San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Energy project puts national parks in danger, parks founder says

Costa Rican environmentalists are spoiling for a fight to stop the government from removing 1,000 hectares (about 3,000 acres) from Rincón de la Vieja National Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, for a geothermal electricity project.

Leading the environmentalists is the renowned conservationist and co-founder of the Costa Rican National Park System, Álvaro Ugalde.

Ugalde, 67, now retired from government service and using his time to help conservation efforts at the community level, said that so-called “segregation” at Rincón de la Vieja would be a disaster on many levels.

The segregation would set a precedent likely to be repeated at other national parks, especially those that have geothermal potential.

“There’s a park on top of every place where there’s geothermal,” Ugalde said.

The segregation would smear Costa Rica’s reputation as a global conservation leader, despite government claims that it would demonstrate “development hand-in-hand with nature.”

“The fact is they’d be segregating 1,000 hectares from a place that was declared a United Nations World Heritage site in 1999,” Ugalde said.

UNESCO, a U.N. body that designated the entire Guanacaste Conservation Area – of which Rincón de la Vieja is a part – a World Heritage Site, has already expressed its concern over the geothermal project.

“Geothermal is a great opportunity to promote the development of the country based on renewable sources of energy. We nonetheless consider it unnecessary to segregate a national park, a World Heritage Site, without first evaluating the alternatives for developing the project in areas with geothermal potential outside the park using technologies that generate the least negative impact; even if they imply a greater cost, they would generate the conservation of ecosystem services that the forest serves for current and future generations,” UNESCO said in a press release.

From an environmental and tourism standpoint, the segregation would potentially destroy the last remaining “pre-coffee” ecosystem in the country in the most tourist-visited areas of the park – Las Pailas and Santa María – Ugalde said.

Finally, the segregation would remove from National Park System land that was acquired with a donation from a private foundation, the Engelhard Foundation.

“I never thought when I promised [foundation president] Sophie Engelhard in the 1980s that we would preserve the land in perpetuity that we’d be facing this situation,” Ugalde said.

The segregation would permanently damage the country’s reputation of good faith in acquiring donations for conservation purposes, he added.

Ugalde said he does not oppose geothermal generation inside the park, but it should be carried out in concert with the conservation aims of the park itself, in conjunction with the National Park Service.

“We would be stupid to say that there should be nothing, but [it should be] something minimal inside the park and in control of the park system, in conjunction with ICE [the Costa Rican Electricity Institute],” he said.

ICE said that segregation in parks would be offset by providing an equal amount of land at other sites.

“The country must find a model that permits the tapping of geothermal energy from volcanic sources that are in national parks,” Environment Vice Minister Ana Lorena Guevara told the weekly Semanario Universidad.

“This bill is clear in that the possibility of a disaffection or change in the limits of the park would not be carried out until there are technical studies that demonstrate the site can be compensated with other areas or in another manner,” she added, referring to an energy bill before the Legislative Assembly that would allow geothermal exploitation in parks.

ICE also said that part of proceeds from geothermal energy production would go toward badly needed funds for the national parks. Ugalde characterized that as “crumbs.”

“There would be as little as possible from their side [pro-energy officials] and as much as possible from our side,” he said.

Ugalde said the model of seeking more and more energy for export to other countries, or even to feed growing energy needs in Costa Rica, is “humanity at its worst” – a model of development that puts conservation at the end of the line in national priorities and at odds with the country’s reputation as an environmental leader.

Together with ongoing destruction at Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula by gold panners, the Rincón geothermal plan presents an existential threat to the parks system itself, Ugalde said.

“If those two go, I wish I had died before,” he said. “The area will turn into catacombs. It would be the beginning of the end of the parks and the beginning of the end of tourism.”

Since Ugalde and fellow conservationist Mario Boza founded Costa Rica’s park service more than 40 years ago, with the preservation of two national parks – Santa Rosa and Poás – no land in any of the 26 current parks has been segregated.

The Legislative Assembly’s Energy and Environment Commission is expected to meet Thursday to vote on Bill 17,680, which mandates segregation and would go to the full Assembly for a vote at an undetermined date in the future.

Costa Rica’s environmental movement is rallying around the cause of beating back the park segregation. Groups have been meeting to plan strategy and actions.

Dozens of academics and environmental leaders along with dozens of environmental groups signed a petition protesting the law.

If the bill passes the commission, groups could organize demonstrations, Ugalde said. If the bill makes it past the full Assembly, Ugalde said conservationists would challenge it in the country’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

Ugalde said that tourism, even though it is one of Costa Rica’s top earners of foreign exchange income, has taken a back seat to energy needs.

“The Ministry of Tourism is very weak,” he said. “What really amazes me is the silence of the tourism industry.”

An uphill climb

From the beginning, Costa Rica’s national parks faced an uphill climb for survival.

Parks were initially a novelty that had no institutional precedent in Costa Rica. While the law protected land in theory, many of the parks were “paper parks,” which existed on paper but suffered from lack of protection, and in some cases, large inholdings of private property.

From gold panners in Corcovado to illegal loggers in other parks, authorities faced a raft of problems preserving the areas.

Judges applying the law weren’t familiar with the new legislation and some parks were located in poor, rural, frontier areas where people were accustomed to squatting on undeveloped land.

But most of all the very notion of preserving unused land was an unfamiliar one. Laws on the books at the time encouraged deforestation by giving settlers on the “agricultural frontier” title to land they were able to develop.

Slowly but surely, the parks began to gain recognition and institutional strength, partly thanks to the boom in tourism that began in the late 1980s and eventually made the parks the backbone of Costa Rica’s No. 1 source of foreign income.

More environmentally friendly laws were adopted, and Costa Rica’s fame as a conservation-minded “green” country became one of its principal calling cards around the world.

And now?

So what happened? Why has the government apparently turned its back on its famed environmental ethic to apparently open the door to chipping away at the hard-won environmental gains?

Ugalde said that the current government, especially Environment Minister René Castro, appears tone deaf to the implications of ruining Costa Rica’s conservation bona fides.

“We have a Minister of Energy, not a Minister of Environment,” Ugalde said.

Castro has expressed surprise at the environmentalists’ complaints, saying the proposal to use geothermal energy from national parks is 12 years old.

Ugalde acknowledged that a clash to accommodate conservation and energy interests was probably inevitable, but said that the proposal to actually segregate land from a park fell like a bombshell in December.

Ugalde also noted that national parks have failed to gain the support of the Costa Rican people at a grassroots level.

“They don’t feel they are part of the national parks,” he said. “They see them as a government thing.”

If he had it to do over again, Ugalde said he would have created the National Park System “from the bottom up, not from the top down.”

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