WHEN it comes to environmentalchallenges facing Costa Rica, this year willbe “as difficult a year as the rest of them,”according to Environment Minister CarlosManuel Rodríguez.Government environment officials,private organizations and activiststhroughout the country told The TicoTimes they hope 2005 will bring improvedenvironmental legislation and enforcement.Meanwhile, they will continue battlingillegal felling and fishing, environmentalilliteracy, exploitation of natural resources,water wastefulness, financial challengesand what they say is a lack of political supportfor conservation.To combat illegal felling, Rodríguez saidthe Environment and Energy Ministry(MINAE) plans to begin measuring theimpact of this practice in Costa Rica. Hedescibed the $350,000 project as one “ofimmeasurable importance in the detection ofareas of illegal felling.”THE ministry also plans to adjust theprice of water concessions paid by usersthroughout the country by raising fees graduallyduring the next seven years in a projectwhose implementation has been stalled fortwo years, according to Rodríguez.“We all use water and pay for it, but noteveryone recognizes its value,’’ the ministersaid.Through a decree expected to besigned next week and go into effect sixmonths later, all water consumers, includingbusinesses, hydroelectric projects andresidential consumers, will be subjected toan increase in the price of water, accordingto José Miguel Zeledón, director ofMINAE’s water department.Even the two institutions that do notpay water concessions because they arestate-run, the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute (ICE) and Water and SewerService (AyA) will have to pay after thedecree goes through, he said.“The raise is designed to create achange in our culture, to force people tocare about water. The money will gotoward ecosystem administration and otherservices provided by the water department,”Zeledón said.ANOTHER of Costa Rica’s greatestenvironmental challenges this year is the“proper management of the shark resource,”said Randall Aráuz, president of the SeaTurtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA).Like others concerned with the state ofthe country’s marine resources, Aráuz ishoping for the approval of the Fishing andAquaculture Law Project, which is scheduledfor second debate Tuesday (TT, Jan.14). The Legislative Assembly approved itunanimously in first debate last month.Still, passing the law may not beenough, Aráuz said.“Abundant laws exist in Costa Rica butthere is no political will to enforce them,”he said.Aráuz criticized the Costa RicanFishery Institute (INCOPESCA) for whathe called catering to “the interests of foreigninvestors,” mainly Taiwanese enterprisesthat collect shark fins in Costa Ricanwaters and, until recently at least,unloaded them on private Costa Ricandocks (TT, Nov. 19, 2004).The institute has been accused of facilitatingthe practice of shark finning, theslicing off of sharks’ cartilage-filled finsfor lucrative purposes.IN a letter addressed to President AbelPacheco and signed by 35 legislators inNovember 2004, INCOPESCA was condemnedfor “evading all types of effectivecontrol on this practice (of shark finning),yielding to irrational exploitation and thereduction of our precious marine resources.”Aráuz maintained his organization “willremain on INCOPESCA’s back and continueto file injunctions whenever the necessityarises” in 2005.Aráuz said he also rests his hopes onCosta Rican fishermen’s receptiveness to theeducational initiatives PRETOMA hasscheduled for this year.“We will work closely with fishermen toshow them there are solutions to the incidentalcapture and frequentdeath of turtles duringfishing,” he said. “Theleatherback turtle willbecome extinct in 10-15years if things continuethe way they are.”Aráuz explained fishermenuse up to 800-hook fishing lines whenfishing for dorado (mahimahi),a practice thatresults in the capture ofleatherback turtles,which are often badlyhurt or killed by fishermenwho carelessly ripthe hooks out of theirmouths.ANOTHER endangered turtle is thePacific olive ridley, a carnivorous speciesthat nests in the northwestern province ofGuanacaste. According to Aráuz, theseturtles, which feed on shrimp, often drownwhen they are captured in giganticshrimping nets for five to six hours, anamount of time that exceeds