San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Court Orders Gov’t to Grab Playa Grande Land

Costa Rica’s highest court has ordered the Environment and Energy Ministry to begin expropriating privately owned property “immediately” inside Las Baulas National Marine Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court warned in its ruling that if Environment Minister Roberto Dobles does not carry out the ruling, he could face sanctions.

The ministry has been criticized for stalling on the expropriation orders.

Earlier this year, the environmental group Leatherback Trust cancelled a 2004 agreement with the ministry to help fund the expropriations, which could cost more than $800 million. The group had already reportedly raised at least $8 million.

In a strongly worded letter, the organization’s president, James Spotila, accused the ministry of dragging its feet.

The ministry and landowners are at odds over the value of the property, with government appraisals ranging from $50 per square meter up to $800, while landowners are demanding nothing less than $1,200 (TT, Oct. 19).

The park, just north of Tamarindo, was created by decree in 1991 and then by law in 1995. However, a dispute over the interpretation of the language of the law led to drawn-out legal battles between the property owners, who believe the park includes only the beach and marine territory, and environmentalists, who insist it includes a terrestrial portion.

In a binding 2005 ruling, the Attorney General’s Office sided with the environmentalists, declaring the land owned by the mostly foreign investors is part of the national park and requiring it be expropriated.

The park is of particular importance to the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, whose numbers have plummeted more than 90% during the past 20 years (TT, April 13, 2007).

Playa Grande ranks as the most important nesting beach in Costa Rica and one of the five most important in the world.

Randall Arauz, of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), an environmental group that has long been fighting for the expropriations, said the court’s recent ruling is encouraging.

“At least there is one government institution we can go to,” he said.

When asked about how the government could pay for the expropriations, Arauz said he believed land values should be appraised at their worth when the park was created.

“Anyone who bought after 1991 did so knowing that it was a national park. The land already had restrictions,” he said.

Dobles could not be reached for comment because he was in the United States this week, said an environment ministry spokesman.


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