As unfettered development soared alongside Costa Rica’s popularity as a tourist and retirement destination this year, many wondered if the country’s green image was at stake.
Environmentalists, incensed by a rash of reports exposing the country’s uncontrolled development, said time is running out, but the Arias administration urged patience.
In a sweeping declaration in early July, Arias declared “Peace with Nature,” the name of a program calling for eight specific actions, both internal and international, that he said will lead to a sustainable, environmentally friendly model of development.
The Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), however, brushed off the initiative as “window-dressing.”
President Arias also committed Costa Rica to becoming the first carbon-neutral country – a bold claim he says will thrust the country into the realm of world leadership by 2021.
His initiatives must first confront an onslaught of gloom-and-doom predictions from both government agencies and the country’s leading scientists.
In April, the Federated Association of Engineers and Architects published a report revealing that almost 25% of all new structures in the booming northwestern province of Guanacaste lacked appropriate building and environmental permits.
Another similar study, released the following month by the Comptroller General’s Office, determined that development along the OsaPeninsula coastline in the country’s Southern Zone – a region considered by National Geographic to be the most bio-diverse on Earth – was proceeding “out of control.”
According to a University of Costa Rica (UCR) report, development in the Costeña mountain range overlooking the southern Pacific coast was filling nearby rivers with silt and threatening marine ecosystems.
A host of scientific studies confirmed environmentalists’ fears that uncontrolled development might be threatening the country’s biodiversity.
In May, a group of Costa Rican biologists announced that monkey populations had declined as much as 50% countrywide.
Increasing development, they said, had fragmented habitat and left populations more isolated and vulnerable to threats such as global warming.
Later that month, marine biologists warned that an algae, fed by sewage and fertilizer runoff from the second-home boom around the Gulf of Papagayo in Guanacaste, was running rampant and threatening to kill off the region’s unique coral reefs.
The problems weren’t just developmentrelated. Increasing pressure from industry, climate change and agriculture are also wreaking havoc on the country’s environment, experts warned again this year.
An explosion at a chemical plant in the Caribbean port city Moín in late 2006, followed by a fire at a similar plant in the northwest Central Valley city of Alajuela in early 2007, threatened local water supplies, contaminated soils and nearby streams, and suggested the government was ill-prepared to deal with chemical disasters.
The remnants of a rather large gas station leak in Heredia, north of San José, this year continued to cause headaches for the Health Ministry nearly three years after it was discovered. U.S. environmental experts visited the country in March to advise the Costa Rican government on how to clean up the fuel spill, which contaminated the groundwater.
In September, industrial agriculture reared its “ugly head,” said environmentalists, when the Health Ministry declared water in the Caribbean-slope community of El Cairo contaminated by bromacil, an herbicide used heavily in area pineapple plantations.
The water was declared fit to drink again by mid-December.
The annual State of the Nation report, released in November, revealed that the country’s chemical-intensive pineapple plantations had grown by more than 200% since 2000, prompting scientists from the National University to call for tighter controls before more widespread damage occurs.
The Río Azul dump, an unsightly, festering sore in the southeastern Central Valley and a disaster waiting to happen according to many experts, was finally closed this year after years of promises and attempts. Despite the progress, many of the country’s regions still lacked adequate trash removal and recycling facilities – another black mark on the country’s green image.
The Miramar open-pit gold mine, another impending environmental disaster in the hills above the central Pacific port town of Puntarenas, was closed following landslides in the area, leaving questions about potential threats to communities and waterways down slope.
As fisheries continued to flounder in the Gulf of Nicoya, on the central Pacific coast, and fishing communities struggled with them, managers and environmentalists this year called for drastic action plans.
The problem, they said, is that Costa Rica’s coastlines have always been a sort of a free-forall where harvest has been barely regulated.
The good news is that Carlos Villalobos, the new executive president of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), has a plan to revamp the country’s fisheries, one he says will become “a model for the rest of Central America, and the world.”
His thought? Begin a process of moving Costa Rican fishermen out of wild fisheries and into more sustainable aquaculture farming projects.
Perhaps the hottest environmental topic in 2007 – in Costa Rica and abroad – was climate change, a “quiet killer,” according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The issue made almost weekly headlines this year, as extreme weather around the country and the world heightened concerns.
Scientists from the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a private research center in Heredia, warned that the country’s prized biodiversity might be at risk as weather patterns shift. Some species of wildlife, they warned, are already changing their patterns in response to global warming.
The storm clouds, however,weren’t without their silver linings.
The Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) got busy this year with plans to ensure the country attains carbon neutrality.
To fight the onslaught of development, the Arias administration promised to strengthen the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), which approves or rejects development projects’ environmental-impact studies. Measures taken include boosting funding by 116% for 2008, and nearly doubling the number of employees.
Non-governmental groups (NGOs) in Costa Rica also got in on the action. Environmental group Marviva launched a campaign to better protect Isla del Coco National Park, a hotspot for illegal fishing.
The Osa Campaign, which kicked off awareness “mini-campaigns” involving the sale of removable tattoos in March and again in November, announced it had raised $19 million, of its goal of $32.5 million, and had already made progress in protecting land and helping develop zoning plans, among other projects, on the OsaPeninsula.
The United States agreed to Costa Rica’s proposed debt-for-nature swap in October, in which the U.S. forgives $12.6 million of the country’s debt, and in return, Costa Rica will use the money to further protect important habitats and endangered species. Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy each put forth matching donations of $1.26 million apiece as part of the deal, which together with interest will mean $26 million to be spent on nature programs.
Expropriation of private lands inside Guanacaste’s Las Baulas National Marine Park, a highly controversial subject, began in earnest this year. And despite the slow pace and landowners’ protests, the government stayed its course in the name of protecting the endangered leatherback turtles that nest there.
2007 also became the year Costa Rica coughed up its overdue membership fees, rejoined the International Whaling Commission after a 22-year lapse and voted to uphold a 21-year ban on whale hunting.
The months prior to the June vote in the U.S. state of Alaska were marked by protests by citizen environmentalists toting signs, hoisting inflatable whales and dressing in costumes to make their points.
In February, a coalition of environmental groups gathered signatures and raised funds to help MINAE pay off the country’s almost $1 million debt to the whaling commission, a requirement to vote.
The money, and the political will, came through, and the vote was secured.
The release of the U.S. movie “Sharkwater,” an award-winning documentary that depicts Costa Rica’s alleged role in the decline of world shark populations, kicked off a series of petition and letter-writing campaigns later in the year, spearheaded by national environmental groups Marviva and the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), to pressure the Arias administration into tightening controls on shark fishing.
By year’s end, the government temporarily suspended the landing of shark products by international boats at Costa Rican docks –public or private – but environmentalists worried the controls would be short-lived.
And finally, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) suspended a road-widening project in western San José to save 150 trees on the southern edge of La Sabana Park – a small but clear reminder of the country’s long-standing commitment to the environment.