Battle over Tortuguero Road heats up again

July 2, 2018

The on-and-off battle over the proposed road through the Atlantic Coast Tortuguero National Park is heating up again after the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) stopped an effort to open the road through the park led by the municipality of Pococí, which has jurisdiction over Tortuguero.

A court motion allowed the municipality to authorize construction, but then on March 14, SINAC halted construction based on three different Supreme Court rulings protecting the parkland.

According to the SINAC executive secretary, the municipality of Pococí authorized construction and provided diesel and machinery to the Road Committee of Caño Chiquero. The Caño Chiquero committee then started restoring a section of the construction site that was initially shut down by authorities in 1997.

SINAC detailed evidence of construction they found in a press release: “This was corroborated by a visit of March 7, 2018, at 3:45 p.m. by officials from SINAC… and Tortuguero National Park, Cuatro Esquinas sector, where they detected traces of machinery (apparently a dragline), removal of vegetation along the trail on both banks and the existence of a rustic wooden bridge using a log of almond tree, cut longitudinally, on the Chiquero Caño, which is used as a bridge to make way for the Barra de Tortuguero community.”

According to business owners in the area, virtually all of the town’s citizens oppose the road, which would bisect 1.9 kilometers of the famed national park and an adjacent protected area.

“Of the people who live here, 100 percent are against the road,” said Modesto Watson, owner of the Riverboat Franchesca, a tour agency that explores the national park’s winding canals. “The people who want the road are people who own land along the route and want to sell the land for a profit, and people who want to see Pizza Huts and Burger Kings built in the area.”

Darryl Loth, a Canadian citizen who runs the Marbella Lodge, said that any support for the road dried up after the government ceded to town demands for services.

“They put in a boat ambulance, built a high school and a daycare center and health clinic run by the [Social Security system] seven days a week, they brought in firefighters,” said Loth. “The reasons for wanting the road have basically disappeared.”

Loth said that a road bringing more people into the area would completely change the character of Tortuguero.

“Right now what we have is petty crime,” said Loth. “What happens when a road is put in here and we get real drug trafficking and everything else that comes along with it?”

Loth helped organize a protest in the village against the road last month.

Watson said that the road would allow local development that would completely change the attraction of businesses like his.

“It doesn’t serve me at all. We have people who come here to see the wildlife, not to enjoy ‘sun and fun,’” said Watson. “We would have people come here for weekend jaunts and they would leave a lot of trash like they do in places like Puerto Viejo [to the south].”

The road got its biggest boost in 1997 when the municipality of Pococí tore down trees and began opening a way through the national park.

The National Park Service took the issue to court to have the municipality stop construction.

“The opening of this road would favor the illegal transfer of turtles… It would be encouraging a real illegal trade,” said SINAC. “In addition, this area is part of the RAMSAR wetland; therefore, the environmental reputation that this country has internationally is jeopardized. In the same way, it was determined that the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which was created in order to allow the movement of the species, would be affected.”

Loth said that illegal hunting, fishing, and lumbering currently takes place on a small scale, but opening the area with a road would mean a quantum leap in those activities.

Municipality spokeswoman Grace Maria Hernández Miranda said that the municipality allowed construction to resume based on an administrative court ruling in favor of a resident of Tortuguero demanding the road be completed.

The route was established by law in the 1970s, and the municipality acted to begin work on the rustic currently unpassable “ditch” based on that planning document and the fact that an appeal was made before an administrative court, according to municipality lawyer Mayra Montes Arce.

“Thus, it is clear that the actions taken both by this legal unit and by the mayor’s office have been taken responsibly, with legal knowledge and respecting our legal system,” said Montes Arce.

Hernández said the municipality stopped work on the road because they want to wait for the legal process to be completed.

SINAC spokeswoman Virgita Molina Sánchez, however, said that construction was halted at the demand of SINAC.

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