San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tribunal: southern wetlands under attack

Wetlands, including the Sierpe River and mangrove forests in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, are threatened by poorly managed farming and illegal development, according to the Environment Tribunal (TAA), an administrative court under the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).

Loss of the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands in this area just north of the Osa Peninsula could have devastating environmental and economic impacts, said José Lino Chaves, president of the TAA.

“For the prestige of the country and for our international prestige, and obviously also for the economy, it would be regrettable if any of these wetlands disappear,” Chaves said. “Because the damage, and I don’t say this from an environmental point of view, but the economic damage would be enormous.”

On Tuesday, TAA officials and members of the Neotropical Foundation presented the findings of a sweep of the Térraba-Sierpe region executed at the end of August. Officials investigated 16 cases of environmental damage in and around sensitive wetland areas, the Sierpe River and mangrove forests. The culprits, officials said, are numerous and insidious.

“The TAA detected cases of individuals and company operatives draining wetlands, invading protected areas along the Sierpe River and other bodies of water, slashing and burning trees to expand cultivated areas, destroying forests for housing projects, polluting bodies of water and generating massive sedimentation,” the TAA reported in a statement. “They are also destroying mangrove forests and affecting biological corridors.”

Farming – particularly of rice, African palm and sugarcane – emerged as the major villain in the TAA’s sweep. Of the 16 cases investigated, seven were related to farms. Chaves said the TAA found rice farms with fields cultivated to the edge of rivers, while the law requires a minimum of 15 meters between farmland and rivers. 

In other cases, he said, canals had been built to drain wetlands and mangrove swamps to extend African palm and sugarcane fields and create cattle pasture. Industrial chemicals sprayed on crops have polluted the area’s waters, which support not only the mangrove swamps, but a plethora of wildlife species as well, Chaves said.

Housing developments were the second major culprits identified by TAA – six of the cases the tribunal investigated involved structures built at the expense of forests or wetlands.

Chaves cited a housing development in the forest near Palmar de Osa called Vista La Palma.

“They say the houses are environmentally friendly,” Chaves said. “But they don’t stay so friendly when you destroy forests to build them.”

Environment Tribunal

Photos provided this week by the Environment Tribunal show deforestation and pollution place in the Southern Zone’s Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands, a protected area. Courtesy of Environment Tribunal

The most shocking spectacle the sweep encountered, however, was Laguna Sierpe, a large, murky lake formed by the Sierpe River. Chaves said the lake’s surface area has shrunk visibly between February – when tribunal inspectors were in the area – and September. More studies are needed to determine how much surface area the lake has lost, but an analysis of photographs from February compared with photographs taken in August indicate the lake might have shrunk by as much as 20 percent.

Chaves said that the cause of the shrinking lake has not yet been determined, but that bridge and construction projects near the lake’s inflow seemed to be contributing to a buildup of sediment that is choking off the water.

The loss of wetlands in the area would have consequences beyond the aesthetic, said Bernardo Aguilar, director of the Neotropical Foundation.

“A situation like this, which we are bringing to the public’s attention today, in the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands, affects the goose that lays the golden eggs,” Aguilar said.

Areas like those surrounding the Térraba-Sierpe wetlands draw tourists. Tourism, Aguilar said, generates about 12 percent of Costa Rica’s gross domestic product, and of that, about 5 percent is directly attributable to national parks and biological reserves. Those figures, Aguilar said, don’t account for areas like Térraba-Sierpe that don’t fit into those categories, but still draw tourists and their cash. 

Aguilar said research by the Neotropical Foundation and the affiliated group, Ecoticos, indicates that each hectare of the Térraba-Sierpe wetlands generates $12,000 to $102,000 every year for local communities and the country’s economy.

Besides being an economic boon, wetlands are an important bulwark in the fight against global warming, Aguilar said. Mangroves act as one of the world’s most effective devices for trapping carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change. Wetland mud can trap as much as three times more CO2 than a tropical forest, Aguilar said, and that’s not even considering the crucial role wetlands play in clearing water of contaminants and protecting lands from eroding away and washing out to sea.

Chaves ended the report on a grim note. The TAA, he said, is facing budget cuts this year that will essentially wipe out the tribunal’s fund for vehicle maintenance and repair, among other things. With only 19 members, the tribunal is already short-staffed and incapable of being everywhere in the country where environmental damage is happening, Chaves said. Cuts to the tribunal’s budget will only exacerbate the issue, he said.

“In reality, the tribunal will be left only tending to cases in San José and that will be it,” he said.

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