A little more than a year ago, President Oscar Arias and U.S. billionaire Steve Case stood side by side and announced ambitious plans for an $800 million, eco-friendly, socially responsible mega-resort.
Case, one of the co-founders of America Online (AOL), said the project, known as Punta Cacique for the northwestern coastal bluff where it is to be built, would “define a new generation of resort development.”
This week, as environmentalists from the area called the project unsustainable and demanded an investigation, a spokesman for the project said it is being pushed back at least a year for financial reasons.
“The design is in place. The partners and the commitment are there. It’s just that the market is not right. It’s melting,” said Jorge Cornick, a spokesman for Case’s Revolution Places, which is developing the project.
“The international economy is going through a really bad time. We had this subprime crisis, and now a prime crisis is coming up. The real estate market is under a lot of stress,” he said. “Getting to the point where you have to sell properties while the market is in turmoil is not good for the financial health of the project.”
Cornick also acknowledged that, with rising petroleum and construction costs, the development is now likely to cost “at the very minimum” the original $800 million and likely more.
‘Golf Course a Sin’
But as Cornick focused on financial concerns, the development has been accused of betraying the environmental and social values it purports to champion.
Gadi Amit, of the Guanacaste Brotherhood, a sustainable development organization in the northwest province of Guanacaste, has filed a complaint with the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), alleging illegal logging and unsustainable water demand.
The Cacique project, spread out over 250 hectares of mostly forested land just south of Guanacaste’s Playa Hermosa, is to feature two hotels – a One&Only luxury resort and a Miraval destination spa – each with more than 200 rooms.
In addition, the project is to include 300 homes, a small village with stores and restaurants, an equestrian center and a tennis center branded by former tennis stars Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi.
But what has drawn the most criticism is a proposed golf course. Originally set at 18 holes, it has since been scaled back to nine, Cornick said this week.
That makes no difference to Amit, who cites lack of sufficient water availability. “A golf course is a sin. … It’s not sustainable development.”
In neighboring Playa Hermosa, residents have suffered water rationing in recent years as an explosion of development around the popular beach town has pushed the local water supply, fed by an aquifer in Playa Panamá, to the limit.
Last year, the municipal government of Carrillo, the canton that encompasses Playa Hermosa and Punta Cacique, called on Arias to declare a national emergency because “the lack of water is causing the suspension of construction permits and will consequently affect the economy of our country.”
The issue flared up again earlier this year when residents of Sardinal, a small inland town just south of Cacique, violently protested the construction of a pipeline that would draw water from their aquifer to feed coastal development (TT, May 23).
That project was put on hold after a series of documents surfaced suggesting the project lacked permits and proper studies that could show the aquifer could sustain the additional demand.
Cornick defends the golf course, saying it is to be irrigated with recycled and treated wastewater from the hotels and homes.
“Rainfall, water in drains, what’s used washing dishes – all the water is treated inside the project, pumped up and reused,” he said.
“Some goes to the golf course, and whatever is cleaned and not needed is then discharged.”
Groundwater Then Wastewater
However, records kept by the MINAET’s water department show that developers have a concession to use nearly half their groundwater supply for irrigation.
Cornick acknowledged the development would use the water to irrigate the golf course initially.
“That would be a temporary use,” he said, explaining that until the development gets built up and people begin producing enough wastewater, the groundwater will be necessary.
Currently, the Cacique developers have a concession to draw 57 liters per second of water from three wells in the Playa Panamá aquifer. All are registered to the corporation Sociedad de Usuarios de Agua de Cacique del Mar, and are under a concession for human consumption and tourism development.
Those concessions expire at the end of the year, Cornick confirmed, and the developers have submitted requests to renew them. However, only two concessions, which are now requested through a corporation called Sistemas de Aguas San Pedro, would be for human consumption and tourism.
The third concession, now through a corporation called San Estanislao de Kostka SRL, is for 25 liters per second to be used for irrigation.
To put that in perspective, the community of Playa Hermosa, which includes hotels and residences connected to the public aqueduct, uses approximately nine liters per second, according to the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA).
Amit believes that if Cacique were to use all the water allowed under its concession, it would deplete the Playa Panamá aquifer. He bases his concerns on a 2007 master’s degree thesis, which concluded that the Panamá aquifer has a maximum sustainable availability of 115 liters per second.
That aquifer feeds Playa Hermosa, Playa Panamá, Playas del Coco and the southern part of the PapagayoPeninsula tourism area, home to several large, high-end resorts.
“According to MINAET’s latest information, the concessions were given because the aquifer can sustain that level of use,” Cornick responded. “Absolutely, basic human consumption needs come before anything else. You’re not going to hear any argument from us saying first the hotel. The people come first.”
The problem in the area is not a lack of water in the aquifer, he said, but a lack of infrastructure.
“Were (the aquifer) to be overexploited, we would be committing suicide,” he said. “If you don’t believe that we are good guys with good environmental values, I hope you believe we are good businessmen and want to make a lot of money out of this. For that, there needs to be water for the next 100 years. It is in our interest that the aquifers are well protected.”
Developers also have three wells on a farm in Sardinal that the company won’t begin thinking about using until the second phase of the project, Cornick said.
The first phase, he said, would involve the construction of the One&Only hotel andabout a third of the residences.
“For that, the water flow coming out of (Playa) Panamá is plenty,” he said. “Phase 2 is far head in the future. There are so many things happening right now, we cannot speculate on how exactly Phase 2 is going to be supplied.”
Tree By Tree
Besides accusing Cacique of depleting water, Amit accuses the project of thinning trees and eliminating undergrowth to make forested areas look more like former pasture in order to get MINAET’s permission to clear the land. Developers have already cut trees to clear way for the golf course, Amit said.
Cornick denied those charges.
“There is a tree-by-tree inventory, everything rare, endangered and under pro-tection is marked and labeled untouchable,” he said.
Cornick said the project’s footprint will cover only 30 percent of the property, or 75 hectares (185 acres). While acknowledging that some trees will be cut, he declined to estimate how many and insisted that they would be downed on a “tree-by-tree basis” with direct involvement from MINAET.
These environmental criticisms are not the first the project has faced. Cacique’s first environmental impact study – a mandatory analysis that must be approved by MINAET’s National Technical Secretariat (SETENA) before construction permits can be applied for – was rejected last year.
The SETENA resolution listed 14 technical concerns, including water usage, a lack of community outreach and a lack of protection for mammals and ecosystems on the property.
“The prior considerations put in doubt the environmental sustainability of the project,” the resolution read.
However, a revised study appears to have been approved, and complaints registered by Amit and others before SETENA and MINAET Minister Roberto Dobles have been rejected.
MINAET’s Environmental Tribunal, where Amit filed his most recent complaint, says it plans to investigate the case, but an overloaded schedule has forced the agency to delay an on-site inspection.
Cornick insisted the concerns are unfounded.
“(Punta Cacique) has to be done in a way that is both respectful of the environment and compatible with the sustainable use of resources. Revolution (Places) is absolutely committed to seeing this through.”