CORTES, Southern Zone – Jorge Lobo stopped his pickup truck, leaned his chest against the sweaty steering wheel and squinted uphill at the dizzying heights of the Fila Costeña, shrouded in a surreal mix of mist and sun and azure sky.
“I don’t dare go any farther than this in a vehicle,” he said, shifting the truck into reverse. The impossibly steep gravel road provides access to Cima del Mundo, or Top of the World, a commanding, 27-lot secondhome subdivision whose Web site, southpacificsunsets.com, boasts, “not everyone has what it takes to get to the top.”
It is one of dozens that now dot the knife-edge Fila Costeña, the coastal Pacific mountain range that runs from Dominical to Cortés in the Southern Zone.
The day before, Lobo had nearly rolled his truck on a nearby road, skidding downhill, brakes useless, heart pounding, all the while shooting loose gravel and scree hundreds of meters into the forest below.
“I was scared,” said the University of Costa Rican biologist, whose surveys first revealed the onslaught of unplanned development in the Fila Costeña last year. “But the real lesson? How can developers sell homes in terrain this steep? And why are people still buying them? This is a disaster waiting to happen.”
The disaster, he charges, would be both environmental and economic, as the natural resources that once attracted tourists and in- vestors are sacrificed to rampant, unplanned development.
Crowd Calls for Moratorium
Lobo delivered his message last Friday to a rowdy, sometimes angry crowd of about 100 local residents at a municipal meeting in nearby Cortés, the municipal seat of the Osacanton.
Represented at the emergency meeting, called to discuss the future of Osa, were two groups: Those who believe new, intense development will uplift this down-trodden region, and those who call for a measured,more cautious approach, slanted towards eco- and community tourism.
Applause leaned toward the latter, boos toward the former.
Residents of the small towns that sit in the lowland valleys of this unique region– a place where species from Guanacaste’s dry tropical forest collide with the worldrenowned biodiversity of the OsaPeninsula – are already seeing the darker side of unplanned development.
Access to water, once thought infinite and inviolable, now wavers as unregulated construction peels away protective forest cover and clogs springs.
Sedimentation of rivers, caused by erosion from roads and house lots, threatens coral reefs and sea life in BallenaNationalMarinePark, one of the region’s primary tourist attractions. And a proposed international airport in Sierpe, say activists, would likely usher in even faster change in a canton desperately unprepared.
“I fought against the illegal logging that was rampant here a decade ago. But that was different. The forest came back. Now, it may never be restored,” said Lobo.
Mayor Changes Tune
At the heated four-hour meeting Friday evening, both sides exchanged blows.
Community members and activists proposed a moratorium on new permits and road building in Osa until zoning plans, currently under review, are put into place.
Last year, a similar moratorium proposal for the Fila Costeña failed, but the compromise that resulted fell far short, say activists.
“The damage in just the past six months is truly incredible,” said Lobo, who presented aerial images overlaid with a spider’s web of roads built in just the past two years. “We have come to a critical turning point. This has become a state of emergency.”
Osa Mayor Alberto Cole initially balked at the moratorium – insisting that illegal construction and new permits had been eliminated under his watch, and that the damage had come years before.
His claims were chided by the crowd, many of whom had received a rude wake-up call last month when the Environmental Tribunal shut down illegal construction in a protected area along the SierpeRiver nearby.
Still, Cole said his mandate is to provide jobs and “development” for local citizens, who rank lowest in the country’s poverty indexes. The canton, he charged, doesn’t need more protected land. Already, more than 50% was under some form of conservation status, he said.
“We need to develop. And find jobs for our people, not live as if we were in a zoo on display,” he said.
It’s the “how” of development that divides local residents.
The proposed zoning plan, funded by the Nature Conservancy and drafted by the University of Costa Rica’s Sustainable Urban Development Program (PRODUS), is underway. But university officials speculate the public review and approval process could take up to five years.
A moratorium would give the municipality time to ensure sustainable development. But investors seeking to profit off their land, in a region where a single-family home with ocean views atop the Fila Costeña can sell for $1 million or more, say they would be unfairly punished.
Victor Solís, a lawyer who represents nine local developments, said his clients were forced to stop construction after the municipality tightened controls last year.
“Moratorium or not, those breaking the law will continue to do so,” said Solís. “For those of us who are trying to do things right, we should be allowed to continue.”
But local resident Olivier Pérez, a member of the Legislative Assembly, asked developers to look past short-term profits: “The real question is, what kind of investor do we want to attract? The kind that comes to reap a profit and leave? Or do we want those that will give something back in return?” he asked. “Please don’t pit us against each other. Let’s work together for this place we all love.” Others agreed, shunning the idea of massive, large-scale development, even beyond a possible moratorium or zoning plan.
“Why do we insist on development in which we give up our land, and become workers and servants of other people, while they make millions? Why can’t we develop our own businesses, and land, and pass it along to our sons and daughters?” asked Georgina Morrera, a University of Costa Rica professor from Golfito, southeast of Cortés.
Municipal council members remained largely silent while berated by members of the public, who overwhelmingly argued for more controls and began chanting, “Moratoria!” during a 15-minute recess period.
By meeting’s end, the carefully worded moratorium, drafted by environmental law experts from the university, was accepted for a “10-day legal review period” by a vote of the municipal council.
Cole, meanwhile, changed his tune after hearing the public comment.
“Do I think we can do this? Yes. But truly, I believe we should go further, and repair some of the damages that have already been done,” he said.
‘Dreams Will Shatter’
Jorge Lobo agrees.
As he careened downhill the morning of the meeting from the “top of the world,” the vine-draped primary forest parted, opening up to what he called the “front lines.”
There, blood red and blond roads run like veins up the mountain sides, interspersed by broad, flat plateaus, denuded of trees and desert-like in the hot sun.
These are called planteles, or cleared, terraced home sites, often with stunning ocean views thanks to the steep gradient. Promoters advertise them online as “the perfect place to build a get-away home for top level executives or other ultra successful people that need to…recharge or decompress.”
At one site, a small sign poked in the scorched, crumbling red earth and read simply, “Lot #4, SOLD.”
Just a few hundred meters below, the Terraba River, which drains into the Terraba-Sierpe National Wetlands, one of the largest, most intact mangrove swamps in Central America, shimmered under the high sun.
“People mistakenly think that because this was once farmland, it had no value, that it was simply an enormous cleared area as we had in Guanacaste. There were always patches of forest here, and habitat,” he said.
Lobo estimated there are hundreds of new developments, some legal, others not. But as the season’s aguaceros, or downpours, approach, he said he fears extreme erosion will jeopardize not just the region’s rivers and forests, but also shatter the dreams of those who buy homes here.
“This place is simply not suited for development on the scale that we are seeing,” he said.