San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Maritime Zone

Debate over maritime zoning legislation heats up

(Courtesy Frente Nacional de Comunidades Costeras)

Second in a series. Read the first story here.

For years along Costa Rica’s azure coasts, thousands of men and women have cast their nets into the ocean, which has returned to them a humble subsistence via artisanal fishing.

Evangelina Aguilar and her family arrived at Costa de Pájaros, in Puntarenas, in 1973. Before that, the family traveled up and down the Pacific coast in search of sea bass and shrimp.

Aguilar’s three children were born and raised in Costa de Pájaros. Now 57, Aguilar doesn’t fish anymore, but her daughters married fishermen, and the family tradition continues.

“This is our little piece of home, where the sky blankets us in liberty,” she said.

Aguilar belongs to the Costa de Pájaros Union of Artisanal and Aquatic Fishermen (Sindicato de Pescadores Artesanales y Acuícolas de Costa de Pájaros, in Spanish), which has 470 members. Those members have joined several other coastal communities on both sides of the country in lobbying for the passage of the Coastal Community Land Bill, known by its Spanish acronym TECOCOS.

The bill, drafted by the Broad Front Party with input from coastal communities, seeks to protect the families’ ownership of land that lies within the restricted maritime zone, which extends up to 200 meters from the high-tide line on both coasts.

Recent attempts to enforce a law passed in the late 1970s, known as the Maritime Zone Law, have left thousands of coastal residents in limbo. Many of them are artisanal fishermen, and they live in poverty.

“The only thing these fishermen and women seek is for their situation to become legal. They want to maintain their livelihoods in the places where they have lived all their lives,” Ronal Vargas, an incoming Broad Front Party lawmaker from the northwestern province of Guanacaste, told The Tico Times.

Vargas estimates that the Maritime Zone Law affects 60,000 coastal residents, but others have said that number could be higher.

Within 200 meters

According to the Maritime Zone Law, the 50 meters from a high tide mark is publicly zoned, meaning it belongs to municipalities. The remaining 150 meters is completely restricted, and any type of construction is prohibited. Families who already live within the maritime zone must abide by a municipal zoning plan, obtain a municipal concession and pay a monthly fee.

Because many municipalities don’t have zoning plans, or planes reguladores, they ceased charging concession fees some 15 years ago. But now, some municipalities are beginning to implement zoning plans, and along with them, maritime zoning fees.

“In the majority of communities where this fee is being charged the rate is more than ₡100,000 [$200] a month per family. That’s like paying rent, and when [families] can’t pay it, it’s almost certain they’ll be evicted,” said Wilmar Matarrita, coordinator of the National Front of Coastal Communities (Frente Nacional de Comunidades Costeras, in Spanish).

In 2012, lawmakers passed a moratorium to temporarily protect residents already living within the maritime zone and to halt the demolition of their homes and businesses. But the moratorium expires in September.

In many cases, coastal land has been handed down from generation to generation. But the Maritime Zone Law prevents those residents from obtaining land titles or proving ownership.

TECOCOS would give these families ownership rights if they have lived in the maritime zone for more than 10 years, and if municipalities and neighbors can confirm it.

Coastal residents protest outside the Legislative Assembly in San José in May 2013.

Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

The government’s proposal

Last year, the National Front of Coastal Communities, lawmakers and the Chinchilla administration negotiated a deal to pass TECOCOS in a first-round of discussion in the Legislative Assembly, along with two bills drafted by the government: one to regulate existing constructions and another to create “coastal cities.”

Government-sponsored Bill 18,592 defines coastal cities as urban areas located on the coast that include “natural areas” in the maritime zone, as well as surrounding properties. Once an area is declared a coastal city, municipalities can more easily grant construction concessions. The bill emphasizes that concessions cannot be granted in these areas to foreigners who have not lived in Costa Rica for more than 10 years, or who live outside of Costa Rica, or to companies with more than 50 percent foreign shareholders.

Yet on Feb. 17, 2014, in a special session of the Assembly, the National Liberation Party moved to vote only on the two government-sponsored bills, leaving the TECOCOS Bill out of discussion.

A spokeswoman for Presidency Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides confirmed that the TECOCOS Bill had not been called up for discussion, nor are there plans to do so. The spokeswoman referred The Tico Times to PLN lawmaker Carolina Delgado for further comments.

Last Tuesday, in a legislative debate, Delgado said the TECOCOS Bill was flawed and would prevent coastal families from escaping poverty because it defines them as local communities dedicated only to artisanal fishing, the sustainable extraction of marine resources, rural and community tourism and family-run fishing companies.

“It leaves the communities in poverty, and [prevents] families from advancing, from accessing development,” the lawmaker said.

According to Delgado, the two bills promoted by the government seek integral solutions to the Maritime Zone Law dilemma.

For Matarrita, the problem with the Assembly’s current approach is that if the two bills are passed without passage of TECOCOS, communities would be left unprotected, especially ones located in areas where some government officials want to build coastal cities, such as Costa de Pájaros and Chomes in Puntarenas, Cocorotas in the Gulf of Nicoya, and Manzanillo on the southern Caribbean coast, among others.

