For nearly four decades, Mario Boza has worked to protect Costa Rica’s natural treasures.
Recently, however, the man regarded as the “father of the national parks system” has been at the center of an environmental controversy that has now landed in the courts.
The conflict began last year, when environmental advocacy group Asociación Conservacionista Yiski began accusing Boza, via its e-mail list and declarations in the news media, of seeking to privatize the country’s national parks and protected areas.
It is a claim Boza adamantly denies. He maintains that his proposal, which was only a draft of a proposed bill, sought to address the National System of Conservation Areas’ (SINAC) chronic funding problems by giving the park system greater budget autonomy.
Last September, Boza filed defamation suit against Yiski and its president María Elena Fournier, seeking ¢100 million ($190,000) in damages. Boza accuses Yiski and Fournier of mounting a systematic campaign to discredit him and his achievements in promoting conservation. Last month, he filed another defamation suit against the University of Costa Rica and its TV station, Canal 15, which aired a program criticizing his proposal. (See story on Page 5.)
Boza has a long record of preserving wild places. Twice he served as environment vice minister. In 1983, he was honored by U.S. President Ronald Reagan at a White House ceremony after winning the $50,000 J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize.He is currently the Costa Rican director of the Leatherback Trust, a non-profit foundation dedicated to protecting turtles from extinction.
He spoke this week to The Tico Times. Here are some excerpts:
TT: What prompted you to propose a reform to SINAC? Please explain the proposal.
MB: I am very worried about the lack of adequate resources for national parks. This is not a new problem. For years it has been reported in the press and been the subject of studies.
In early 2006, I prepared a draft of a bill reforming the national parks law that proposed transforming SINAC into a state-owned sociedad anónima (a corporation), which would have made it possible for the institution to retain and manage the revenues it generates from park fees. There are many different types of administrative entities in the Costa Rican government of which sociedad anónima is just one. This is nothing new. There are 22 state-owned sociedades anónimas.
I circulated the draft to acquaintances to get feedback on how to improve upon it. Someone sent it to those (environmental) groups. Suddenly, I was being attacked and accused of trying to privatize the national parks, something that is completely false.
In December of that year, the government launched its Peace with Nature initiative and created working groups to analyze the main environmental challenges. I was part of the protected areas group. Based on the feedback I received on the original draft – and not the attacks – I then recommended turning SINAC into a (highly autonomous body) instead of a sociedad anónima. I presented the proposal to Peace with Nature and SINAC director Ronald Vargas. Nothing happened after that.
What is your response to allegations that your proposals aim to privatize the national parks?
False! Never! The drafts explicitly state that SINAC would be under the control of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) with the environment minister as the head of its board of directors. It says nothing about privatization. That’s something they made up.
I am a regular citizen. Can I really privatize the national parks? It’s absurd. I can present ideas to the authorities. Some of my ideas will be accepted, others rejected, and some will simply be shelved, just like this one. No one can sell the national parks because they are national patrimony and part of the public domain. There are court rulings on the matter and 19 laws and international conventions in effect that prohibit this. Still, the lies and attacks have continued.
Why do you think you’re being accused of promoting privatization when your proposals state something else?
They (the critics) clearly didn’t read. Their intent is to damage my reputation. That’s why I’ve had to defend myself. Sometimes in life you make enemies. I’ve worked all my life to improve the situation of the national parks. I continue doing it and will continue doing it. If you have a cause in life, you continue with that cause even when there are personal attacks. There will always be enemies, regardless of what you do.
How have these allegations affected you?
They have affected me a great deal. People start believing things are true once they are repeated over and over again. These are systemic attacks, month after month. I have had close friends ask me if I really believe that privatizing the parks is a good idea.
What prompted you to sue these groups for defamation?
The attacks against me, in addition to being untrue, were carried out through email addressed to undisclosed recipients.
This means that there is no way of knowing how many people received them and no way of responding to all of them.
The worst part is I didn’t have the opportunity to respond. I was subjected to an attack that I could not defend myself from. These were not just attacks, but also very personal insults. I was called, among other things, a thief, pseudo-ecologist and member of the “green mafia.” These are systematic attacks against me that reach thousands of people. I had to make use of the rights I do have.
If I do win some money from the suits, I promise to donate it to the conservation areas. I don’t plan to make one cent off of this. All I want is for them to tell to the truth. These people need to be held accountable.
What would it take for you to drop the suit?
When they apologize and stop insulting me, I will drop the suit. I have asked them to tell the truth, but they have so far refused. As a citizen, I should be open to criticism, but not insults. I have constitutional rights that have been trampled.
Now they say I’m persecuting them and threatening their freedom of expression. What about my right not to be publicly insulted? If they speak the truth and admit I’m not trying to privatize the parks, this ends.
‘Very Personal Insults’
Has Mario Boza been libeled? Here is a list, compiled and provided by Boza, of the names people have called him and some of the things they have accused him of doing:
Gravedigger of protected wildlife areas
That I’m looking to ruin, malign, or damage the national parks.
That I’ve been paid by multi-million dollar consultancies to privatize the national parks.
That I’m promoting the weakening of national institutions.
That my proposal is part of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States.
That I’m hijacking water resources.
That my project violates the constitution.
That my proposal will strengthen the Armed Forces.
That my project is a slap in the face, an insult to an unassuming and humble Costa Rican public.
That this project is traitorous to the nation.
That this project is a neo-liberal absurdity.
That I have hijacked protected wildlife areas.
That the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) paid me to privatize the national parks.
That I’m trying to take possession of 25 percent of Costa Rica (territories).
That my project is lustful, harmful, mind-boggling and shameful.
That I’m trying to invade or take-over of the Caja, AyA and ICE.