PLAYA GRANDE, Guanacaste – Despite itspeaceful, quiet appearance – or perhaps because of it –this 4-km stretch of beach has become the site of an ideologicalbattle over the best way to protect both theendangered leatherback turtles that nest here and theweak finances of the Costa Rican government.Considered one of the world’s top five most-importantnesting beaches for the giant leatherback, the landis protected as part of the Las Baulas National MarinePark, just north of Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of thenorthwestern Guanacaste province.Exactly how much land is protected, and what thatprotection means, is up for debate, however. And as thetractors and “For Sale” signs along the beach testify,resolving this debate is becoming increasingly important in the leatherback’s future here.JUST beyond the first 50 meters ofbeach – protected for public use like allcoastline in Costa Rica – it is no secret thatthe property here is in private hands.Environmental groups and administratorsof the national park say the governmenthas the right and the obligation toimmediately stop construction on theseprivate lands until it has the funds to expropriatethem, because they are part of thenational park.This assertion, coupled with a drasticreduction in the leatherback turtle populationin the past 20 years, has inspired threeenvironmental groups to file a lawsuitbefore the Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala IV) requesting aninjunction against further constructionalong the shore here.The suit also claims the Environmentand Finance ministries have been negligentin expropriating the private properties withinthe park. Although the law that created thepark ordered the expropriations 10 yearsago, the process has only recently begun andhas not been completed on any property.MEANWHILE, owners of the propertythat borders the nesting beaches of LasBaulas continue to plan buildings and seekenvironmental approval from the NationalTechnical Secretariat of the EnvironmentMinistry (SETENA) and construction permitsfrom the Municipality of Santa Cruz,which has jurisdiction over the area.Some property owners maintain theland is not in fact part of the park, andnever has been. They insist they haveevery right to build.The Sala IV has accepted the lawsuitfor study, and has requested that no permissionsfor construction be granted in themeantime. A decision could be made withintwo months, according to officials.ENVIRONMENTALISTS and parkbiologists are particularly concerned aboutconstruction within a 3-km stretch in themiddle of the park, where most of the turtlenesting occurs.“It is no coincidence that this is also theleast-developed area; the turtles are specificallychoosing this part of the beach becausethere is little development there,” saidRolando Castro, a lawyer with the Environmentaland Natural Resources LawCenter (CEDARENA) in Costa Rica, one ofthe groups that filed the lawsuit.Playa Grande is the most importantleatherback-nesting beach in Costa Rica,according to park administrator RodneyPiedra, who told The Tico Times he supportsan injunction and calls for “immediateaction” in the “urgent” situation.According to a 1989 study, 80% ofleatherbacks that nest on the Pacific coastof Costa Rica, nest in the park.The number of turtles coming ashore tonest in Las Baulas has decreased drasticallyin recent years. According to scientists,during the 1988-1989 nesting season,1,367 females entered the park. In the2004-2005 nesting season, only 48 femalesentered the park.Worldwide, the leatherback populationhas dropped 90% in the past 20 years,according to the Marine Turtle RestorationProgram (TT, Jan. 28).THE Inter-American Association forEnvironmental Defense (AIDA) andJustice for Nature (JPN) are also part ofthe Sala IV lawsuit, which is againstSETENA, the Municipality of Santa Cruzand the Environment and Finance ministries.SETENA lawyer Dionisio Fernándeztold The Tico Times that because expropriationof the land has not been completed,and still lies in private hands – a problemthat plagues national parks throughout thecountry – SETENA must respect anowner’s right to build.SETENA can only decide whether aproject is environmentally viable, not prohibitconstruction on private property altogether,Fernández explained.“Environmental viability indicates aproject has maintained an equilibrium between development and the environment,”he said, adding that this means if itis determined a project will have somenegative effect on the turtles, the developerswill be asked to mitigate it.REGARDLESS of the mitigationefforts, CEDARENA’s Castro said constructionand development will have negativeeffects on leatherback nesting.Furthermore, if additional landowners areallowed to build the luxury homes andcondominiums they are planning, the costof expropriating the property couldexplode, he said.Determining a total cost of expropriatingall of the land is difficult because ofnegotiations involved, according to EmelRodríguez, director of the TempisqueConservation Area, into which LasBaulas falls. At least $600,000 hasalready been raised for the effort throughdonations by two non-profit organizations,he said.The expropriation of the first property,a process which started last year, hasalready been stalled in negotiations as theEnvironment Ministry and the propertyowner disagree over a fair price for theproperty.ONE of more than 65 landowners inthe area, Jacques Fostroy, said he doubtshe will ever receive a fair price for hisinvestment, which he made in the late1980s. Furthermore, he argues, his propertyis not in fact national parkland.“It’s a dream of theirs. It is not part ofthe national park,” he said.The problem is created by what theGovernment Attorney’s office says is anerror in the 1995 law that created LasBaulas National Marine Park.Even without the park designation,the first 50 meters of land are automaticallypart of the public domain, under theMaritime Zone law, which protects thebeach from development.Government and park officials, aswell as environmentalists, maintain thepark also includes 75 meters past the 50-meter mark, for a total of 125 meters. It isthis 75-meter zone that is up for expropriationand on which environmentalistsseek to permanently halt construction.WHILE one part of the law defines thepark with this limit, however, another partof the same law excludes it, according to areport released last year by theGovernment Attorney’s report.The mix-up is an obvious error, and thepark is meant to include the 75 meters, thereport concludes.Environment Minister Carlos ManuelRodríguez issued a binding directive inaccordance with the report with the correctedboundaries, including the 75 meters,according to conservation area directorRodríguez.However, the law has not beenchanged, he added.Meanwhile, Fostroy insists his propertyis not parkland, and believes governmentfunds would be better spent – andturtles better protected – through the creationof a zoning regulation to control constructionin the area, including definingheight limits, use of lights and density,among other things.