Arias, Enviro Groups Gather Cash for Parks

October 10, 2008

President Oscar Arias’ administration and two environmental organizations are lining up the first $50 million of what they hope will be an $80 million endowment to help preserve Costa Rica’s national parks and protected areas in perpetuity.

The parks have long suffered from underfunding and a lack of personnel.

The situation worsened last year after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled private foundations could not pay the salaries of government officials, leaving nearly 200 park guard and administration positions in the air.

The Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) has since absorbed most of those positions at the cost of further investment in protected areas.

Officials are hoping the endowment, a project Arias has named Costa Rica Forever, will allow MINAET to move ahead of the curve with its investment in the park system.

The first $50 million is to come from three sources. The government is tasked with getting $17 million from bilateral and multilateral agreements: international aid organizations, international banks and other nations, for example.

The Nature Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will find individual donors to put up another $17 million, and then the foundations themselves will put up the rest.

Representatives of both organizations said the effort is proceeding.

“We are well on our way to securing the portion of the target to come from U.S. foundations,” said Jason Cole, a senior program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Zdenka Piskulich, Costa Rican program director for the Nature Conservancy, said the foundations are in the middle of a campaign President Oscar Arias’ administration and two environmental organizations are lining up the first $50 million of what they hope will be an $80 million endowment to help preserve Costa Rica’s national parks and protected areas in perpetuity.

The parks have long suffered from underfunding and a lack of personnel.

The situation worsened last year after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled private foundations could not pay the salaries of government officials, leaving nearly 200 park guard and administration positions in the air.

The Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) has since absorbed most of those positions at the cost of further investment in protected areas.

Officials are hoping the endowment, a project Arias has named Costa Rica Forever, will allow MINAET to move ahead of the curve with its investment in the park system.

The first $50 million is to come from three sources. The government is tasked with getting $17 million from bilateral and multilateral agreements: international aid organizations, international banks and other nations, for example.

The Nature Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will find individual donors to put up another $17 million, and then the foundations themselves will put up the rest.

Representatives of both organizations said the effort is proceeding. “We are well on our way to securing the portion of the target to come from U.S. foundations,” said Jason Cole, a senior program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Zdenka Piskulich, Costa Rican program director for the Nature Conservancy, said the foundations are in the middle of a campaign to raise money from private donors.

The endowment itself will not actually be used for environmental spending, said Pedro León, a microbiologist and the director of Arias’ environmental program Peace with Nature. Instead, the interest generated from the principal will get deposited in another account to be used by MINAET’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) to help boost spending on national parks and protected areas.

“We want to raise our standards to comply with the Convention on Biological Diversity,” León said. “Fifty-million dollars is the bare minimum; $80 million will take us into the comfort zone of compliance.”

The convention is an international treaty signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and ratified by Costa Rica in 1994. It calls on nations to protect their biodiversity and ensure both the sustainable use biological resources and fair sharing of any benefits from them.

The biggest obstacle to Costa Rica’s living up to the convention, León said, is a lack of protection of its marine areas. “Because of that, Costa Rica Forever has taken on a very marine slant.”

National parks and protected areas that include parts of the ocean – such as the Las Baulas National Park on the northern Pacific coast and the Isla del Coco National Park, an island 365 miles off the Pacific coast – have historically depended on non-governmental organizations, particularly MarViva, for protection.

“Not even 1 percent of our marine territory is protected,” León said. “If MarViva were to leave the country right now, what the hell would we do?”

León said part of the endowment will include an earmark of about $8 million that will be set aside to fund ocean research. Beyond that, Costa Rica Forever representatives are still talking with SINAC to hammer out the details of just what is needed and where.

Marco Vinicio Araya, the general manager of protected areas for SINAC, said that to effectively manage Costa Rica’s 21 protected marine areas his agency needs boats, equipment, personnel, studies and management plans.

On land, Araya and SINAC face a series of threats to the much-touted national park system.

“Historically, whenever there have been budget problems, the parks are impacted because they have not been a priority,” León said. Each government creates new parks, León continued, only increasing the strain on MINAET’s budget.

Costa Rica famously has more than a quarter of its territory under some type of protected status. That is about 13,000 square kilometers. Add to that buffer zones and biological corridors that the government is trying to promote through payments to private landowners, and the challenge is great, Araya said.

Costa Rica currently has about 500 park guards to cover that area – about one guard per 26 square kilometers. Araya said he needs between 200 and 250 more guards to give the parks adequate protection.

Barro de Colorado, on the northern Caribbean coast, is a priority, Araya said. The park is threatened by poaching, illegal fishing and encroaching agriculture and cattle ranching.

La Amistad, an expansive park covering much of the Caribbean side of the Talamanca range that crosses into Panama, is also threatened by poaching.

In addition to reinforcing vigilance over these and other parks, Araya said, the government needs to face its debt with landowners whose property was expropriated for the parks.

According to Araya, Costa Rica still owes on 10 percent of its protected areas, including parts of Poás Volcano, Tenorio Volcano, Piedras Blancas and Juan Castro Blanco national parks. The outstanding debt is $150 million.

That figure does not include the controversial Las Baulas National Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where the government and landowners are fighting over the park’s boundaries. Expropriations there could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Currently, the government is budgeting $2 million a year toward those payments.

lbaxter@ticotimes.net

 

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