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Tourism or overdevelopment?
Bryan Kay
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Marina’s construction near indigenous lands sparks debate about its benefits and possible threats to local culture.

Minority indigenous groups in Costa Rica are already tucked away in some of the remotest parts of the country, far from the heavily-Westernized pulse of the Central Valley, home of capital San Jose, and the minds of government decision-makers.

Fears are now growing one such population, the Bri Bri, are about to see their culture further eroded if a planned marina on the edge of their homeland gets the go-ahead.

The Caribbean seaside town of Puerto Viejo, site of the proposed development, is perhaps the most popular and prosperous face of the Talamanca region, a stark contrast to more interior areas, where poverty is rampant.

Puerto Viejo is a tourist favorite. A four-hour drive from San Jose, many see the beach town as uncorrupted by mass tourism, a major motor of the Costa Rican economy, and rampant foreign investment. They also cite the opportunity to experience genuine indigenous life – well-preserved and practically untouched by US-driven popular culture.

But all that could be about to change if the marina at the heart of the beach town gets the go-ahead, according to a string of local leaders and indigenous community figureheads.

Critics have rushed forward to warn of possible environmental repercussions and damage to local eco-tourism. Now they are warning of yet another issue and say Talamanca´s other, indigenous face could be all but wiped from the map.

The Bri Bri are the dominant indigenous group in the Talamanca region, numbering around 13,000. Many live a way of life more in line with that of their ancestors, and speak only in their native tongue.

Influx could erode culture
Timoteo Jackson, a native Bri Bri community leader, says if the marina – proposed by Grupo Caribeno Internacional, which is led by a consortium of Costa Ricans and foreigners – is built, it could begin a massive erosion of that indigenous culture.

“For we indigenous, this is only a bad thing,” he said. “Right now we have tourists coming to see the nature, the conservation and the indigenous way, but this will stop if the marina comes.

“The people going to marina won´t come here. They will stay there or go elsewhere. The marina is only for millionaires and will scare away the travelers who come to enjoy nature. There will also be more drugs as more people from other countries come.”

Rejecting the idea that the project could bring prosperity through jobs, Jackson expressed fears the marina may signal the start of a construction boom that could even lead to interest in indigenous lands inside the protected reserves in the region, a move he said he would strongly resist.

“The marina is for 100 docks, but before it was 400,” he said. “This is only the start. They will want more all the time.”

A planning process recommendation saw the number of berths slashed from 400 to 100 – though the move has failed to assuage opposition.

Country´s poorest region
Talamanca, perennial occupant of the bottom spot in Costa Rican human development indexes and generally considered the poorest canton in the country, is home most of the nation’s indigenous population.

That theme is one Manuel Leon, president of the Puerto Viejo Integral Development Association, has compelled the municipality and developers to address by asking them to list the benefits Pueto Viejo and the greater area would incur by the creation of a marina.

While some have argued the development would provide an economic boost and create jobs – potentially pulling some of the poorest out of abject poverty – Leon feels few locally would prosper.

“I cannot say much because I am the president of the association, but I am against,” he said.

“However, for the town, for the indigenous I asked, ‘What are the benefits for the town?’ Is there going to be a university, a hospital? They don´t answer, they have no project.”

Willis Rankin, president of the Talamanca Association for Eco-Tourism and Conservation, believes locals will have no part to play in the project.

“I am totally against this. There are environmental and economic impacts and also possible cultural effects,” he said. “The problem is that it will be a totally different place. There will be no local participation in the marina either directly or indirectly.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have urged extreme caution over the plans. They say already severely endangered coral reefs are under threat as well as a string of other forms of marine life, including dolphins.

One of the businessmen behind the project, Jan Kalina, rejected those claims, alleging that the coral died long ago. “The zone was coral 50 years ago, but now it is dead rock,” he told La Nacion daily. “The town itself has contaminated it.”

Earlier this year, the municipality denied the proposal has already received the thumbs up from officials, despite claims by Kalina that he had continually received positive noises from those within the authority.

After first being declared of interest by the municipality in 1999, this year the plan passed the preliminary consultation phase governed by the Inter-Institutional Commission on Marinas and Tourist Docks.

Despite the continuing ambiguity surrounding the dimensions of the plans, opponents have vowed to fight on. Puerto Viejo is normally a laid back little place, though a specially made campaign leaflet belies the reputation, summing up a renewed sense of energy stirred up by the controversy. “Can we stop this project? Yes - we can and we must stop this project now, as there are still no construction permits.”
—Latinamerica Press.

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