San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican wetlands lack protection

Costa Rica’s wetlands have been under stress lately.

In late October, the World Wetland Network, a global umbrella organization for wetland nonprofit groups, nominated Costa Rica for a Grey Globe Award, a not-so-friendly reprimand for poor management of the Caletas wetland on the central Pacific coast.


Earlier this month, Costa Rica’s En-vironmental Court, an administrative court under the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), warned that Caño Negro, a wetland in northern Costa Rica, is also under “serious environmental threat.” So far this year, the court has started proceedings in 19 cases involving alleged environmental damage in Caño Negro.

Most recently, geologists are diligently working on environmental impact studies for marshlands at the Río San Juan Wildlife Refuge on the northeast border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

So what has Costa Rica’s wetlands under such duress?

According to the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma), an environmental group that operates a sea turtle conservation project at Playa Caletas, deforestation, construction and poisoning from agricultural chemicals continues to threaten the wetlands there.

Recently, a Pretoma volunteer filmed a crop duster spraying an unidentified liquid chemical over the Caletas wetland (TT, Aug. 11). Pretoma also has footage showing heavy machinery digging roads through the protected area.

In the nearly 10,000-hectare Caño Negro reserve, pineapple farming is a major cause of damage. MINAET’s environmental court issued a statement claiming that the crop’s encroachment on tropical forest has reduced land for flora that provide buffer zones and biological corridors for animals.

Pineapple cultivation also requires farmers to dig drainage canals, which carry water, sediment and contaminants into the nearby marsh.

“The worry is that this type of commercial activity, that of the pineapple farmers, could put at risk the wetland’s health and the health of nearby populations,” said José Lino Chaves, president of the environmental court.

The court noted that deforestation for road construction and other infrastructure has also damaged these areas. On a recent visit, court officials found that more than 2,500 square meters of Caño Negro had been deforested, mainly for the construction of infrastructure.

All of these factors contribute to erosion and sedimentation within the wetlands, critically harming an already delicate ecosystem.

“When a wetland is damaged it effects the entire chain of organisms from the microscopic to the large mammals, birds and reptiles,” said Allan Astorga, a geologist at the University of Costa Rica. 

“The greatest problem in a wetland is when the balance is altered. When an excess of sediment enters the wetland, it breaks the  balance,” he said.

Because sedimentation impacts water quality, fish species are threatened and birds must find other habitats. This is currently one of the biggest concerns along the Río San Juan, where Nicaraguan crews are building a canal that could drain mud and salt water from the river into a nearby lagoon.

Another problem Costa Rica must confront is a lack of documentation regarding which areas are protected.

The Ramsar Convention, an international framework for protecting wetlands, includes 12 Costa Rican wetlands, including the Río San Juan and Caño Negro wildlife refuges. But dozens of other wetlands across the country have yet to be included.

“This is what has generated a lot of conflict,” Astorga, said. “People see the map, and they see that a certain area isn’t included. So they begin to cause an impact there. They say, ‘I can build there,’ even though they shouldn’t.”

Astorga noted that lands in Garabito and Parrita on the central Pacific coast are ideal candidates for protected wetlands. Several spots in the country’s Southern Zone could also qualify, he said.

But these areas have been used mainly for rice farming, and sufficient scientific studies to declare them protected wetlands do not exist.

Still, not all of Costa Rica’s wetlands are under pressure and some could be models for those that back protection.

Tortuguero, a national park on the northern Caribbean coast, has been well-preserved mostly because of a lack of roads to the protected area.

Tortuguero has also been successful in promoting low-impact tourism.

“This allows for better administration of these areas,” Astorga said.

Still, without official recognition, many of Costa Rica’s wetlands could continue to be victims of harsh environmental damage.

“That’s part of the work we have to do,” Astorga said. “We need to better study and protect the wetlands that we’ve already declared refuges and parks and define the areas that have not yet been recognized as wetlands.”

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