Serious Environmental Lapses of the 2006-2010 Arias Administration
The 2006-2010 tenure of Oscar Arias Sánchez’s government will be remembered as a period that saw society polarised, including on environmental issues. The administration took a hard line from the start: benefitting a minority, at the expense of the majority. What was said about the environment in international fora was based on the country’s long-standing reputation as a frontrunner in environmental protection, and its historic pledge on the environment. The actions taken at home, however, were irreconcilable with this, representing a huge backward step, and causing possibly irreversible damage, the cost of which not only the current generation, but future ones as well, will have to pay.
As part of this unhappy legacy, and so that it will never be forgotten, the “Grupo Llamado Urgente por el País” (Urgent Call to Action by the Country) and other organisations present to the public some of the elements which are most representative of the mistakes we inherit from this administration.
The expansion of pineapple plantations: a surprising fact – these four years saw pineapple cultivation grow from 15,000 hectares (in 2004-2005) to over 54,000 hectares (data from the MAG, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Farming), and that figure could be much higher, were the agricultural census to be updated. This growth was sold as being beneficial to the country, owing to the increased development and jobs. However, the reality in pineapple cultivation zones shows the opposite: ownership of the land, and of the wealth generated, is concentrated in the hands of a few, while environmental damage, disease and plagues of flies are widespread. Since July 2007, in Siquirres, more than 6,000 people drink water from tanks at a cost of US$27,000 a month, funded by the AyA (Costa Rican Institute for Aqueducts and Sewage). He who contaminates pays; yet the institutions have filed no complaints to enforce this principle against the companies responsible for contaminating the water tables with Bromacil and other toxic substances. While the government publicises its massive campaign of planting trees (the majority of which are from exotic species, planted in monocultures by wood production companies), aerial photographs of the expanded plantations show how massive wooded areas have been eliminated, even in areas where rivers are protected. In addition, owing to poor environmental practices, the activity has resulted in contamination of the soil, surface and subterranean water, and has had further environmental consequences due to erosion and creation of solid residues. Sites like Caño Negro are bleeding to death amid rife impunity.
Mining: there was a justification for the 2002 moratorium on metal mining, issued by the Pacheco administration: Costa Rica was being “inundated” by requests from mining companies wanting to exploit the country’s rich resources, with the legal, technical and environmental resources to take care of these problems. Although little progress had been made towards correcting this situation, the Arias administration, in 2008, lifted the moratorium, without consulting anybody, and opened a “mining Pandora’s box” (which, in the administration’s final months, with 90% of the population opposed to mining, they tried to close a few days before the February 2010, but without issuing an executive decree). However, during this open period, there were questions asked about the environmental viability of the change in design of the open-air mining project in Crucitas, and a Declaration of National/Public Interest – also highly questioned – which saw the Canadian mining industry destroy over 50 hectares of forest in San Carlos in two days. Today, this, the largest mining project in Central America, has been stopped, thanks to 18 protection petitions submitted by the country’s social and environmental organisations. The technical and legal debate during the hearing before the parliamentary Sala Constitucional (Constitutional Chamber) in November 2009, the most intense in the Chamber’s entire history, made clear the consequences that that decision could have for the country, and its future. The country is on the verge of a historic union: if permission is granted, it will unleash one or more “swarms” of mining activity, difficult to stop due to the responsibilities acquired through the Free Trade Agreements.
Chorotega decree, and y coastal real-estate development: nearly two years into Arias’ time in office, the administration issued Executive Decree No. 34456 MP-MIVAH-TUR-MINAE-COM, which “regulated” real-estate development on a four-kilometre strip of coastline in Guanacaste and the region(s) of Cóbano, Paquera and Lepanto. The decree was “justified” as setting down regulations in the absence of regulatory planes, and as precluding high-rise building within 200 metres of the seafront. However, it allows buildings of up to four storeys high in this area, and of up to nine storeys between one and four kilometres from the beach. With no consideration for the environment, urbanisation was planned for population densities of up to 90-thousand people per square kilometre. All this at a cost to forest, mangrove swamps, protected areas, aquifer recovery zones and, worse still, with no guarantee of basic services, such as water and collection of waste. It was apparently the housing crisis in the United States which halted investment in real-estate, avoiding a similar decree being issued for Puntarenas. However, the danger still lurks, and history will not erase the intention of the decree.
