San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

No easy fix for families in Costa Rica’s maritime zones

The Costa Rican government is continuing to look for solutions to a nationwide zoning crisis that at its worst could result in some 300,000 residents losing their homes and businesses.

Vice President Alfio Piva told reporters Wednesday in a press conference at Casa Presidencial that no less than 14 bills are before the Legislative Assembly seeking to address the issue of buildings constructed in the maritime zone, an area along the coast extending from the median high-tide line 200 meters inland.

The Maritime Zone Law, passed in 1977, defines the first 50 meters from the median high-tide line as public property upon which no buildings can go up. The next 150 meters are considered a “restricted zone” in which local municipalities can issue land-use concessions for homes and businesses. A similar zone is mandated for areas near Costa Rica’s borders with its international neighbors.

Recently, the Comptroller General ordered municipalities across the country to start strictly enforcing the Maritime Zone Law. That includes an order to the Talamanca Municipality on the southern Caribbean coast to destroy at least 13 homes and businesses in and around Puerto Viejo and Cahuita by no later than the end of November (TT, April 26).

“This is a problem fundamentally derived from a lack of land-use zoning in the country,” Piva said.

Last week, the Chinchilla administration presented a bill to the assembly proposing a one-year moratorium on evictions and demolitions of buildings in the maritime zone. The vice president said he is confident that one year will be enough time to reach a solution.

“In all these zones we have nearly 300,000 affected people, many whose families have lived there for 100 or 200 years,” Piva said. “The majority of them are poor people who live from fishing, people who barely survive, and because of strict legal interpretations, they can’t build or repair a school in bad condition, or give a loan to a family member … to build or renovate a house because the area has no permissions from state institutions.”

That lack of oversight in maritime zones and other protected areas is a long-standing issue, said Miriam Miranda, coordinator of a national program that is remapping and registering all of the protected and restricted areas in the country. Their goal is to mitigate these types of problems in the future.

“This will have a huge social impact,” Miranda said. “There are communities and groups established [in regulated zones], and there are people who have built there with permits, others without permits, but however it was, the government tolerated them. The government did not make decisions when and how it should have made them, and that has led to chaos today.”

Miranda said that when lawmakers decreed years ago that 26 percent of the country should be protected – one of Costa Rica’s proudest conservation achievements – there was no way for them to see that decree carried out in an organized manner. For that reason, she said, boundaries of protected areas have been vaguely defined for years, and as with the Maritime Zone Law, there has been little or haphazard enforcement until now (TT, Feb. 10).

“There have been norms [and] regulations, but the state never enforced them. So, people settled in maritime zones and some government agencies, including municipalities and the Environment Ministry, gave them permits and never regulated it.”

Examples are everywhere, she said, including a school in the community of Drake Bay in southern Costa Rica built entirely within the 50-meter zone. The National Police building in Puerto Viejo, on the opposite coast, sits right on the beach.

But while the vice president is trying to find legal and administrative solutions to the problems presented by a strict enforcement of the Maritime Zoning Law, Miranda said she isn’t optimistic about the prospects for thousands of families whose livelihoods and homes are at stake.

“From a legal point of view, if you are going to apply the law the way it is, the law is very clear,” Miranda said.

Asked Wednesday about plans to relocate families if a legal resolution to the zoning issues cannot be reached, Piva said, “They’re 300,000 people, what plan would work?”

“They’ve been there for years,” the vice president added. “What is being tried is to leave them there. The people are asking to stay where they have lived, to stay working in what they know how to do.”

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