San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gov’t: Punta Cacique ‘of Nat’l Convenience’

Punta Cacique, a nearly $1 billion resort planned for the northwestern Pacific coast, was quietly decreed “of national convenience” last month by President Oscar Arias, a status that excludes the project from some environmental regulations and has sparked fears of massive logging.

Jorge Cornick, the in-country representative of the company developing the resort, Revolution Places, said developers requested the decree to make the project more attractive to investors and to help get financing.

“This decree is a very important endorsement of the project by the government, which is very important for us and our investors,” Cornick said.

|Gadi Amit, an activist who lives not far from the picturesque point where the development is planned, however, believes that Revolution Places has been given the green light to cut down trees currently covering much of the property.

“My concern is that they want to blow away all that forest,” he said. “Almost the entire peninsula is covered in forest.”

Cornick acknowledged that some trees will be felled, but insisted only “a modest amount” will be cut.

Emel Rodríguez, the director of the Tempisque Conservation Area, a regional branch of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), told The Tico Times that only 12 hectares, or about 29 acres, of forest will come down.

The decree, signed also by Environment Minister Roberto Dobles and Tourism Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides, was published Oct. 8 but has not been publicly announced by the government and is not mentioned on Revolution Place’s Web site.

It preceded a similar but much more controversial decree published Oct. 17, declaring the Las Crucitas open-pit gold mine near the Nicaraguan border “of national convenience and public interest” (TT, Oct. 24).

Declaring a project of national convenience allows developers to ignore a section of Costa Rica’s environment law that prohibits cutting trees on any land that is technically forest.

In the case of the gold mine, known as Las Crucitas, developers were authorized to cut 191 hectares, or about 472 acres, of forest, including the endangered mountain almond tree – the principal habitat for the endangered great green macaw.

The decree, which triggered intense protests, was almost immediately suspended by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), and Arias and Dobles are now the subject of a criminal investigation by the prosecutor’s office for potentially issuing a decree that goes against the country’s laws.

“There is no open mining planned (for Punta Cacique),” said Cornick with a laugh. “It is nothing compared to that.”

The Punta Cacique project was launched on a promise of cutting edge environmental protection and sustainable use. At a press conference in August 2007, Silicon Valley tycoon Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, and founder of Revolution Places, stood beside Arias and said the project would “define a new generation of resort development” (TT, Aug. 10, 2007).

The project’s first environment impact study, however, was rejected last year for legal and environmental problems. A second study was then approved in June. The project has since been pushed back for at least a year due to the current global financial worries (TT, Sept. 5).

Spread over 650 hectares just south of Guanacaste’s Playa Hermosa, the Punta Cacique resort would feature two hotels, 300 homes, a small village with stores and restaurants, an equestrian center, a tennis center and an 18-hole golf course.

The full-color plan of Punta Cacique filed with the Environment Ministry shows a network of roads and houses covering much of Punta Cacique, a peninsula that currently is covered in trees.

The Tico Times asked Cornick last week how much of the property is officially designated forest – a classification based on the number of trees per hectare. He said he would request the information from his  lawyers, but by press time this week had yetto provide the information.

“A lot of what you see is secondary growth. It’s not primary forest,” Cornick said, noting that the property was formerly used as cattle pasture. “Yes, some of it has to be removed for the project to go on. But the project’s footprint is pretty light. No more than 30 percent of the land (will be built on), and it’s going to be less than that. We are taking this additional time to redesign.”

According to the project’s environmental impact study, developers have promised to identify which areas will need to be cut and catalogue all trees by their species for those areas. Trees belonging to endangered species will be specially marked and “if their cutting is inevitable, they will be cloned … and compensated for by planting 50 more for every one that is cut.”

Cornick said the company has committed to several conservation projects, including planting a total of 1 million trees, conserving biological corridors for area wildlife and donating land strategic to the conservation of the nearby aquifer where they will initially get their water, the Playa Panamá aquifer.

But these promises do little to placate critics of the project. Amit and others have filed various appeals trying to overturn the environmental approval by MINAET, saying water demand for the homes and the golf course would deplete the Playa Panamá aquifer – a charge developers deny.

It also remains unclear how the project’s environmental impact study was approved in June if it included plans to cut down forested areas, which is against environmental laws unless the project had been decreed “of national convenience,” which did not come until October.

Cornick said nobody from Revolution Places spoke with the president or anyone from his administration directly about the decree.

Dobles and his vice minister, Jorge Rodríguez, referred Tico Times requests for comment to Emel Rodríguez, of the Tempisque Conservation Area, who approved the request for the decree.

“This is a project with a very small impact. Second, it actively supports protected areas,” Rodríguez said. The planting of 1 million trees, the funding of an environmental education program and the donation of the land to protect the aquifer persuaded him to approve the decree, he said.However, when it came to logging, the developers and the Environment Ministry had trouble reaching an agreement.

“We were very strict on that because they wanted to take advantage of the national convenience decree to cut (down trees), and we said no,” Rodríguez said.

While acknowledging that about 12 hectares of dry tropical forest, a disappearing ecosystem in Central America, will be felled according to their agreement, the Environment Ministry forced the developers to change their plans three times to conserve another 68 hectares of forest as a private nature reserve.

Currently, approximately 150,000 hectares (about 370,000 acres) of tropical dry forest are within officially protected areas in Guanacaste.


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