PUERTO VIEJO This beach town on the southern Caribbean is the most popular and prosperous face of the Talamanca region. Tourists fall in love with its genuine feel, a place still uncorrupted by industrial tourism and rampant foreign investment.
A proposed marina at the heart of Puerto Viejo has critics warning of possible environmental repercussions and damage to low-key ecotourism.
Now they are warning of yet another consequence: The disappearance of Talamanca’s other resource, the indigenous culture.
The dominant group, the Bribrí, who number around 13,000, live a way of life more in keeping with that of their ancestors. Many are unable to speak Spanish and can communicate only in their native tongue.
Timoteo Jackson, a native Bribrí leader, reckons if the marina is built, it could begin a massive erosion of the indigenous culture.
For us indigenous, this is only a bad thing, he says. Right now, we have tourists coming to see nature, conservation and the indigenous way, but this will stop if the marina comes.
The people going to the marina won’t come here. They will stay there or go elsewhere. The marina is only for millionaires and will scare away the travelers who come to enjoy nature. There will also be more drugs as more people from other countries come.
Rejecting the project could bring prosperity through jobs, Jackson expresses fears the marina may signal the start of a construction boom that could even lead to interest in indigenous lands inside the protected reserves in the region, a move he would strongly resist.
This is only the start. They will want more all the time, Jackson says.
A planning recommendation for the marina, which would be developed by Grupo Caribeño Internacional, saw the number of berths for the proposed Playa Negra marina at the north side of the town slashed from 400 to 100 but the move has failed to assuage opposition.
A number of critics say a huge influx of the moneyed classes will not only change the culture of the town but also the indigenous way of life deeper into the Talamancan jungle.
Delfina Chang de León is one. The marina is private, but we are independent, she says. The culture here will change completely. Many other cultures will come and change the indigenous populations.
The Puerto Viejo shopkeeper says such worries are rising due to a lack of transparency in the planning process. She says developers and members of the Municipality of Talamanca were less than forthright in a public meeting in February.
Talamanca, perennial occupant at the bottom of Costa Rican human development indexes and generally considered the poorest canton in the country, is home to the biggest chunk of the nation’s indigenous population, the vast majority of them Bribrí.
That theme is one Manuel León, president of the Puerto Viejo Integral Development Association, has compelled the municipality and developers to address by asking them to detail how Puerto Viejo and the greater area would benefit from the creation of a marina.
While some have argued the development would provide an economic boost and create jobs, Leon says few locally would prosper.
For the town, for the indigenous I asked, What are the benefits for the town?’ Is there going to be a university, a hospital?… They don’t answer, Leon says.
Willis Rankin, president of the Talamanca Association for Ecotourism and Conservation, believes locals will play no part.
I am totally against this. There are environmental and economic impacts and also possible cultural effects, he says. The problem is that it will be a totally different place. There will be no local participation in the marina either directly or indirectly.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, have urged extreme caution over the plans. They say already severely endangered coral reefs are under threat as well as a string of other forms of marine life, including dolphins. Just 9% of the coral remains, according to one 2004 estimate, but researchers are said to have detected the possibility for regeneration.
One of the businessmen behind the project, Jan Kalina, rejects those claims, saying the coral died long ago.
The zone was coral 50 years ago, but now it is dead rock, he told La Nación. The town itself has contaminated it.
The municipality denied the proposal has already received the thumbs up from officials, despite claims by Kalina that he had continually received positive noises from those within the authority.
After first being declared of interest by the municipality in 1999, the plan recently passed the preliminary consultation phase governed by the Inter-Institutional Commission on Marinas and Tourist Docks (CIMAT).
The Tico Times tried to contact local mayor Rugeli Morales for further comment this week, but an assistant said he was unavailable.
Despite the continuing ambiguity surrounding the dimensions of the plans, opponents have vowed to fight on. Puerto Viejo is normally a laid-back place, though a specially made anti-marina campaign leaflet belies the reputation, stirring up a renewed sense of urgency. Can we stop this project? the leaflet asks. Yes, we can, and we must stop this project now, as there are still no construction permits.