The recent replacement of two top officials in the Environment and Energy Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA), said to be part of a general reform of the institution, has triggered accusations that the move was illegal and is intended to favor business interests over protecting the environment.
SETENA – considered a collapsed and dysfunctional institution by not only President Oscar Arias’ administration, but also many in the business community and the Secretariat itself – is responsible for assuring that all construction or development projects in Costa Rica are “harmonized” with the environment, according to the 1995 Environment Law.
Representatives of Arias’ administration say the changes are legal and part of a broad reform of SETENA to promote efficiency and get “new blood” in the Secretariat.
“From my point of view, there is no political pressure,” Vice-Minister of Production Carlos Villalobos, whose ministry replaced one of the SETENA officials, told The Tico Times this week. “Obviously, at the beginning of an administration they want people who are disposed to comply with and commit to the policies of the new government.”
At the top of SETENA’s structure is the Plenary Commission, made up of seven representatives from various government ministries and institutions, which emits all SETENA’s final decisions.
In May, Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles informed the heads of the ministries and institutions to review their representatives to SETENA.
The result was the replacement of two officials less than two years into their sixyear terms.
Both the officials who were replaced told The Tico Times their removal goes against the Environment Law, which founded SETENA and laid out its functions.
The move also alarmed the rest of the commission, according to Marvin Boza, one of the two replaced officials. He said the remaining representatives wrote a letter to Dobles referencing Article 88 of the Environment Law, which states officials can be removed from the Secretariat only “if there exists a serious offense or a failure to comply with what is established by this or other laws.”
“They have not given me either of those two reasons… The only argument that (I have been) given is that they are revising their representation (before the commission),” said Octaviano Castillo, the other SETENA representative who was replaced. “It is an entirely political decision.”
Castillo was first nominated to SETENA in 2004 from the Agriculture Ministry (MAG) – which is now included in the Production Ministry (MIDEPRO) – and had his position renewed in March of last year through 2011. However, in August, the Production Minister removed him from the commission, and in September he was transferred to the National Power and Light Company (CNFL) to work on sustainable development programs.
Production Minister Alfredo Volio, who ordered Castillo’s removal, was out of the country when The Tico Times consulted the ministry, but vice-minister Carlos Villalobos insisted Castillo’s replacement was not politically motivated.
Asked about the legality of the change, the Vice-Minister said he was not familiar with Article 88, but that MIDEPRO had say over Castillo.
“(Castillo) is an official at MAG, not at (the Environment and Energy Ministry), and therefore the Ministry can make any agreement or transfer,” Villalobos said. “He should be following the laws of the ministry where he is an official.”
MIDEPRO spokeswoman Ana Bolaños also insisted the transfer was completely legal because Castillo is a representative of MIDEPRO and can be reassigned at the minister’s discretion.
Despite multiple requests at the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) press office for a comment, The Tico Times was unable to speak with a MINAE official.
Castillo alleges there are “two currents” in SETENA – one in favor of protecting the environment, and the other in favor of business, construction and investment.
“The authorities (in Costa Rica) are of this current, toward putting the project before the environment,” Castillo said.
Boza, a representative on the commission for the Public Health Ministry since 2001, was also relieved of his position at SETENA in August following Dobles’ instructions and sent to work in the Health Ministry’s Human Environment Department.
“The reason they gave me was the new government had made an agreement between ministers in the new Cabinet to change all the representatives,” Boza said.
While Boza criticizes the move, saying it does little to improve SETENA’s problems because what it needs is more funding and resources, he said he does not believe there is political pressure to stack the deck in favor of business interests.
“I believe what they are doing is putting in people that they trust,” Boza said. The former SETENA official added he thinks the Secretariat’s laws and regulations are strong enough to continue to “harmonize development and the environment,” even if there are outside pressures.
“SETENA is going to work in that aspect the same. There is no administration that could change that,” Boza said.