Water and Sardinal: during these four years, the urgent Hydrological Resources Law remained to be passed. It was not a priority for the government. However, wrong decisions were taken, which now necessitate that urgent corrective action be taken. Sardinal is an excellent case in point: with no consultation, and without the relevant technical studies being carried out, the decision was taken to draw the water from the underground aquifer in the flood valley where the community of Sardinal lies, to supply the coastal developments in the sectors of Playa Hermosa and Playas del Coco del cantón de Carrillo – a clear example of lack of planning and management of territory and of natural resources. The government, having already invested and begun construction of the aqueduct, and pressurised certain institutions such as SENARA (National Irrigation and Drainage Service) and the Water Department in search of justification, had to cease work by order of the Sala Constitucional. Today, these works stand as a real-life example of how things should not be done in this country. The opening, in September 2009, of the Hotel Riu in Playa Matapalo, with its 701 rooms in an area which is semi-arid and not generous in terms of water for the community, is likely to dampen spirits still further.
Las Baulas and protected areas: this administration tried to open a path for development in the Playa Grande sector, which borders the Las Baulas Marine National Park, one of the most important nesting sites on the planet for leatherback turtles. They used various means to try to achieve this goal, one of them being the intention to promulgate a law which would downgrade the National Park to a Wildlife Sanctuary, on the pretext that there was not enough money to pay for the expropriation of land. Ignoring the technical and legal position on several occasions, the government’s line has consistently been to downgrade the national park in favour of development in the buffer area, classified from a hydrological point of view as of extreme vulnerability. The tactics of courting public opinion recently exemplified by minister Jorge Rodríguez attempt to suggest that “hundreds of families live in protected areas” and that “these areas were created in previously-established populations and are part of the environmental, social and economic balance that must be struck in search of sustainability” so “evacuating them would generate great social problems”. The case of Las Baulas, categorised as a national park, is not part of that discussion. A series of executive decrees to diminish or repeal the status of various protected areas, issued by this government, contribute to this aim. The Arias administration is the first for many years not to create a new national park, which is evidence of their having “forgotten” the agreements signed at the Convenio de Diversidad Biológica (Biological Diversity Convention) on the world stage, whereby new protected areas should be created, and the national system of protecting endangered species should be fortified. This government has also come up short in terms of protected marine areas. The problem of the capture and mutilation of sharks for their fins has been irresponsibly ignored.
Competitiveness and SETENA: one of the main functions of the (unofficial) Minister for Competitiveness was the “reinforcement and modernisation” of the SETENA, the organisation in charge of assessing the environmental viability of new investment projects, highly technical and impartial, as is evaluating the environmental impact. Thus, a semi-autonomous organisation which must remain independent of any political influence, came within the scope of the “support” and “care” of the Minister for Competitiveness. No surprise, then, that projects like that at Crucitas should be given the environmental green light in six weeks flat, while other, less damaging projects sometimes have to wait months to be approved. Nor that almost throughout this administration’s time in office the Comisión Mixta (Mixed Commission), with great public participation, technically the assessor of the SETENA in terms of proceedings, was not convoked. And finally, even less surprising is that the SETENA has, in the past two years, issued new proceedings via resolution, arbitrarily and without consultation, some of them even illegal.
Articles of the Biodiversity Law (LB) modified by two executive decrees: In their desperation to acquiesce to the latest demands of the US government to “ratify” the free trade agreement, the Arias administration, in December 2008, modified Articles 78.6 y 80 of the LB. The “interpretation” of Art. 78.6 allows that inventions directly derived from the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples or peasant communities can be patented, clearly to the interests of biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies. The modification made to Art. 80 eliminate the binding character of the legitimate opposition of the Comisión Nacional para la Gestión de la Biodiversidad (Conagebio, National Commission for the Management of Biodiversity) to patent applications on elements of Costa Rican biodiversity which would go against the objectives of the Biological Diversity Convention. The change means that the only basis on which Conagebio can now oppose an application is non-compliance with patent law. No-one was consulted on these executive decrees – not even the indigenous peoples, as ILO Convention #169 necessitates, nor Conagebio, whose power it reduces. Both decrees were questioned before the Sala IV, which recently took them to be studied further.