their capacityto remain underwater.PRETOMA’s educational projects,which will focus on fishermen in Playasdel Coco, in northern Guanacaste, and thecentral Pacific port-town of Puntarenas,intend to promote the careful unhooking ofleatherbacks from fishing lines and the useof fishing technology called turtle-excluderdevices, which consist of installing barson the nets to prevent turtles from beingcaptured along with shrimp.Aráuz also expressed enthusiasm abouta project scheduled for this year that wouldadd an environmental seal to distinguishshrimp fished with turtle-friendly technologyfrom other shrimp in stores, and encourageconsumers to help protect these animals.OUTSPOKEN environmentalistFabián Pacheco said educational initiativesare on his organization’s 2005 priority list.This year, the Social EcologicalAssociation (AESO), where Pachecoworks as a coordinator, will begin creatingprograms to spread general ecologicalknowledge among one of their main focusgroups: children.“In general, there are three axes to our2005 agenda. They are: resistance to corporateexploitation (of natural resources)and expansion in the country, projects toprovide more environmentally consciouseconomic alternatives, and environmentaleducation,” he said.He mentioned the proposed CentralAmerican Free-Trade Agreement with theUnited States (CAFTA) as one of thegreatest threats facing environmentalists inthe area this year.“We don’t believe in free trade thatwill lead to impositions and the expansionof U.S. companies through CentralAmerica,” Pacheco said.The agreement, signed in 2004, hasraised concern among environmentalistsand Citizen Action Party legislators, whowarned CAFTA would allow U.S. oilexploration in Costa Rica if it is approved.(TT, Aug. 20, 2004).PACHECO said his organization isprepared to go out on the streets andprotest if there are threats of oil drillingand exploration in the future.His father, Costa Rican President AbelPacheco, declared a moratorium on theseactivities, but the ban may not be validafter his administration ends.Fabián Pacheco’s association also plansto “demand that the government implementindigenous knowledge in its forestry politics,which hasn’t happened so far.”“Indigenous environmental knowledgeshould be incorporated in the rescueof our agriculturaldiversity,”he emphasized,echoing theconclusions of afive-day conferenceheld inSan José lastmonth by theInternational Allianceof Indigenousand TribalPeoples ofTropical Forests(TT, Dec. 10,2004).FINANCIAL problems also form partof environmentalists’ lists of worries thisyear. According to Rodríguez, the EnvironmentMinistry’s main challenge in2005 is its lack of funds.“If MINAE were a private enterprise, itwould have already shut down,”Rodríguez said.He said he rests his hopes on thePermanent Fiscal Reform Package, a controversialtax plan whose passage is uncertainafter nearly three years in theLegislative Assembly. It aims to increasegovernment revenue by levying new taxesand improving collection of existing taxes(TT, Dec. 24, 2004).The Environment Minister also saidhe is counting on the support of internationalorganizations, which have helpedraise $25 million in funds for governmentenvironmental projects during his term asenvironment minister, including $8 millionfrom the Betty and Gordon MooreFoundation to help combat poaching inCorcovado National Park, on OsaPeninsula, in the southern Pacific coast(TT, Nov. 12, 2004).ACCORDING to jaguar expertEduardo Carrillo, a scientist at theUniversidad Nacional in Heredia, north ofSan José, this money will go towardresearch and hiring personnel, mainly forestrangers, to guard the park and protectjaguars and peccaries from hunters, theirmain threat.An estimated 30-40 jaguars remain inCorcovado, Carrillo said, compared to 40-50 last year (TT, March 19, 2004) and 75-100 two years ago.“Summer is high season for hunters,and last January we lost about 50 peccaries,the jaguars’ main source of food. Ifthis summer turns out like last year’s, thereis a great risk the jaguar population maynot recover,” Carrillo warned.Carrillo, a researcher for the NewYork-based Wildlife ConservationSociety’s jaguar project extending fromMexico to Panama, said that in 2005 theorganization will continue monitoring thearea and searching for funding options tohire more forest rangers to guard the vastnational park.