Citing a mixed bag of grievances, angry landowners are threatening to take action against the government as it re-launches efforts to expropriate land and consolidate Las Baulas National Marine Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are proclaiming victory, insisting the expropriations are necessary to save the critically threatened leatherback sea turtle, whose populations have declined more than 90% in the past 20 years alone (TT, April 13).
Both sides rallied last week when President Oscar Arias signed a series of decrees authorizing the onset of expropriation procedures for 30 hectares of pricey, high-profile land inside the park.
A dispute over the marine park’s creation document led to a nearly interminable legal battle that had stalled the process of expropriations since May 2006, despite a binding decision from the Government Attorney’s Office.
Playa Grande, a gently sloping, golden-sand beach at the park’s centerpiece, is considered by scientists and environmentalists to be the single most important leatherback turtle nesting beach in the Pacific Ocean.
At a press conference arranged by public relations firm I-Com de Costa Rica, in the plush Palma Real Hotel in San José, landowners claimed that most of the problems and pollution come from Tamarindo, across the bay.
They have announced their intention to sue the government should expropriations continue, and at least one has also threatened international arbitration.
“Besides costing the government millions of dollars in damages, this could also have a serious negative effect on foreign investment in Costa Rica,” said Reinhard Unglaube, a German citizen who said he was invited by the first Arias administration to invest in the region.
Expropriations of private holdings inside the park, say Unglaube and other, mostly foreign landowners, are unnecessary for the survival of the turtles.
“They just want to exclude us and privatize the park,” said Mario Masís, whose property is on the government’s shortlist of expropriations.
Landowners passed their own regulatory plan last year, which sets limits on lights, noise, dogs, building heights and construction in the shore-front zone, efforts they say are more than enough to protect the turtles.
“We’ve already adopted a plan to protect the turtles. Expropriating land is absolutely unnecessarily and outrageous,” said Manfred Facio, spokesman for the Association for the Protection of Leatherback Turtles and Development of Tamarindo Bay, the landowners’ association.
Adrian Rojas, president of the Santa Cruz Municipal Council and a member of the region’s Maritime Zone commission, spoke on behalf of local residents.
“We, the people of Santa Cruz are perfectly capable of protecting the beach and the God-given resources we’ve been blessed with,” he said, referring to the parklands and the turtles.
Earlier this year, however, Santa Cruz and all of Guanacaste were fingered by the Federated Association of Engineers and Architects for a blight of illegal development – with up to 25% of projects lacking appropriate construction permits (TT, March 16).
Park director Rodney Piedra, a marine biologist who has studied turtles in Playa Grande since 1995, believes such illegal development would be inevitable in Playa Grande should the government cede to developers.
“Look at Tamarindo. It’s a disaster, and the development has been so aggressive, almost unstoppable. For the turtles, we can’t allow that to happen here,” he said. The price tag of private holdings inside the park is a major point of contention as well.By law, landowners are allowed three assessments, explains Leatherback Trust lawyer José Luis Rodríguez.
Initial assessments, he said, have ranged between $50-800 per square meter for the most valuable beachfront properties.
“It will be up to a judge to determine the actual amount,” he said.
Landowners and local real estate agents, meanwhile, believe market value to be $1,200 or higher and won’t stand for anything less, claiming total expropriations could carry an $800-million price tag.
Rodríguez believes it will land somewhere in the middle, around $200-300 per square meter.
Landowners allege the money, no matter how much, would be better spent in the communities, which they said need new roads and improved infrastructure.
Park director Piedra, meanwhile, insists that a healthy, and well-protected park will help preserve both turtles, and tourism.
“If we give this park up to private landowners, who is going to fight for the turtles?” Piedra asked.