PUNTO MIRA – The skinny stretch of rutted mud-and-gravel road that connects Tierra Morenas, Punto Mira and Lagunas, in the mountains east of Quepos, is being eaten away by wet-season rains, earthquakes, rivers and mudslides. Some 300 families who live in this lush region, which sees clear-day views of Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak, as well as the Nicoya and Osa peninsulas, depend on the road to get to work, reach medical services or to go to the market. They say their municipal government, despite repeated requests for help, is not maintaining the road in passable condition.
“When it is raining a lot, we’re essentially cut off,” said Javier Delgado, a member of the roads committee of Punto Mira, in Puntarenas province’s Aguirre canton.
On Aug. 15, Delgado and other members of the committee submitted a letter to the mayor’s office and the municipal engineer’s office asking for help in maintaining a section of road that sinks visibly with each rain. The section connects the villages of Tierra Morenas and Punto Mira to the north, and Lagunas to the south. It is also the most convenient trek out of the mountains to reach the municipal center of Quepos.
On a good day with no rain, the trip from Punto Mira along the Punto Mira-Lagunas road takes about 20 minutes to reach Dominical and 45 minutes to Quepos. In heavy rains and with the sinking road, the route becomes treacherous and impassable.
An alternative route takes two hours on muddy, rutted roads. It is also dangerous in heavy rain. A bridge spanning the Guabo River has already been washed over by floodwaters three times this rainy season, according to residents.
A third route is plagued by landslides, teetering bridges and slopes that become dangerous to navigate when it rains.
In late September, with the heaviest rains likely coming in October, and with no response from the municipal government, Delgado, members of the Punto Mira roads committee and the president of the Tierras Morenas Integral Development Association readied another letter to present at the municipal council’s weekly public meeting.
“This road has a lot of traffic,” Delgado said before the meeting. “There are many workers who depend on the road to get to Lagunas to work and support their families. Our schoolteacher sometimes can’t get here, and when the doctors who visit our communities have tried to come, they often couldn’t because of the sinking road.”
“We’ve already sent a letter to the municipality, to the mayor [and] to municipal engineers, and we haven’t gotten a response. They haven’t contacted us at all,” he said.
Problems with the Tierras Morenas-Lagunas road started well before the Aug. 15 letter sent by Delgado and other area residents. Heavy rains generated by Hurricane Tomás in October 2010 washed out parts of the road and damaged a bridge that had recently been repaired. That bridge, damaged almost a year ago, still stands near Tierras Morenas on cracked and crumbling supports and snarls of rebar. Cars, motorcycles and trucks pass over it every day.
In the Aug. 15 letter, which was received by Mayor Lutgardo Bolaños’ secretary, residents asked for “help to solve this problem as quickly as possible, as the people who live here are affected in areas of health, education, employment and other services needed by the community.”
Two weeks after that letter was presented to the municipality, engineering firm Grupo Geosis Ltd., contacted by area residents, visited Punto Mira and Lagunas. According to a statement from Grupo Geosis, “[We were] contacted by the local community to assist in facilitating the process of procuring engineering studies required for determining whether a viable constructive solution is available.”
Two other firms, Ingeniería Satelital S.A. and Ingeotécnia en General, were contacted about conducting soil analysis and topography studies. The total cost of the studies, which are necessary to determine if the road can be saved, is about $2,000.
In January, Punto Mira residents Jeff Dawson and Helen Rivers-Moore submitted a letter of their own to Aguirre officials. Dawson and Rivers-Moore say that since 2003, they have spent their own money to keep the roads in good repair and donated gravel for road topping from an outcropping on their farm.
In the letter, submitted on Jan. 11, Dawson and Rivers-Moore list some of their contributions over the years: 142 concrete culverts (109 of those installed by Dawson and his neighbors); money for labor and materials to repair roads in the area after heavy rains in 2003, 2004 and 2010; and the cost of diesel and meals when the municipality sent workers to repair roads and bridges in the fall of 2010 after Hurricane Tomás.
But since then, despite repeated pleas for help, little or nothing has been done by the Municipality of Aguirre to maintain the roads, Dawson said.
Rivers-Moore knows what’s at stake if the road becomes impassable. In December 2010, her spleen burst while she was at her home in Punto Mira. Dawson loaded her into the car and headed to the hospital in San Isidro de El General, a crossroads city in the Southern Zone on the Inter-American Highway.
“I screamed all the way down,” Rivers-Moore said. “I felt every piece of gravel.”
Waving a hand at the road in its current state, she said, “If the road was like this, I would have died.”
Before the municipality’s public meeting on Sept. 28, the president of the Tierras Morenas Integral Development Association, Ferdinando Segura, told The Tico Times that since damage to the roads and the bridge in and around Tierras Morenas was repaired following Hurricane Tomás last October, nothing has been done to help residents. Some 40 families, he said, lived without clean water for almost six months because heavy rains that followed Tomás damaged an aqueduct carrying water to the community.
“Engineers from the municipality came out and looked at the damage to the aqueduct,” Segura said. “Supposedly they were going to send that information to the National Emergency Commission, and supposedly, the commission was going to bring out the materials necessary to fix the aqueduct. Meanwhile, for almost six months at least 40 families were drinking water from streams, water [that was] totally contaminated, and nobody did anything.”
Residents of Tierras Morenas raised money for materials to repair the aqueduct themselves, Segura said. But with that problem fixed, the issue of the roads still remains.
“Engineers from the municipality and the National Emergency Commission came out to look at the Punto Mira-Lagunas road many times,” Segura said. “Punto Mira is practically without a road. If it is raining, and these days it rains almost every day, no one can get through, including an ambulance.”
In an interview before the public meeting, an agitated Mayor Bolaños, of the National Liberation Party, dismissed requests for help repairing roads around Punto Mira and Tierras Morenas, citing safety concerns for workers.
“The earth is too full of water,” Bolaños said. “In the dry season, we will work [on the roads]. Until then, you can bring me 2,000 letters and I won’t do it.”
“If they are asking us to work in a place where I’m going to put a man’s life in danger or the lives of many people in danger, then no. The work will be done in the dry season,” Bolaños said. “We can’t work in a place that is crumbling.
The mayor added that “at any moment while we’re working, a landslide could fall on our workers. … Then the emergency wouldn’t just be about fixing roads anymore, it would be about recovering corpses and machinery from under a landslide.”
Bolaños, who was sworn in as mayor in February, said that in the last four years, his predecessor spent more than ₡200 million ($390,000) on maintaining roads and bridges around Tierras Morenas.
At the municipal meeting, Bolaños said he would create a plan to find funding for repairs to roads and bridges in the Tierras Morenas area. He said he would submit the plan to the National Emergency Commission (CNE) for approval, which could take up to one month after the CNE receives it.
He then promised to ask the CNE to send a geologist to examine the sinking Punto Mira-Lagunas road to determine if the road can be saved or not.
He said that as soon as the rains stop, he would order 100 hours of machinery and labor to either repair the damaged road or to begin work on an alternative access to area.
But those measures do little to help residents who, facing October rains, could be stranded. “Lip service,” Dawson said, referring to the mayor’s promises. “We’ve heard it all before.”