Government officials over the last three years have filed 115 complaints alleging environmental illegalities along the southern Pacific Fila Costeña coastal mountain range, the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) announced this week.
Several of those complaints target local government and local officials, including the mayor of the OsaMunicipality.
Ministry heads announced these numbers at a press conference Tuesday where they defended their handling of what the University of Costa Rica recently called “one of the most worrying environmental catastrophes our country has experienced in recent years.”
The mountain range, said to be the last tropical humid forest on Central America’s Pacific coast, has been besieged by development projects targeting mostly U.S. customers.
Developers have pushed high into the steep mountainside in search of prime ocean views.
Researchers and environmentalists have decried the uncontrolled construction, saying the Fila Costeña is suffering from deforestation and sediment from the stripped land is killing coral reefs and wetlands below.
“Its not like the ministry is just realizing there is a problem,” said Environment Minister Roberto Dobles. “The ministry has been acting in a very decisive manner since 2006 by way of the legal mechanisms at hand – the Environmental Tribunal and the closure of projects and … filing complaints with the prosecutor’s office.”
Thirty-five of the 115 cases are luxury homes and hotel projects that were caught up in sweeping investigations last month by the Environmental Tribunal, an administrative court of MINAET.
MINAET officials filed the other 80 complaints either with the Environmental Tribunal or with the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, which is a local, specialized state prosecutor’s office.
The complaints allege unpermitted roads and construction, illegal logging and unauthorized extraction of rock and sand from rivers, among other infractions.
“Many of the activities that are being carried out are totally illegal. People haven’t made any effort to obtain any of their permits,” said Etilma Morales, the director of the Osa Conservation Area, the regional MINAET branch.
“As of seven years ago, we have believed that the area can be developed only if it has adequate territorial organization, and for that, you need a zoning plan,” she added.
For more than three years, the University of Costa Rica’s Sustainable Urban Development Program (PRODUS) has been working with the Osa municipality to draft a zoning plan for the coast and another for the interior of the canton. The Nature Conservancy has been funding the project.
The Osa municipality, however, recently voted to archive the drafted zoning plan, which is in its final stages.
The municipal council based its decision on the interpretation of a ruling by the Comptroller General’s Office that said private parties with interests in a region, such as developers, cannot carry out or fund the drafting of a zoning plan, to avoid a conflict of interest.
The Environment Ministry believes the ruling does not apply in the case of Osa and has appealed the council’s ruling. The University of Costa Rica has also requested the comptroller look at the case specifically, Morales said.
Dobles painted the situation as one more way that the municipality of Osa is blocking the ministry’s attempts to bring order to the region and protect the environment, adding that the local government “does not have the same vision” as the MINAET.
Osa Mayor Alberto Cole, said this week that while his government is in favor of a zoning plan, and will continue working on one even if it has to fund it itself, he agrees that he does not share MINAET’s vision.
“In the ministry, there are people who are totally for conservation. Here, we are environmentalists but thoughtful environmentalists,” he said. “The only productive activity we have in the canton is development. We have more than 500 unemployed families here.”
Cole said he believes the canton and its citizens are “better off with construction,
including luxury homes, than with pastures,” insisting that the projects in the Fila Costaña are being built on former pastureland and not forests.
Last year construction permits increased by more than 200 percent, and during the recent site inspections, the Environmental Tribunal said it discovered projects that invaded forested areas, and others that had municipal construction permits but did not have environmental viability permits from MINAET’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA).
National law requires any construction project to first have its SETENA permits before it can receive municipal construction permits.
Cole denied the charges and asked for proof.
“The municipality awards permits if, and only if, a project has its environmental viability permit,” he said.
Dobles and Morales said Cole and his municipality are the subject of multiple complaints filed by Morales’ office, including involvement in a large, unpermitted construction project discovered in the midst of the Sierpe-Terraba Wetlands, a protected area.
“What we need is that one (of the cases) is judged,” Morales told The Tico Times. “If we can get a mayor convicted in one of these cases, this will give us the power to say ‘the next time, you go to jail.’”
Cole denied any wrongdoing. He acknowledged there was one complaint against him but said it was for road repairs.
Asked about construction in wetlands, he said he had built a school for a community in the Sierpe-Terraba Wetlands.
“The ministry is trying to wash their hands and blame the municipality,” he said.
Cole also alleged that the real environmental damage in the region is not from construction but from other factors.
The rivers Barú and Terraba, which have their headwaters in the Talamanca range further inland, pass through the southern city of Pérez Zeledon and the agricultural region of Buenos Aires before spilling into the Pacific at the north and south ends of the Fila Costeña, respectively.
Along the way, Cole said, they catch industrial and agricultural runoff that is the real killer of coastal corals.
Morales acknowledged the Environment Ministry has yet to conduct an overall study of how the Fila Costeña and the ecosystems below have been damaged environmentally but added, “We think now is the time we can start.”