ENVIRONMENTALISTS and governmentprosecutors are speaking outagainst a controversial management planthat outlines procedures for zoning anddevelopment in the Gandoca-ManzanilloNational Wildlife Refuge, on the southernCaribbean coast.The plan, financed by the World Bank,has been a source of disputes in the areasince the plan’s creation in 1996. It dividesthe refuge into 15 zones, each with a recommendeduse, such as conservation,investigation, tourism, forest and agriculture.It is meant to prevent over-developmentof the so-called “mixed” refuge,which spans both public and private property.Critics, however, argue it is lax andwas drafted by people whose interests inthe area are in tourism development, notenvironmental preservation.Last month, the environmental branchof the Chief Prosecutor’s Office requestedthat the criminal court of the Caribbeanport-town of Limón order a series of measuresto protect the refuge, including suspendingthe management plan.If approved by a Limón judge, themeasures would be enforced until theProsecutor’s Office completes a criminalinvestigation of several area property ownersfor alleged environmental violationsand of several environmental officials foralleged negligence, environmental prosecutorLuis Diego Hernández recently toldThe Tico Times.THE prosecutor has asked the judge toorder the Ministry of the Environment andEnergy (MINAE) to cease granting land usepermits in the area and to order EdwinCyrus, regional director of MINAE’sAmistad-Caribe Conservation Area, whichoversees the refuge, to suspend the managementplan.“I have requested these precautionarymeasures because my investigation hasrevealed they are necessary,” Hernándezsaid. “The management plan does not appearto protect certain fragile areas in the refuge.”The Conservationist Labor Union ofthe Environment Ministry (SITRAMINAE),which has approximately 200 members,mostly park rangers, agrees.THE union is planning to take anotherlegal step against the Gandoca-Manzanillorefuge’s management plan by filing a casebefore the Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala IV) alleging it isunconstitutional, said the union’s legaladvisor, Sonia Torres.Their case argues the plan allows forviolations of environmental legislation,such as the granting of land-use permits inthe Maritime Zone, the lawyer told TheTico Times.“SITRAMINAE has various argumentsagainst the management plan. For example,it was never published in the officialdaily La Gaceta, a standard requirementfor a document of its kind,” Torres said.THE management plan was created bythe Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge AdvisoryCommittee, which includes members ofthe Amistad-Caribe Conservation Area, theMunicipality of Talamanca and theManzanillo Integral Development Association.Members of the Ecological DevelopmentAssociation of Cocles, Manzanilloand Gandoca (ADECOMAGA), a target ofcriticism by environmentalists who questionsome members’ interests (TT, March4, and a team of biologists from theUniversity of Costa Rica also contributedto the management plan.THE main point of contention betweenenvironmentalists and developers is ZoneOne, whose defined use is for constructionof condos, apartments, hotels, cabins andhostels in front of the public road.“Zone One, as established by the managementplan, responds to the interests ofvery powerful people,” charged SITRAMINAEsecretary general Roberto Molina.Environmentalist and SITRAMINAEvolunteer Marta Castro said, “the managementplan allows for tourism developmentinside the refuge, which is equivalent todeforestation and drainage of the wetlands.“To build one house you may need tochop down five trees. Imagine how manyyou might need to build 20 bungalows,”she said.“The problem is, everything’s allowedin Gandoca-Manzanillo. …This is a mixedrefuge, which means there can be privateproperty inside it that you can buy andsell,” added Castro, who claims she hasreceived death threats because of her proconservationefforts in the area.CONSERVATION area directorCyrus told The Tico Times there has beena lot of misinformation regarding the managementplan.“Few places in the country have implementeda management plan, and oursinvolved community participation in itselaboration,” he explained. “Since 1994,we held meetings where area residentsgathered with experts and could openlyparticipate in the plan’s creation.”According to Cyrus, the plan is not astatic document; it can be modified at anytime and is undergoing a general revisionright now.Conservation officials held a meetingJan. 25 with approximately 45 members ofthe community to discuss the plan.Interested parties were given until last weekto recommend changes, the director said.“THE plan was compiled by expertbiologists from the University of CostaRica, who were paid a lot of money for aserious project that some people, who wantto make this area sound like a haven of corruption,question for reasons that are inexplicableto us,” Cyrus told The Tico Times.The Limón native added that Zone Onecorresponds to 700 hectares – a small percentageof the refuge, which extends over4,000 hectares on land and 5,000 hectaresat sea and protects wetlands and nestinggrounds for leatherback and hawksbill turtles,as well as habitat for crocodiles, manatees,tapirs and several species of monkeys,among other animals.“People live inside the refuge, and wehave to be realistic about development inthe area. What we are doing is trying tominimize impact and conserve as much aspossible,” he said.ACCORDING to Cyrus, the refuge’smanagement plan has been in revisionsince January 2004, when MINAE stoppedgranting land-use permits in the area untilchanges to the plan are completed.However, during a meeting inManzanillo in December 2004 withOmbudsman José Manuel Echandi, it wasestablished that MINAE would continueissuing permits, Cyrus said.Land-use permits are necessary forproperty owners to alter their land in anyway, including to cut trees or clear brushfor agricultural or building purposes. Toobtain a construction permit from themunicipal government, a proper land-usepermit from MINAE is required.Talamanca Municipality inspectorDennis Peralta told The Tico Times theEnvironment Ministry never stoppedgranting land-use permits for refuge landslast year, and consequently the municipalitycontinued granting construction permitsfor lands inside Zone One of the refuge.Cyrus, on the other hand, claims theonly permits granted by the ministry lastyear were for land-use permits outside therefuge.SITRAMINAE secretary generalMolina, meanwhile, says the plan shouldbe done away with altogether because itdoesn’t give priority to the protection ofwildlife and marshlands.“The plan is not inaccurate in its entirety.We need to start by making an inventoryof all the species inside Gandoca-Manzanillo – we have to admit MINAEhas done a poor job of this,” he said.Last December, Molina filed a lawsuitagainst Environment Minister CarlosManuel Rodríguez before the Sala IV,accusing him of ignoring SITRAMINAE’srepeated requests for a solution to environmentalviolations at the refuge, includingmodification of the management plan thatallegedly allows them.According to Molina, the Sala IVordered Rodríguez to make an immediate,direct reply to SITRAMINAE or face aseries of sanctions. However, Molina saidthere have been no reply and no sanctions.“I do not understand SITRAMINAE’sattitude, they have not been ignored,”Minister Rodríguez told The Tico Times.“They say there are a series of ecologicaldisasters in Gandoca that simply do notexist – I have visited the area four or fivetimes – and they have a variety of interestsof their own.”Rodríguez said Cyrus issued a reply tothe labor union; however, The Tico Timeswas unable to confirm this with Cyrusbefore press time.CONFLICT over land in the refuge,which was populated by indigenous peoplebefore the arrival of the Europeans to theCaribbean coast, is historic.“Europeans pushed the indigenouspeople back into the mountains and leftthem landlocked,” explained María ElenaFournier, president of the non-profit environmentalorganization Yiski.“The Afro-Caribbean population camewith the arrival of the banana companies,and the indigenous did not put up anyresistance to sharing the land with them,”Fournier said.These two ethnic groups owned mostof the land now populated in the Gandoca-Manzanillo refuge, according to Fournier,who added that over the years, most of thisland was sold to foreigners and investorsfrom the Central Valley who have developedtourism projects in the area.