San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Caribbean residents celebrate as Maritime Zone Law moratorium passes

Bulldozers will not be coming to the southern Caribbean coast – or any other coastal community in Costa Rica – for another two years.

A 24-month moratorium passed in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday evening, preventing the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses located in protected areas along the country’s coastlines. The vote passed with 35 lawmakers voting in favor and four voting against Bill 18,440.

Approximately 90 citizens from the Caribbean towns of Puerto Viejo and Manzanilla attended the vote. Outside the assembly, they celebrated the ruling. Some dressed in traditional Afro-Caribbean garb and others beat drums as they cavorted with lawmakers who helped push the bill through Congress, including Libertarian legislator Mireya Zamora and National Liberation Party member Carolina Delgado. 

“We know that this is not everything,” said Johnny León, whose family has lived in Puerto Viejo since 1904. “It’s the beginning. It’s part of the process that we have to go through. And we have to keep working. But also today we can celebrate a great victory on the part of the southern Caribbean, our pueblo.”

An estimated 300,000 people are affected by the Maritime Zone Law, which was established in 1977. The largest area of concern is in the southern Caribbean. The law does not affect construction in the zone before 1977. However, many communities built in the area after the law came into effect. However, the government never seemed interested in enforcing the law until recently.

The Comptroller General’s Office ordered municipalities to destroy structures found to be in violation of the Maritime Zone Law. In Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, 13 buildings were ordered demolished by Nov. 30. (The Comptroller General later denied that those demolitions were imminent.) Coastal residents created an uproar once neighborhoods, including schools and hotels within the zone, faced the possibility of being flattened.

The law defines all land 50 meters from the high-tide line in coastal areas as public land and prohibits construction in that zone. The area from 50 meters to 200 meters is considered restricted, but municipalities are allowed to issue concessions to certain developments.

León said it was a relief that coastal residents could work toward a compromise with the government over the next two years, while no longer worrying about the possibility of demolitions.

Jorge Molina, president of the Southern Caribbean Tourism Chamber, thanked supporters outside the legislative building and said leaders from the Caribbean and other regions affected should organize and negotiate a long-term solution with lawmakers before the 2014 deadline.

“This problem is 35 years old,” Molina said. “A bunch of communities in the coast are tired. We can’t wait one more year.”

Maritime Zone Law moratorium pass 1

Jorge Molina, president of the Southern Caribbean Chamber of Tourism, celebrates the moratorium’s passage in the Legislative Assembly.

Fernando Quirós

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