Climate change, resource extraction and environmental regulation were the words on the lips of Costa Rican environmentalists and policymakers in 2011.
Costa Rica made some bold moves in the faces of multinational corporations and took some tentative steps toward achieving the country’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2021. Other areas, such as funding for enforcement of environmental regulations, saw some setbacks.
Two long-running sagas involving large mineral-extraction corporations wrapped up this year. Mallon Oil, a subsidiary of the South Dakota-based Black Hills Corporation, spent much of 2011 trying to jump-start an oil contract in the Northern Zone’s Alajuela province. Mallon was granted a 20-year concession in 2000 by then-President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002). Lawsuits by environmental groups and protests against drilling for oil stalled Mallon’s plans through 2011. President Laura Chinchilla’s administration took heed and kept oil drilling off the table, but conceded the possibility of allowing Mallon to explore for natural gas.
In August, René Castro returned to his former post as minister of the environment, energy and telecommunications, and on his first day on the job declared a three-year moratorium on oil drilling in Costa Rica, scuttling Mallon’s plans for the foreseeable future.
This year also saw the end of Industrias Infinito’s designs on a large-scale open-pit gold mine in the Las Crucitas area near the Nicaraguan border. Industrias Infinito is a subsidiary of Canadian company Infinito Gold. The company was granted a concession to mine for gold near Las Crucitas in 2006 by then-President Oscar Arias, who declared the project to be in the country’s national interest – a move that changed the land-use designation of the area to allow for mining. Environmentalists protested the damage the Crucitas mine could cause to native almond trees in the area, which serve as habitat for the endangered green macaw.
The Supreme Court’s Civil and Administrative Law Branch (Sala I) annulled the Crucitas mining concession in November 2010, but the company appealed. The Sala I struck down those appeals in November of this year. The court also recommended Costa Rican public prosecutors investigate whether criminal investigations are warranted into Arias’ and other government officials’ involvement in the long-running fight.
Industrias Infinito also had to grapple with public perception that the company had corrupted government officials, particularly after it was revealed that Moisés Fachler, a substitute judge in the 2010 trial, allegedly leaked a draft of the Sala I sentence to representatives of Industrias Infinito earlier this year.
Industrias Infinito filed defamation charges against environmental lawyers involved in the case, including Edgardo Araya, who accused the company of waging a campaign of legal intimidation.
Costa Rica talked a lot about climate change in 2011. In March, Coopedota, a co-op of coffee producers in the Los Santos region south of San José, was recognized as the world’s first carbon-neutral coffee, the same month that former U.S. Vice President Al Gore addressed business leaders on the topic of climate change. The designation represented a big step for the country toward its 2021 carbon-neutrality goal because the agricultural sector – including coffee – accounts for almost 40 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Coopedota attained carbon neutrality by focusing on areas where they could improve the efficiency of fertilizers, add more shade to farms, cogenerate energy using coffee production by-products, and reuse and recycle wastewater.
The plan Coopedota used to reach carbon neutrality can serve as a framework for other coffee producers and the agricultural sector in general, said members of CO2.cr, a climate change action group that helped develop the plan. Next steps, the group said, would include creating a Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action for the entire agricultural sector based on the actions taken at Coopedota. Coopedota was presented at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, as an example of Costa Rica’s efforts to be the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021.
Also this year, President Chinchilla ordered the creation of a commission to analyze the oversight of Costa Rica’s marine resources by government organizations including the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), which has long been criticized by environmental groups. The environmental groups, in particular the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma) accuse the institute of being soft on shark finning, a multibillion-dollar industry that is decimating shark populations globally, and of excessive sea turtle by-catch in commercial fishing fleets.
Incopesca President Luis Dobles called the accusation “absolutely false,” saying Costa Rica has one of the world’s best sea turtle conservation plans and that the institute inspected more than 3,500 fishing vessels carrying legally caught sharks in 2011. Incopesca Vice President Jorge Niño said he welcomes the analysis and is sure it will show that Incopesca has done the best job it can with scant resources.
The commission will include representatives of the Environment Ministry, the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry, conservation organizations, the Coast Guard and an environmental adviser to the president.
Tasked with overseeing and enforcing environmental guidelines, the Environment Tribunal announced in October it is facing budget cuts in the coming year that will hamstring its ability to inspect and enforce regulations across the country. Tribunal President José Lino Chaves said if the budget cuts go through, one of the country’s only environmental enforcement entities would be reduced to attending cases only in San José, because the tribunal would not have money to pay insurance on its vehicles.