Squatters invade wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica

August 7, 2013

A group of at least 30 people last month entered Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Los Chiles, near the border with Nicaragua, and began building shacks.

Squatters told local police they decided to move onto refuge lands “out of necessity,” adding that “no one can deny the right to live and work on these lands.”

Officials from the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) take issue with that statement, saying that they believe the illegal residents may have been scammed by unscrupulous fraudsters who sold plots of protected government land. 

However, officials can’t yet remove the remaining 15 squatters until a lawsuit is resolved by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, Rogelio Jiménez Rodríguez, director of the Huetar-Arenal Norte Conservation Area, told The Tico Times. 

The lawsuit, filed by the squatters, claims that they have been living on the land for about a year and a half. Jiménez disputed that claim, noting that environment officials and Border Patrol police began periodically patrolling the area in question last year, adding that “we have evidence that the first invasions occurred on July 15-16 of this year.”

Rodríguez said several groups of people have entered the refuge in recent weeks attempting to build makeshift homes, although only 15 remain.

“They found the area unsuitable for living,” he said, “as most of Caño Negro is wetlands. Conditions are very difficult, and we even had to help a 75-year-old woman who had health problems.”

SINAC also rounded up Nicaraguan nationals who didn’t have immigration documents and escorted them to the Peñas Blancas border crossing for deportation.

One group of squatters interviewed by SINAC officials said they paid two local land-grab leaders for their plots. However, they would not provide officials with names of the alleged vendors, Jiménez said.

Meanwhile, National Police officers continue daily patrols in the area.

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is a 39-square-mile protected wetlands area that is home to many migratory North and South American birds during the rainy season, which in Costa Rica runs from May-November.

Millions of birds also arrive during northern winters, beginning in December. Its forests, grasslands and marshes provide shelter for various endangered species such as cougars, jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, peccary and several species of monkeys.

There are no public facilities at the refuge, and the area can be explored only by boat.

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