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Proposed Dam Threatens Wetland

AS the corruption scandal involving the Costa RicanElectricity Institute (ICE) continues to dominate thenation’s headlines, members of the World ConservationUnion (UICN) in Costa Rica are hoping to influence thedebate surrounding a very different ICE controversy: theproposed Boruca Hydroelectric Project in the country’sSouthern Zone.“The dam is absurd,” said Alejandro Jiménez, of UICNCosta Rica’s Water and Nature Initiative. He told The TicoTimes that by diverting the natural path of water from theRío Grande de Térraba, the massive dam would have disastrouseffects on areas of the Osa Peninsula such as theTérraba Sierpe National Wetland, a 30,000-hectare regionapproximately ten hours’ drive southwest of San José.The proposed Boruca dam would be the largest hydroelectricproject in Central America, and have the capacity togenerate between 841-942 megawatts of electricity – enoughto provide service to more than a million people, or roughlya quarter of Costa Rica’s population (TT, Feb 20).THE Térraba Sierpe protected area, which includes thelargest mangrove forest in Costa Rica, is the subject of astudy the UICN presented to the public on Oct. 1. Theregion is listed as a critical wetland site by the RamsarBureau, an international agency responsible for administeringa wetland protection treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran in1971. The treaty took effect in Costa Rica in 1992 (TT,March 5).According to Rocío Córdoba, the director of the Water and Nature Initiative, the Térraba Sierperegion was chosen for the UICN study forvarious reasons, including the fact that it isthreatened by the potential ICE project,which has been under consideration sincethe 1970s.“We believe the data provided by thisstudy will really help with decision-making”about the wetland, Córdoba said atFriday’s presentation in Moravia, a northeasternsuburb of San José.THE study, which took more than ayear to complete, is composed of two sections:an assessment of Térraba Sierpe´seconomic value, and a proposal for theregion’s preservation.Researchers gathered informationthrough face-to-face interviews with areafamilies, hotel owners and tourists.The primary economic activities inTérraba Sierpe are agriculture, harvestingof piangüas (mollusks), fishing andtourism, according to the study. UICNresearchers estimate the fishing industrygenerates $837,000 per year, whilepiangüeros generate $3.9 million.Térraba Sierpe is also home toimmense biodiversity, although the UICNstudy does not include an inventory of thespecies present in the region.Virginia Reyes, one of the study’s coauthors,emphasized that such an inventoryshould take place as soon as possible.Not only would a species inventory providemore information about the region’svalue, it also would help calculate theappropriate levels of fishing and piangüaextraction to ensure the sustainability ofthose populations, Reyes said.NOW, it is difficult to know whethercurrent levels of extraction are appropriate.Some families interviewed for thestudy said they have to travel farther tofish than they did in the past, suggestingthe fish population is decreasing.Reyes pointed to this lack of information,and lack of environmental educationin the region, as major obstacles to conservationefforts in Térraba Sierpe.“The people [there] really don’t recognizethe Boruca project as a threat…People need more knowledge about thearea. They haven’t confronted the problemyet,” she said.However, researchers also found thatarea families, while largely uninformedabout potential threats to the region, arewilling to support conservation efforts inTérraba Sierpe. More than 95% of the residentssurveyed said they would be willingto participate in environmental educationprograms, donate time or equipment, orhelp maintain a vigil against the illegalremoval of endangered species.TOURISTS are a potential source offunds to help preserve the wetland.“There is tourism [in Térraba Sierpe],but very little” because of the area’s relativeisolation, Reyes said. However, thestudy showed that many travelers drop byen route to more heavily visited areas ofthe Osa Peninsula, such as Drake Bay. Thetourism industry in Térraba Sierpe generates$2.5 million per year.Researchers interviewed 209 touristspassing through the area, many of whomsaid they were attracted by the region’sbiodiversity, beaches and proximity toCorcovado National Park and Isla delCaño Biological Reserve.One goal of the study was to measurethe willingness of tourists to pay slightlyhigher fees for hotels and tours if the extrafunds were to go toward conservationefforts. Most of those interviewed saidthey would be willing to contributebetween $5-10 to conservation efforts, butwould want to see data as to how the fundswere to be used.THE study proposes a managementplan for the Térraba Sierpe NationalWetland that, according to UICN CostaRica, would be unlike any other in CentralAmerica. The plan calls for shared responsibilitybetween local communities and thestate, allowing Térraba Sierpe residents tocontinue their economic activities whilealso ensuring protection of the region’snatural resources.The UICN plan calls for a voluntary $5tourist donation, which according to thestudy could generate $8,000 per year forconservation efforts. While these fundsare being amassed to help fund the protectionof the region, the Ministry of theEnvironment and Energy (MINAE) wouldoversee the creation of a local board that,eventually, would co-manage the regionwith MINAE.UICN Costa Rica’s Jiménez told TheTico Times he hopes the economic dataprovided by the Térraba Sierpe study willhelp strengthen arguments against the proposedBoruca hydroelectric project. Theproject supporter’s frequently cite thepotential economic benefits of the dam, hesaid, “but at what cost?”“We need to consider alternatives, toopen up the dialogue on a national level inCosta Rica. The Boruca [project] is anopportunity to open up such a dialogue,”he said.Such dialogue has arguably been underway for years, at least with regard to theproject’s potential effect on the indigenousgroups whose lands would be flooded bythe dam. These groups’ protests againstthe project have gained international attention,causing some of the dam’s opponentsto hope that ICE will abandon the projectaltogether (TT, Feb 20).According to the ICE website, the viabilityof the Boruca project is still beingdetermined, but the necessary studies willbe finalized on April 11, 2005.


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