Read part one here
Costa Rica is famous for its conservation ethic. This is, after all, the country that decreed 26 percent of its territory should be placed under some kind of protection against deforestation.
That is one of the major reasons that retirees, investors and nature-loving backpackers flock to Costa Rica, but even noble ideas can run amok when the execution is poorly planned.
“The process [of designating lands for protection] was not well-planned and coherent, despite good intentions and spontaneity of public and non-public actors,” Miriam Miranda, coordinator of component two of the Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project, wrote in a summary of the project.
The Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project is an enormous undertaking that began in 2005 with the goal of mapping and registering all the properties in Costa Rica, and putting the information together in a single place. Officials say this effort to create an integrated system housing both an officially mapped, physical definition of every property along with a legal registry of the owner or owners who go with it, is a step toward strengthening the legal security of people’s property rights – something that is important in a country where property fraud is a recurring problem.
According to Miranda, when Tico lawmakers decreed that 26 percent of the country should be protected, they had the best intentions, but no real way to carry them out in an organized fashion. Boundaries of protected areas were never well-defined, different areas under different levels of protection overlap, indigenous territories have been granted to different groups, and in some national parks, parcels of land have been sold off and built on, and all of this well-meaning mess is what Miranda is tasked with putting in order.
“We generate information that the government needs to make decisions about properties in regions under special regimens,” Miranda said. “The same thing has happened with indigenous territories.”
Areas under special regimens refer to protected areas or lands designated as indigenous territories. Miranda and her team of cartographers, lawyers and researchers are surveying these lands, which the state has deemed protected, but in which live people who were there before the areas were designated for protection or who bought the land in good faith near the nebulously defined borders of protected spots.
“Actually, in the areas that are under protection there is already a lot of occupation, because the government established a natural park with people already living inside that area,” Miranda said. “And because it is expensive, the government never had the economic resources to say, ‘OK, because of this decision made by the state to make a national park here, we’re going to pay all the people who lived here before, move them out and leave this protected area without people living here.’”
When the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge was created in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, hundreds of families already were living in the area, and most still live there today.
“The government finds itself in a conflict where on one side the Comptroller General’s office, the Attorney General and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court are saying, for example, you have to clean up Las Baulas [National Marine Park], or you have to clean up Ostional. But how are you going to clean up an area, as in the case of Ostional, that already has five hundred families living in it?” Miranda asked.
Many national parks and protected areas were designated by people sitting at desks looking at aerial maps scaled at 1:50,000 – too wide to accurately delineate boundaries of the areas. In the remapping process that Miranda and the leaders of other parts of the cadastre project oversee, new maps are being made at scales of 1:5,000.
Conflicts are going to arise in this process as the boundaries of protected areas are fine-tuned. Miranda said that in those cases, the cadastre project has legal advisers to help landowners sort through their options.
Roger Peterson, a lawyer in Costa Rica who helps people navigate Costa Rican real estate, said that while the Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project will help prospective buyers avoid scams or buying lands in protected areas, once it is completed there is no substitute for doing your research before you buy.
“The first words out of my mouth when I help people with real estate in Costa Rica are ‘do extensive due diligence,’” Peterson said. “A title report isn’t enough.”
Many foreigners come to Costa Rica with the dream of owning oceanfront property, but both Miranda and Peterson say that’s a tricky area in Costa Rica. National law designates the first 50 meters from the high-tide line as public lands. The next 150 meters are also protected, but municipalities can give concessions – essentially long leases – in this area.
As her component of the Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project plows ahead, Miranda said she is encountering opposition.
“Our program has many enemies,” she said. “Many foreigners bought illegal properties knowingly or unknowingly. … Because of negligence by the government, people have been allowed to buy prohibited lands.”
To avoid buying property that could run into trouble with Miranda’s project, Peterson has a few tips: “Stay away from maritime property, from refuges and national parks, and do your extreme due diligence,” he said. “If you’re buying property anywhere near an area like that, go to your municipality, go to [the Environment Ministry] with a property map and get written certifications that your property is not part of a protected area. It will take a little longer, but it’s worth it.”