge over this latest agreement, which seems to reinforce the government’s commitment to the project.

The project’s first phase, proposed by the administration of former president Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), would handle medium-sized, 50-passenger airlines like those flown by domestic airlines Sansa and Nature Air, and could be complete as early as 2010.

The second phase would accommodate larger-capacity aircraft, such as the 737, and would feature a runway comparable to that of JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport outside San José or DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Alejandra Monge, executive director of the Corcovado Foundation, a community environmental group on the OsaPeninsula, sounded the alarm last week, calling the project an affront to the Osa way of life and the hard work of the people who’ve made it a premier tourism destination without compromising its environment.

“It’s one thing to promote development here. But it’s something else to encourage this kind of mega-development in a region that’s just not prepared,” she said.

Monge said the region is unique in the country, and has pioneered a low-impact, eco-friendly form of tourism, sustained largely by small hotels that would suffer at the hands of the masses.

Superhighways, large airports and megadevelopments need not apply, she said.

She also worries about the airport’s proposed location – in the Palmar district of the DiquisValley, not far from Térraba-Sierpe National Wetland, a protected area listed under the Ramsar convention, an international treaty that identifies and protects critical wetlands throughout the world.

“We’re talking about one of Central America’s most important wetlands, an area that is critical for migratory and resident birds, and also, as a nursery for our fisheries,” she said, adding that noise pollution and the potential for chemical contamination or spills are also a concern.

The government, meanwhile, has been tiptoeing around the worries of environmentalists, highlighting the importance of an “ecological” airport. A recent government statement promised “strict management of solid and liquid waste, and fuel, according to the current environment standards.”

President Arias’ recent promotion the airport project came at an uncomfortable time for the country’s administration.

That same week, the Comptroller General’s Office, the government’s auditor, announced that the OsaMunicipality’s coastline is experiencing uncontrolled development, and only 16% of the coastline is regulated by zoning plans (TT, July 20).

According to William Pérez, director of the Southern Zone Development Authority (JUDESUR), appropriate planning is critical.

“It must be managed properly,with an eye toward the environment,” he said, adding that zoning plans and protections would have to be in place before the airport opened. “No one wants to see disorganized development here, as has been seen in other regions of the country.”

The development authority has reaffirmed last year’s commitment to give $1.2 million to study the proposed site (TT, March 31, 2006) – and also, according to Pérez, to identify alternative sites.

He insisted the airport would promote more than just tourism – adding that other area industries would stand to benefit, as would overall employment in the region.

“People talk much of tourism. But this airport will also help lower costs for exporters in the region, and encourage more commercial development,” he said, emphasizing the importance of a slower, ecofriendly approach.

Unfortunately, explains Monge, the country’s track record is flawed.

“Look at what’s happening in Guanacaste. We heard these same promises when the Liberia airport was being built,” she said.

“We’ve seen huge amounts of tourism investment there, but the region is still among the poorest in the country.”

Hotel owners, tourism promoters and developers in the Southern Zone seem split on the issue.

Clinton Stephenson, a sales manager at Punta Dominical, a 1,600-acre development that offers “beachside villas, mountain side retreats and panoramic home sites,” 30 minutes north of the proposed airport, sees a carefully planned airport as a benefit for everyone – visitors and residents alike.

He said it would mean easier, safer access for clients who come from across the world to visit their homes at Punta Dominical.

“Right now, our people have to come across Cerro de la Muerte – the name says it all – or drive a terrible stretch of road south from (the central Pacific town of) Quepos,” he said. “They will absolutely benefit from this airport.”

Others, such as Sue Kalmbach, the owner of the small, 13-room La Paloma Lodge in DrakeBay, roughly one hour’s boat ride from the proposed airport site, believe that the region’s remoteness is what makes it so attractive. Kalmbach said nothing good can come of the new airport.

“We’re completely against it. It’s crazy for a country of this size to need three international airports,” she said, adding that the noise pollution from passing airplanes and the influx of development would ruin the otherwise pristine area.

She acknowledged the airport would initially mean more business for hotels like hers, as has been the case in Guanacaste, but said in the end, it would change the region’s image and defeat the purpose.

“We have more than enough property to make this a large 100-room hotel. But that’s not what we want. And that’s not what people come here for,” she said.

The Tico Times contacted officials at the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT), but they declined to comment, stating they are required to get permission from Vice-Minister Viviana Martín before speaking with the press on the issue. The Vice-Minister did not return calls by press time, however.


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