Second in a four-part series on Presidential Candidates’ Positions on the Issues
The environment is popular in the presidential race, but only as an aside. Candidate messages have been dominated by security, and most Costa Ricans consider safety a top priority.
It has been a relatively small but vociferous group – made up mostly of people who are close to the environmental movement – that has expressed much concern about the country’s natural habitat in the upcoming elections. But while drug trafficking, violence and robberies are garnering much of the attention in the race for the Feb. 7 presidential election, some of the leading candidates have signaled the importance of green issues, keeping recognized environmental insiders within arm’s reach in their campaigns.
Laura Chinchilla, of the National Liberation Party (PLN), chose Alfio Piva as one of her vice presidential running mates (Costa Rica’s executive branch has room for two vice presidents). Piva is a biologist by profession and a former director of the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a hub for conservation, biological and ecological research in Heredia, north of San José.
In August, the National University (UNA) named Piva a professor emeritus, in part for founding UNA’s school of veterinary medicine.
Piva has collaborated on many of the country’s environmental reports, including Grúas II, an in-depth analysis of Costa Rica’s conservation needs.
Libertarian Movement Party (ML) candidate Otto Guevara named Lorena San Román, who holds a Master of Science degree, as one of his running mates and has directed several ecological research centers in Central America, including one at the UNA. She has studied forestry sciences and agronomy and completed graduate work in sustainable development.
Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís’ green companion couldn’t get any closer. He married her.
Shirley Sánchez is an environmental lawyer whose fascination with the natural world started at an early age, when her uncle took her on hikes as a little girl through the mountains of San Isidrio de El General, in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone. She has been active in reversing once-alarming deforestation rates in Costa Rica and has pushed for more environmental laws and regulation along the country’s coastline. Her husband, the left-leaning party’s founder who narrowly lost to President Oscar Arias in the 2006 election, proposes implementing a ministry of the sea.
Commenting at a recent event at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center (CEDARENA), Solís turned to his wife, smiled and offered, “If I didn’t consider the environment an important issue, there would be a divorce in my house.”
The top three candidates have yet to refine their environmental platforms as much as they have detailed their security plans. But the basis for their environmental policies is evident. Even Social Christian Unity Party (Unidad) candidate Luis Fishman, an environmental outsider in comparison, has chimed in on certain ecological issues, albeit vaguely.
The next president will inherit a stiff challenge and ambitious goal set by the Arias administration: carbon neutrality by 2021. Some have argued that this target can’t be met. And while it may be easy for a 2010 presidential candidate to respond with a firm “yes, we can” when confronting an issue that won’t be fully measured for more than a decade, the stronger candidates, it seems, at least recognize the challenge ahead.
Chinchilla knows that transportation is the country’s largest carbon emitter. She supports investing in an electric rail system, a project that the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) had well under way until its minister, Karla González, resigned late last year and Arias sidelined the process because of budgetary concerns.
Her plan promises incentives for hybrid transport, although she did not say from where those incentives would come, and she has promised to “discourage dirty private transportation.” She stopped short of announcing a mandatory carbon tax or specific legislation that would guarantee a low emissions economy.
Chinchilla proposes creating a CO2 neutral certificate for all products that leave the country, believing such a program would serve as “stimulation for national products on an international market.”
Right-wing candidate Guevara is on board with an electric transport future and, in a recent interview, he came close to announcing a vehicle tax that would spark a hybrid and electric car market.
“It’s something to consider, and it would take us in the direction of mass electric transit,” he said, adding that he supports MOPT’s plan for an electric train and he aims for “massive interurban transit” to help ease greenhouse gas emissions.
Guevara’s party backs a bill that would provide tax breaks for motorists who own electric or hybrid cars.
In order to help finance reforestation, Guevara said he would “look for funds outside of the country to expand the Payment for Environmental Services program,” referring to a successful, internal carbon taxing program that has helped reforest Costa Rica. While the Chinchilla camp is hesitant about auctioning off public land, Guevara hinted that he would be in favor of expanding private management of conservation areas to ease state pressures.
“Private reserves can help consolidate the national parks and ease the debt that they have accumulated,” he remarked.
Solís did not sit down with The Tico Times, as did several of his rival candidates. His “Plan del Gobierno” supports more rail transit, but Solís criticizes MOPT for privatizing public works projects. He cited the San José-Caldera highway, a privately run project that has stirred environmental controversy (TT, June 5, 2009), as a reason for keeping certain public projects in public hands.
Fishman seemed to speak with scant familiarity about certain environmental issues during a recent interview, but he said, “Costa Rica has to comply with the 2021 (carbon neutrality) goal.” He added that generating more clean energy by harnessing power from hydroelectric and geothermal sources is “essential.”
Fishman, Guevara and Chinchilla all plan to continue the Peace with Nature initiative. Solís has not said otherwise.
Open to Energy Competition The recently introduced energy bill, which would open the electricity market and allow private generators to produce more electricity (the current law caps private generators at 15 percent of total production) earned a “yes” from Guevara, Chinchilla and Fishman.
Chinchilla called the energy bill one of her team’s “top priorities,” and she said they will do “everything that they can to pass the bill as soon as possible.”
Guevara acknowledged that he was not familiar with the latest version, but he said that “in general terms we are in agreement.” He criticized the Arias administration for waiting so long to introduce the bill. Fishman – between um’s and uh’s – also said he would support the bill, although it does not seem to be a priority on his agenda.
Solís’ government plan does not address the energy law. Solís has a reputation for opposing legislation introduced by the PLN administration. At the CEDARENA conference, he said he is against PLN-backed legislation that would rectify the limits of Las Baulas National Marine Park, in the northwest Guanacaste province, and declare it a mix wildlife refuge, which allows for some development. The energy law also has the ruling PLN’s name on it.
The water bill, introduced by citizens’ initiative in 2009, would declare water a human right instead of a profitable resource. The hope is that the bill would guarantee water to small communities such as Sardinal, an inland region of Guanacaste, whose inhabitants fear supplies might run low as mega-hotels continue to be built on Guanacaste’s Pacific coastline.
Candidates stopped short of endorsing the water bill, but they did voice concerns about Costa Rica’s water issues.
“I want to be very clear,” Chinchilla said. “Water supplies to satisfy the necessities of communities come first, but also need to boost economic productivity. Nevertheless, they both go hand in hand. Communities have felt they come second, after developments, and this can’t be. We have to build infrastructure that guarantees that supplies to these communities aren’t threatened.”
Guevara called water his “No. 1 priority” when it comes to environmental issues, saying that “residual waters must be treated and drinkable water must be taken care of. We need to direct water to the communities that need it so they can develop themselves.” Fishman said, “Everyone wants clean water, right?”