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Cracks in Costa Rica’s Green Image

Daniel Zueras* - IPS/IFEJ

SAN JOSÉ, Nov 18 2010 (IPS) - For many, Costa Rica embodies the notion of a country committed to taking care of its natural environment. But Costa Rican activists beg to differ, and have a list of the actions that contradict the country’s green “for-export” image.

A cloud forest in Costa Rica. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

A cloud forest in Costa Rica. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Open-pit mining, pollution of rivers and an international reprimand for weak protection of wetlands only fuel their criticisms.

The non-governmental World Wetland Network chastised Costa Rica in October with its Grey Globe award for the Neotropics region, citing its lack of protection for Playa Caletas, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

The debate over Costa Rica’s ecological commitment began several years ago, when the government authorised, by decree, a concession for the Canada- based Infinito Gold to operate an open-pit gold mine in Crucitas, in the northern province of Alajuela.

The project is currently on hold as it awaits a resolution from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court about the legality of the authorising decree.

But the controversy remains very much alive. On Oct. 8, 14 people began a hunger strike outside the presidential palace to demand the decree’s annulment. The strike lasted until Nov. 4 when the last participant gave in to health problems.

Mining in the Crucitas area damages the habitat of the great green macaw (Ara ambigua), a colourful bird endangered by the logging of the almendro tree, which it favours for nesting. The zone is also part of an important corridor for migratory birds in Central America.

President Laura Chinchilla took office on May 8, and on that same day signed a decree suspending open-pit mining, but left the specific case of Crucitas in the hands of the courts. Her predecessor, Óscar Arias (1986-1990 and 2006- 2010) had declared the mining project one of “national interest.”

Another issue that calls Costa Rica’s green image into question is the pollution of water sources. The watershed of the Tárcoles River, which begins in the southern foothills of the Cordillera Central, crosses much of the San José metropolitan area and flows into the Pacific, is the most polluted river in Central America and one of the dirtiest in Latin America.

Just two percent of San José’s sewage water is treated before being returned to the rivers. One wastewater treatment plant now under construction is supposed to cover 25 percent of the population in 2015, though it will begin operating in 2011 at a lesser capacity.

The Costa Rican environmental paradox came to the fore at the latest conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in October in Nagoya, Japan.

There, in addition to the Grey Globe, the World Future Council gave this Central American country the Future Policy Award 2010 for its pioneering Biodiversity Law 7788, adopted in 1998.

Although the biodiversity law made important strides, it suffered cuts in the last two years when the national legislation had to be adjusted to the demands of the Free Trade Agreement involving Central America, Dominican Republic and the United States.

“We have gone from national sovereignty to intellectual property over our natural resources,” said Silvia Rodríguez, who served as coordinator in drafting the law and now is part of the Biodiversity Coordination Network.

Two decrees that modified Articles 78 and 80 of the law undermined its benefits. A clause of Article 78 had established that biological discoveries could not be patented, “such as those emerging directly from the traditional knowledge of indigenous or rural peoples,” explained Rodríguez.

And Article 80 “established proceedings for access to biological diversity, and created the National Commission for Biodiversity Management (CONAGEBIO) to oversee its use.”

With the cuts, if the intellectual property legislation is followed, the Commission cannot impose any reservations on the granting of patents.

Two injunctions have been filed in court against the decrees, and have been under consideration by the Constitutional Court for more than a year.

In any case, “it is a visionary law,” said CONAGEBIO’s executive director Marta Liliana Jiménez in an interview. She implemented the mandates of the Convention on Biological Diversity here more than a decade ago.

In drafting the law, “all sectors of society took part, from indigenous peoples to farmers to ecologists to academics,” said Jiménez.

Since it entered into force, there has been only one consultation — about a vaccine. And its original material turned out not to be native to Costa Rica.

“The original law got many things right,” admitted Rodríguez, and “was ahead of its time in introducing certificates of origin,” through which CONAGEBIO can ensure that bioprospecting companies are complying with requirements for operating in Costa Rica.

The Future Policy prize “was awarded for the old law,” said Rodríguez.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Program/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) — all members of COM+, the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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