Matarrita said the Municipality of Puntarenas already has expressed an interest in developing a coastal city, a large port and a marina in the Costa de Pájaros area.

“Discussing a coastal city in a port like Costa de Pájaros, which was designed according to the coastal culture of artisanal fishing, means they’d have to demolish the entire village and change the cultural roots that form the center of life here, as well as the type of construction that already exists,” Matarrita said. “They’d practically have to annul the coastal culture of this place.”

Matarrita also warned of potential environmental damage this type of development could cause in coastal areas.

Timeline of events:

July 2012: The Legislative Assembly passes a moratorium to temporarily protect coastal residents living in the maritime zone from eviction and demolition of their homes and businesses. The law expires in September 2014.

March 2013: The Assembly’s Environmental Commission approves the TECOCOS Bill and sends it to the Assembly floor.

April 2013: Lawmakers pass the TECOCOS Bill in a first-round vote. The bill is sent to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court for review.

February 2014: The National Liberation Party moves only to discuss two bills promoted by the Chinchilla administration, leaving TECOCOS off the legislative agenda.

The Tico Times will continue to provide updates on this issue as it unfolds in the Assembly.

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The devil is in the details they say and thats where this article fails. I wish the journalist would have dug a little bit deeper to get to the real story. TECOCOS does not offer protection to those who live or do business within the public zone (the first 50m from high tide) If TECOCOS would come into effect they would be removed, have their homes and businesses demolished before having to relocate. The initial idea of the law was to protect these people but the law proposal has long ago lost its spirit. True though is that it would condemn the habitants to poverty with no chance to excel or liberty to grow. TECOCOS states that if you are a fisherman you are forced to be a fisherman for all future as are your kids and their kids. What if they would like to do something else for a living? The answer is no. The only way you can hold on to your family home is to not change anything and if you do you loose it. You can’t rent it out, you can’t change its use, you can’t expand so be careful you have to remain small at all times and with no chance to become a bigger fishing operation. You can’t mortgage it to send your kids to school, pay for improvements or a much needed surgery. You can only receive local tourism whatever that is. Your neighbor will come and stay over? You will still have to pay concession fee to the municipality and conform to a zoning plan. If your family lot is bigger then 1,500m2 the muni will come and expropriate whatever exceeds that measurement and redistribute it to whoever they see fit. Sounds fair? If you had a tourist operation renting rooms or whatever as a corporation, SA, you will not be granted a concession either even if you have been doing it for years. Nope, only a physical person can do business on the concession land making sure you will remain small and poor. The kicker is the only way you can transfer ownership is by inheriting the concession. So if you decide you want to make a life change you will have to give up your home to the Muni without compensation. How does that sound for upwards mobility. What if you have no kids? What they didn’t tell Evangelina Aguilar in Costa de Pajaros that is worried about the municipal fee is that even if TECOCOS became law she would have to pay a Cano (concession fee) and conform to a zoning plan (and that is if she lives outside the 50m ZP and within 150m concession area otherwise she will have her home demolished as previously mentioned)

The Broad Front Party (Frente Amplio) and PAC are not being completely honest in the consequences of TECOCOS but thankfully it will not reach the floor in congress after the two broke the agreement with the other political parties (ML, PLN, PUSC, PASE, RC ) that voted in favor of TECOCOS in the first round of votes, before being sent back to constitutional court, only to get shafted when it was PAC/FA turn to vote. 18.592 (coastal towns) and 18.593 (Regulations of existing structures) passed with a majority without their support but the agreement is now off of course and TECOCOS can not pass without a coalition vote. PAC/FA shot themselves in the foot in the end but it might just be for the best for those living in the coastlines of Costa Rica.

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Carol I. Meeds

The public zone is the public zone. It is for all the people. Many people can not afford to live in paradise on the beach. Most people have to live where the work is. Most people have to live in congested and densely populated areas to find employment. These citizens of all of Costa Rica and elsewhere people come to this coastal wetlands forest beach to renourish their souls. They enjoy the solitude of a beach that is there for their pleasure and peace and quiet.

But this is more than a beach. This is a wonderful wildlife and nature preserve. The habitat here is renowned and known by scientists and biologysts all over the world as a unique treasure. The good citizens have spokent through their leaders. They want this area preserved forall, not for a few lucky souls who were here before.

It is very generous of the drafters of the laws to allow any continued habitation in an area that was dedicated by the founders of this country to be preserved for the pleasure and enjoyment of all.

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The use of the public zone as prescribed in 18.592 is only for coastal towns and that would mean Puerto Viejo & Cahuita in your canton of Talamanca, on the southern caribbean coastline. These towns were named urban centers as far back as 1915 for Cahuita by President Flores in law 35 and Puerto Viejo law 166 in 1935. I can’t see how this affects nature preserves and wetland forests?

Did you know that the canton of Talamanca is the county with the highest percentage of protected areas in all of Costa Rica? 89% of its territory is under one or another protection be it indigenous reserve, wildlife refuge or national parks. That is more then three times the national average. I think its time to preserve the local culture and peoples too not to loose what is the unique essence of caribe sur for the pleasure and enjoyment of all

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