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Environmentalism at a cost
Zusha Elinson
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Poor residents near nature reserves face eviction.

Costa Rica´s natural beauty lures tourists by the thousands. But the country´s efforts to protect its famed natural wonders to draw ecotourism dollars is endangering some of Costa Rica´s poorest citizens.

Costa Ricans living along the Pacific coast are being forced from their homes to protect parkland or to make way for hotels and other development. Costa Rican law allows the government to evict people living within 200 meters (660 feet) from the beach. The law is being used to clear out poor communities that are either in the way of tourist developments or living inside popular nature reserves.

In the Ostional Wildlife Refuge — an 18 kilometer (29-mile) span of northern Pacific coast where tourists flock to see thousands of turtles come to lay eggs on the beach — three communities are being a threatened with eviction by the country´s highest court. The court argues their eviction will protect the park and the turtles that come there to nest, but longtime residents, like Olga Correa, refuse to give up their homes.

Correa, 42, has lived her whole life just a short walk from Playa Pelada, a pristine beach in the Ostional Wildlife Refuge. Her late grandfather, a fisherman and a farmer, settled in the area 63 years ago, long before it was declared a national park in 1983. But the Correas, and many others, have no legal title to the land they´ve occupied for decades.

“They want to get rid of us like a bunch of dogs,” said Olga, a cook who until recently ran a rustic seafood restaurant near her house. “But here is where I grew up, here is where my children were born, and here is where my parents died.”

A strong, stout woman, Olga tries to hold back her tears, before saying quietly: “Here is where they´ll bury me - here on the beach.”

Panic and outrage has spread throughout other communities in the wildlife refuge and all along the Costa Rican coast where pobladores – longtime residents who never bought the land – are being threatened by forced removal.

These pobladores have formed the Frente Nacional de Comunidades Costeras en Peligro de Extinción, an umbrella group of some 60 such communities. The group estimates that some 50,000 families nationwide could be in danger of losing their homes. Headed by human rights lawyer Wilmar Matarrita, the group has proposed a new law that would allow people to stay on their land.

“Everyone has a right to place to live,” said Matarrita. “These are poor people, humble people who live here – they´re not squatters.” 

The law that protects a 200-meter (660-foot) buffer along the coast, known as the Zona Maritimo Terrestre, was passed in 1977 to protect the country’s beaches. It declares the 50 meters (165 feet) nearest to the ocean to be sacrosanct, belonging only to the public, while the next 150 can be occupied only with a special permits.

In most of the country, local governments are in charge of enforcing the law. One of the most aggressive has been Alberto Cole, mayor of the Osa municipality, a lush area in the southern Pacific coast. In May, Cole ordered the demolition of a house belonging to Estela Aguilar Corella, a 60-year-old woman who had lived there for most her life. News reports of the elderly Aguilar returning to her house to find a pile of rubble and her belongings gone grabbed national attention. “All of the kitchen utensils, furniture, bed, all the clothing, all disappeared,” she was quoted as saying in El Pais newspaper.

Business first
At the same time, Cole had been actively promoting tourism development along the coast. He has come under fire for giving the green light to big tourism projects in the same protected zone to companies like Las Ventanas de Oso, a real estate developer known for building condos and luxury eco-resorts.  Cole did not return an email seeking comment, but told the Semanario Universidad newspaper recently that “the municipality is putting things in order and unfortunately there are people who don´t like that, but it´s my obligation to apply the law.”

There have been other demolitions along the coast, home to top surf spots and wildlife reserves. On June 21, residents of the northern Pacific town Punta Morales gathered for a somber mass in the very place that their small chapel had been destroyed by the government. Nine families had lost their homes there as well.

Matarrita and the Frente are hoping to put a stop to the evictions and change the way things are done along the coast by proposing a bill that give anyone who has lived there for five years the right to live on their land, to pass it on to their children, but not to sell it. It would give the coastal communities the power to govern themselves and the responsibility to protect the environment. It would also limit huge tourist developments.

Some Costa Rican politicians have taken note of the movement. On May 21, people from up and down the coast, including Olga Correa, traveled hours on ferries, buses and trucks to state their case in San Jose. A dozen lawmakers signed on to launch the Frente´s bill. However, the same politicians claimed there was little they could do to stop any evictions for the time being because the local governments are simply complying with the law.

And so while Olga Correa´s family and hundreds of others living in the Ostional Wildlife Refuge are hopeful about the bill proposed law, there is still great uncertainty about the future. The February court ruling ordered everyone to leave the refuge within in six months. And although the court made an exception for people who moved to the area before 1983 when the park was formed, few actually have the paperwork to prove it.

Political dilemma
The Environment Ministry is responsible for actually removing individuals from the wildlife refuge. But it has been reluctant at the same time as opposition has grown. The agency is now waiting on its own legislation that would allow people who have lived there for more than 10 years to stay in their homes.

“We want to protect the refuge,” said Laura Brenes, an Environment Ministry official. “But we are trying to make sure that as few people as possible have to leave because it would have a huge social impact.”

Sitting outside her white and blue cinder-block house, Olga surveys the area around her. Behind her, there are the small homes of her children. Through the green leaves of the trees, she can see the ramshackle wooden houses with dirt floors where her neighbors live. And just beyond, the sound of the crashing waves.

“It´s like we are foreigners on our own land,” she said.
—Latinamerica Press.


Olga Correa, like other longtime residents in the Ostional Wildlife Reserve, are refusing to leave their homes. (Photo: Zusha Elinson)
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