The year began with one of the worst natural disasters in almost two decades.
A 6.2 magnitude earthquake – that became known as the “Cinchona earthquake” – rocked the northern zone of Costa Rica’s Central Valley and stunned a nation.
Workers and residents felt shocks across San José and immediately turned their attention to the news. When the dust settled, dozens were dead and hundreds of homes had collapsed.
The year was replete with turbulence.
The 2009 Cinchona earthquake was a fitting symbol for a year characterized by environmental shakes, collapses and dustups.
Government officials strived to shake off corruption charges, while environmentalists squared off against developers.
In March, then-Environment Minister Roberto Dobles was forced to resign after it was revealed that his relatives might have benefited from a valuable concession that he approved. Dobles’ uncle, Jorge Dobles, was listed as vice president of Agricultura Mecanizada Chapernal S.A, a company that the former environment minister approved to extract sand and gravel from the AranjuezRiver, near the central Pacific coast.
Dobles defended his actions, however, citing technicalities in Costa Rica’s mining code and blaming bureaucracy and coincidence for the concession’s approval.
Jorge Rodríguez, then-vice minister, took over for Dobles to serve as interim minister and inherited an agenda full of environmental controversies.
In Sardinal de Guanacaste, northwest of San José, residents fought for water rights and defended the Sardinal aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Sardinal and neighboring communities. Local alliances claim that more than 20 development companies are seeking access to the aquifer in order to stream water to their housing complexes and hotels.
The Costa Rican government has proposed building a second aqueduct for developers along the coastline, but local groups – such as the Committee for the Defense and Development of Sardinal – filed injunctions with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) and halted its construction.
In Matapalo de Sardinal, Guanacaste, a 701-room mega-resort, Hotel Riu, which opened its doors in late October, was charged with destroying mangrove trees that were within the 50-meter public zone, an act forbidden by Costa Rican law. An inspection by the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), confirmed that thousands of square meters of vegetation were illegally removed from the shoreline in front of Hotel Riu.
The Confraternidad Guanacasteca, a Sardinal-based environmental group, claims to have eyewitness accounts and photos of crews working late at night to remove the trees. The hotel is now also facing an injunction before the Sala IV.
In Playa Grande, also in Guanacaste, homeowners and builders battled to maintain a strip of land near the beach that environmentalists claim is within the boundaries of the Las Baulas National Marine Park. Developers believe that the park extends out to sea and the existing and proposed buildings are nowhere near the park’s limits.
The issue heated up when developers paired with the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) to propose a bill this year that would declare the land a mixed national wildlife refuge and allow construction near the beach. Environmentalists believe this move would weaken the national park system by possibly placing all of the nation’s national parks and protected areas on a slippery slope, liable to be downgraded whenever their restrictions clash with economic interests.
Developers claim they are just exercising their rights on land that belonged to them before the Las BaulasNationalMarine Park was established in 1995.
And, in the story that won’t disappear, the Sala IV moved closer to resolving at least some of the 57 complaints filed against the Las Crucitas gold mine this year.
The high court in November held a two-day hearing during which government officials, mine representatives, local residents and environmentalists presented their arguments for and against the controversial open-pit mine.
Parties opposed to the mine believe the mine would destroy the property’s natural forest on which the highly endangered Great Green Macaw depends, as well ascontaminate the nearby San Juan River,
which draws the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Proponents believe the mine would offer an economic boost to a community whose impoverished population has been scraping by for decades.
The judges don’t have a timeline for the resolution, but court officials say they expect to start seeing decisions as early as January.
The mine represents one of Costa Rica’s longest ongoing controversies, dating back to and spanning more than five Costa Rican governments. And, in a year during which environmental news was dominated by conflicts and controversies, it is just one more sign of the times.