San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Turrialba erupts; mudslides kill dozens

Year in Review

Costa Rica’s National Emergency Com-mission (CNE) had a busy year. 

While 2010 saw new chapters written in some of the country’s long-standing environmental controversies, it was a year bookended by natural disasters, and some historic measures.

The year exploded early when gas and ash started to spew from Turrialba Volcano on the Caribbean slope, forcing 40 people to permanently leave their homes on the skirts of the volcano during the first week of January. The event marked the first time the volcano had erupted since 1866.

Ashes caused minor losses in lettuce crops and milk production in the dairy-dependent region. Dozens of cows were evacuated and 800 animals were put at risk of harm, according to the Agriculture Ministry.

Sulfur continues to seep out of Turrialba Volcano, and volcanologists have set up permanent measuring stations to monitor its constant belches and groans. By the end of the year, scientists had traced gases from the volcano to areas as far northwest as Nicaragua and others that had drifted southwest, traveling above the Pacific Ocean up to 900 kilometers from the crater of the volcano.

And if incessant concerns over growing volcanic activity at Turrialba weren’t enough, Costa Rica’s emergency personnel were faced with a deadly surprise late this year when the rain-soaked Pico Blanco mountain in Escazú, west of San José, hurled mud and rocks down its slope and claimed 23 lives.

The landslide was the result of indirect rains from Hurricane Tomás, a front that drenched almost the entire country, forced more than 4,000 people to flee their homes and damaged or destroyed 2,626 houses. Some regions received more than double November’s average rainfall during the first week of the month. Mudslides in the Los Santos region south of the capital claimed three lives.

Of Costa Rica’s 81 cantons, 38 were declared disaster zones under a national emergency decree, 272 kilometers of roads were closed and 85 bridges collapsed or flooded.

While cleanup from the disaster will stretch well into 2011, the disaster exposed an Achilles heel that promises to be the focus of emergency experts in years to come: lack of urban planning.

A 2002 study by geologists from the University of Costa Rica warned of the possibility of dangerous landslides at Pico Blanco, and, according to 2008 research, 50,000 people in the metropolitan area live in areas prone to floods and landslides.

President Laura Chinchilla called the lack of planning a “fundamental cause” of the breadth of the damage, but conceded that it will take “a long time to resolve the issue.”

The year was demanding for emergency crews, who earlier in the year also visited earthquake-ravaged Haiti and Chile to assist in relief efforts and conduct research in hopes of improving Costa Rica’s own earthquake codes and response efforts.

Controversy Quelled and Energy Plans Ignited 

One of Costa Rica’s longest-running environmental controversies, a storm that has inspired protests, heated debate and anger toward the Costa Rican government for 17 years, came to a head in November when the Administrative Contention Court struck down a proposed open-pit gold mine at Crucitas, in northern Costa Rica.

The mine’s permits were called into question in a case filed by the Wild Flora and Fauna Preservation Association (Apreflofas), which claimed that deforestation of yellow almond trees, protected by law, would damage the habitat of the endangered green macaw.

Mine opponents rejoiced in the court’s decision and concluded a long year of marches and rallies, trials and hearings and a hunger strike in front of Casa Presidencial that sent several malnourished mine opponents to the hospital.

The court’s November decision ordered a criminal investigation of former President Oscar Arias and ex-Environment Minister Roberto Dobles for signing a decree that gave the mine the green light, a decision that promises to make headlines in 2011.

While President Laura Chinchilla denied several requests by mine opponents to annul the decree, saying she would respect the autonomy of the courts, she seems to have taken a more open stance to environmentalists, a group that Arias, her predecessor, largely ignored.

Chinchilla, who took office in May, has listened to environmentalists’ complaints, and many activists have told The Tico Times that they get more of a dialogue with the new president, rather than the deaf ear of her predecessor.

For starters, Chinchilla picked Vice-President Alfio Piva, a reputable conservationist and former director of the National Biodiversity Institute, as her first vice-president. Piva has had an open dialogue with Costa Rica’s environmentalists, especially throughout the Crucitas case, and is a sign of the Chinchilla’s administration’s willingness to hear from many different people.

Chinchilla has a long way to go before completely winning over Costa Rica’s greenies, a pesky group that is rarely pleased with the government, and 2011 will test her administration’s ability to compromise with the largely left-wing group. 

Environmentalists have shown no remorse in criticizing Costa Rica’s Executive Branch and, while celebrating a victory in Crucitas, will likely appeal to Chinchilla in 2011 to address issues such as shark finning in Costa Rica’s Pacific Ocean, and focus on development controversies in Guanacaste that threaten natural resources, such as the Sardinal aqueduct. 

Amid the controversies, Costa Rica started to take a look ahead in the energy realm this year.

In July, the government presented a new energy bill that would encourage private generation of renewable energy in hopes of curbing the country’s increasing dependence on energy imports and burning of fossil fuel to fill gaps in energy demands. Government officials also removed import tariffs and sales taxes on electric cars in an effort to make the clean vehicles available to a wider base of Costa Rican consumers.

In October, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) launched a two-way-meter pilot program that would credit grid-tied energy users for producing their own electricity from renewable sources.

And although Costa Rica’s biofuels program has been shelved for nearly three years, the National Oil Refinery in January will begin serving up diesel that emits 90 percent less sulfur – down to 50 parts per million from 500 ppm.

Encompassing it all is Costa Rica’s bold plan to reach carbon neutrality by its bicentennial birthday in 2021.

The year marked a start to zero-net-emission planning, but in 2011 the nation will need to act fast or risk celebrating its 200th birthday to the backdrop of a black cloud of exhaust.

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