San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Officials Promise to Strengthen SETENA

The government institution charged with ensuring “sustainable development” in Costa Rica is due to get a facelift next year – including, say officials, enough money to actually accomplish its mission.

The National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), which  reviews and approves environmental-impact studies for all major developments in the country, will see its budget increase 147% in 2008, from ¢441 million ($849,711) to ¢1.1 billion ($2.1 million).

Tatiana Cruz, director of SETENA, did not return calls by press time and The Tico Times was told that other employees of the institution were not allowed to speak to the press without prior authorization.

But Jorge Woodbridge, Vice-Minister of Economy, explained the funds will go toward improving the agency’s notoriously slow and inefficient processes – a “bottleneck,” he said, that’s frustrated developers and irked environmentalists, both of whom claim the system is broken.

The new funding will nearly double the staff, and a new branch office will open in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, the first of several regional offices promised throughout the country, to allow inspectors to make more frequent visits to development sites.

In 2006, Woodbridge said, SETENA had only 35 employees to review the average 4,000 development applications submitted each year. Of those, he said, only 11 work solely for the secretariat – the rest split time with the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE).

Woodbridge has promised a “new” SETENA by December and, in perhaps his boldest claim of all, announced that the current backlog of 800 applications would be eliminated by May 2008.

He didn’t stop there.

“We will also cut down the processing time to just five weeks,” he said, down from wait times between six months and two years.

The secret, he said, would be putting the entire process online, so developers could manage it from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices – and not the cluttered confines of the notoriously cramped SETENA building in Sabanilla, a northeastern suburb of San José.

It’s not the first time such promises have been made; the previous administrations of  both Presidents Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) and Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) also made similar suggestions (TT, July 2, 2004). But Woodbridge is quick to explain that this is the most aggressive budget hike SETENA has ever seen.

The news should have had developers – many of whom have waited years for approval in a tangled mess of tramités – cheering.

Carlos Arroyo, owner of Grupo Mapache, a property development company in Guanacaste, isn’t ready to pop the cork on the ceremonial champagne bottle yet. He said some of his projects have been sitting in SETENA tramité dungeon for almost two years – including a school for children he’d committed to building in Playas del Coco at least that long ago.

“Our hands have been tied because this institution is inefficient, and lacks clear rules,” he said, adding that untold numbers of developers have been discouraged, or turned away from Costa Rica because of its notoriously complicated bureaucratic processes.

The process currently includes review by 10 government institutions before final approval from SETENA, including the Health Ministry, the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) and the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT).

For a foreign investor entering the country, Arroyo said such a complicated, unclear system, that changes from administration to administration, simply doesn’t cut it.

“A developer must have a clearly defined horizon that allows them to know when they will see a return on their capital,” he said.

“We’ve been hearing promises of a new system since President Arias took office. I’ve yet to see anything actually happen,” he said.

According to Noemi Canet, president of Costa Rica’s Biologists’ Association, which accredits all practicing biologists in the country, pouring money into the problem isn’t necessarily the answer either.

The Biologists’Association recently completed an audit of more than 500 development applications. The results, Canet said, were alarming.

“Their criteria for approving a project doesn’t include such things as biodiversity or  the presence of endangered or migratory species,” said Canet.

She said despite the country’s “green image,” the process doesn’t even require a biologist’s inspection or approval.

“Developers can decide for themselves whether or not there are endangered species on their property, without an expert’s opinion,” she said.

Environment Minister Roberto Dobles assured The Tico Times in an interview last week that the new funds and resources would be dedicated not just to modernizing of facilities and streamlining processes, but also to a higher level of environmental review.

“We will institute a process of auditing and monitoring, before and after a project is approved,” he said.

Dobles continued, the 16,000 projects approved by SETENA since its inception in 1995 are rarely, if ever, revisited by inspectors to ensure compliance with regulations.

If last week’s promises come true, the administration will silence a peanut gallery of skeptics, including Canet and developers like Arroyo – who have seen the empty promises of past governments come and go with little or no headway.

Similar promises were heard in September 2006, when two top officials at SETENA were replaced as part of a “general reform of the institution,” according to government officials (TT, Sept. 29, 2006). In 2004, a regulation signed in July promised a Web site within 15 days. Three years later, the country’s anxious developers are still awaiting progress (TT, July 2, 2004).

But Woodbridge – who said he’s devoted almost five weeks of his time to ensuring the process is a success – reassures that this time, it will be different.

“This year’s budget was double the year before. Next year we will almost triple it,” he said, offering the fact as proof that the Arias administration is committed to reforms.

President Arias’ highly touted Peace with Nature initiative has also convoked a special commission of experts who will deal exclusively with the issue of SETENA and sustainable development – further proof, according to officials, that progress will be made (TT July 27).


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