Decree widening the ring of containment: in February this year, the administration carried on its work, issuing an executive decree opening the door to large-scale urbanisation on land within up to 200 metres of the boundary line of the Gran Área Metropolitana (GAM, Great Metropolitan Area), leaving areas of high and very high environmental fragility exposed to urban development, on the pretext that there is no room for development within the boundary line and using PRUGAM’s environmental viability as its justification. Nevertheless, urbanisation is being proposed for highly fragile areas, and could put future residents at risk, while inside the GAM there remain over 9-thousand hectares to be urbanised and when it would have been simpler to approve the PRUGAM Plan. What lies behind this decree will have to be debated before the Sala Constitucional, which upheld a complaint of unconstitutionality and suspended the decree’s enforcement while the matter is being resolved. Likewise, explanations have yet to be given for the violation of a 2008 ruling, obliging the government to delimit the protected zone designated in Decree-Law (Decreto-Ley) 65 of 1888 (which declared a good part of the mountains in the north of Herediam and part of Alajuela, inalienable), where today, real-estate development is already under way.
In closing: in the past few weeks, a series of executive decrees have been prepared and are in the pipeline, that continue along similar lines and which, when enacted, will reinforce the negative environmental image of the Arias Sánchez administration. These include decrees on the countryside/landscape, on communications towers, and one that attempts to change the methodology of taking the environmental factor into account in regulatory plans, despite there being over 50 municipalities who have used the methodology, or are using it. These are just a few more mistakes, which the government are urgently trying to push through. They are also putting pressure on their outgoing MPs to quickly pass, before 8 May the notorious marina law, and the reform to the Maritime Terrestrial Zone law, which cedes rights, in perpetuity, to huge international tourism conglomerates on our coast, as has already happened in Papagayo.
It is strange in the extreme to hear the President, in his speech at the inauguration of the Judicial Year, caution all the magistrates in the country, saying: “I don’t know whether the members of the Judiciary lose sleep over the investment that Costa Rica loses because of the volatility of some of their decisions, which affect our economy. I do”, when it is executive decrees enacted under his administration, with no consultation, in a reckless and “volatile” manner, and lacking in technical criteria, which have given rise to the current situation. Every one of them, without exception, has ended up before the highest courts, asked to try to contain the untold damage to nature suffered during these four years.
In summary, we can say without fear of contradiction that in terms of the environment, facts speak louder than words of the Arias’ 2006-2010 administration. This being the case, some of the facts laid out above, among many others, speak far louder than the sugared words of the President’s speeches about being “At Peace with Nature”.
Llamado Urgente por el País
Federación Costarricense de Organizaciones Ambientalistas (FECON)
Asociación Pro – Mejoras de Tamarindo
Asociación de Comunidades Ecologistas La Ceiba (COECOCEIBA)
Centro de Derecho Ambiental y de Recursos Naturales (CEDARENA)
Coope – SoliDar R.L.
Asociación de Ecología Social (AESO)
Oilwatch Costa Rica
Red Centroamericana de Acción del Agua (FANCA)
Asociación Regional Centroamericana para el Agua y el Ambiente (ARCA)
Fundación Opinión Ambiental
Justicia para la Naturaleza
Comité Bandera Azul Ecológica de San Miguel
Asociación Ambiental del Norte de San Rafael de Heredia
Programa Restauración de Tortugas Marinas (PRETOMA)
Asociación Red de Coordinación en Biodiversidad
Asociación Terra Nostra
Asociación Ambientalista de Siquirres
Asociación de Estudiantes de Derecho (Facultad de Derecho,UCR)
Academia Costarricense de Derecho Ambiental (A.D.A)
Asociación Proyecto Alternativos (PROAL)
Amigos del Río Pacuare.
Union por la Vida (UNOVIDA)