San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Jorge Rodríguez: Enviro Office in Tough Spot

The bird’s eye view from Vice-Minister Jorge Rodríguez’s office, on the sixth floor of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) building in San José, takes in much of the city and the green mountains that ring it to the south.

“It’s the only gift they gave me.

Everything else has just brought problems,” he says, only half-joking.

Below him, cars honk, buses belch smoke, trash litters streets and sewage runs into rivers. Environmental problems, he says, plague the country.

When friends from other countries come to visit, he says, he sometimes hesitates to recommend a destination as problems, environmental and otherwise, continue to spread.

At the same time, he says, he is confident the political will exists to make changes – only time and money lack.

The Tico Times sat down with Rodríguez to discuss the recent State of the Nation report and the role of MINAE in protecting the country’s natural resources.

TT: The State of the Nation indicates the actual situation in the country doesn’t mesh with the president’s rhetoric of Peace with Nature. Can you explain?

JR: The principal problem this country faces, in my mind, is lack of planning.What the State of the Nation reveals is that we’ve seen record growth in construction between the late 1990s and 2006. To successfully manage it, we must work very closely with the municipalities to ensure that planning of all kinds, environmental and otherwise, becomes a part of their process, here in the Central Valley and outside. It sounds basic, but it is easier said than done.

Can you give us some concrete examples of efforts you’ve made to date?

We have given much importance to the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), which reviews environmental impact reports. Despite the huge increase in construction, we inherited a SETENA in ruins. So in 2007, we almost doubled its budget and added more inspectors.

But even that wasn’t enough, so this year, we’ve more than doubled it again, adding even more officials. We’re also digitizing the trámite process and eliminating steps, which will make the process much quicker, and easier, for applicants.

But will “quicker” necessarily translate into better protection for the environment?

At the very least, we will give a faster response to our users. But it’s also going to take us out of the office, where we’ve been  stuck for so long beneath paperwork, and out into the countryside, where we can follow up and do appropriate inspections.

There are many examples, including one recently revealed in La Nación, of developments that are inspected properly but often continue with little regard for the law.Why?

Much of what we’ve seen recently are examples of our internal institutions fighting against each other. For example, an official from one part of MINAE may call a property is wetland, while another says it is not. This disconnect has made our job much more difficult. It has reached a point recently where we have officials from one department suing those from another. So we sat down to see where our weaknesses were, and how we could develop joint policies. This has been difficult for us.

What actions are you taking to change this?

The next step I see is to regionalize MINAE, so that these decisions, about wetlands, developments and parks, are made regionally, amongst groups of MINAE officials working together.We are working quickly to make this happen, because if our budgets are to increase, we want to make sure that

any new people we hire go directly into these regional offices, to make us more efficient.

A recent TropicalAgronomyResearchCenter (CATIE) study indicates management issues in the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), a part of MINAE.

MINAE is an institution that in almost any other country, would be five different agencies. Energy, telecommunications, water resources, geology and mines, and the environment, including parks and environmental controls. We must manage all of these things, and balance them. Remember that the previous administration had taken the “green” route, but had left the blue and coffee colors all but abandoned. This ministry operated for years just to defend the parks, and the forests. When we took office, 85% of the budget was for SINAC. Of our 1,500 employees, 1,200 were a part of SINAC. We’ve committed to balancing the situation, which has led to growing pains.

The State of the Nation report talks much about an unsustainable rate of development here that is leading to a wide range of environmental problems, from improper trash and sewage management to loss of biodiversity.What happened?

The ministry simply didn’t have the organization or systems in place to control it. This is why we’re looking at a process of revamping everything, with a more integral vision. Right now, we look at development on a project-by-project basis. We don’t consider water in the region, earthquakes, floods, or biodiversity. If we don’t change that now, we will see a domino effect that will affect everything, from the environment to tourism.

But this investment also brings jobs and money. Isn’t there a temptation to just let them do what they want?

This country is faced with two very different agendas: One of development, and one of conservation. MINAE is caught in between. As Environment Minister Roberto Dobles has said, if a project is to be approved, it must meet three criteria: social, economic and environmental. If it does, it will pass.What we, as a government, must do, is ensure that this actually happens. I believe the political decision has been made. But these are changes that will not happen over night.

Tico Times correspondent John McPhaul contributed to this interview.


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