On a concrete wall across from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry in downtown San José is a message: “Leave nature, and us, in peace.”
This spray-painted graffiti, apparently directed to the Arias administration, has been there since protestors wielding megaphones, drums and a chainsaw descended on the ministry in October to oppose an open-pit gold mine and a presidential decree allowing the mining company to clear nearly 200 hectares of forest.
Distrust and dislike increasingly flared up between the environmental movement and the Arias administration this year, with the debate around the government’s treatment of nature growing increasingly heated.
However, the green camp’s shouts were joined by critical voices across a broad spectrum that included universities, the tourism industry and the government itself.
The president’s much-hyped environmental program, Peace with Nature, was at work behind the scenes trying to improve energy efficiency in public institutions and businesses, update environmental education in public schools, push Costa Rica toward carbon neutrality and garner funding for national parks and protected areas through a proposed $50 million to $80 million endowment.
But progress there was overshadowed by what many decried as contradictions between Arias’ pro-environment speeches and his government’s policies and actions.
In June, academics, researchers, opposition politicians and environmentalists released a “Manifesto in Defense of Nature,” a document intended to turn international attention to the administration’s “contradiction” and “lack of national policy to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation” in Costa Rica.
The explosion of tourism development along the Pacific coast, and the dearth of planning, infrastructure and control, dogged the Arias administration throughout the year.
A report from the Comptroller General in May found that the government has been unable to control coastal development. “There has not been a balance between the development of infrastructure on the national coastal areas and the protection of the environment, which puts the natural resources, the biodiversity and ecosystems at risk.”
Then, a report from the Costa Rican Hotel Association warned that the country’s image as an ecotourism hotspot is threatened by unrestricted construction, a lack of clear rules and planning, and inadequate infrastructure.
The simmering social conflict underlying the development problems came to a boil in the town of Sardinal, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, when locals clashed with police as they tried to block the construction of a pipeline that would send water from their aquifer to the coastal tourist towns of Ocotal, Playas del Coco and Playa Hermosa, a few kilometers away.
Booming construction has sapped the local water sources for those towns, leading to shortages and no availability for further construction. A group of developers quietly signed an agreement with the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) to build the $8 million pipeline and hand it over to the government once finished.
Following the clashes and national protests, the municipality ordered the project suspended, as did the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV).
The nation’s ombudswoman slammed the project, saying AyA put business interests before the public good. A report by the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and another state water agency found the project lacked studies showing the demand from the pipeline was sustainable, and wouldn’t collapse the water table.
After its initial studies were trashed in the press and by the ombudswoman, the Environment Ministry and AyA contracted a new study, released in November, that found the Sardinal aquifer had enough water to sustain all of Guanacaste. The same week, the Comptroller General’s Office criticized AyA’s overall handling of water in the region.
The Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) made an attempt to get coastal development in line by publishing a decree in April that laid down basic zoning regulations, such as building height and population density limits, for Guanacaste’s coast. The ICT promised a second decree for the Central Pacific by September, but by mid-December, it had yet to be published.
The Guanacaste decree came under fire from sustainable growth activists, and a group of environmental experts and advisers released a scathing report saying the regulations allowed for density similar to that of Beijing and offered no environmental safeguards.
Gold Mines & Green Macaws
But the Arias administration took the most heat this year for its support of an open-pit gold mine called Las Crucitas, located three kilometers from the San Juan River, the natural border with Nicaragua. In April, Arias announced he was repealing the moratorium on open-pit metal mining that his predecessor, former president Abel Pacheco, had decreed in 2002.
The same day, he gave the Las Crucitas project, which had been held up by environmental appeals, the go-ahead.
Then in October, Arias and Environment Minister Roberto Dobles, issued a decree declaring the Las Crucitas project “of national convenience and public interest,” which excluded it from environmental laws prohibiting logging. The decree explicitly authorized the mining firm to clear-cut nearly 200 hectares of forest, including the endangered mountain almond, the primary habitat and food source for the critically endangered great green macaw.
The Sala IV had ruled the previous month to stop any harvesting of the almond tree and froze the logging within days after an injunction was filed. The Chief Prosecutor’s Office then opened a criminal investigation into whether the president and environment minister had broken the law with the decree.
In late November, Pedro León, the director of Arias’ own Peace with Nature program issued a statement that, while declining to comment on the Las Crucitas case, recommended the mining moratorium be reinstated and a national discussion initated on the value of precious metal mining.
He also called for a revision of Costa Rica’s “obsolete” mining regulations.
The government took heat from both sides in another ongoing battle, this one over the Las Baulas Marine Park at Guanacaste’s Playa Grande, a preserve intended to protect the critically endangered leatherback turtle.
The government is facing millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in expropriation payments after the Government Attorney’s Office in 2005 interpreted the unclear legislation creating the park to include 125 meters of inland property.
The Sala IV in May ordered the Arias administration to immediately proceed with expropriations, which it had been putting off. Three bills that would have redrawn the park borders to exclude the land were rejected in a Legislative Assembly committee, but lawmakers said they planned to write new legislation that would allow the property owners to keep their land, but apply strict development regulations.