Residents of Pérez Zeledón credit divine intervention, but whether Jesus Christ or the government – or both – answered their prayers, environmental authorities have stopped a rock quarry planned near the monumental Christ statue they cherish as a Southern Zone symbol.
Residents say the 10-meter-tall statue looking south over the expansive Valle de El General is a symbol of peace.
Designed by Costa Rican sculptor Francisco Ulloa, the statue was placed on the boulder in 1979 with donations from area residents. It was a time of turmoil in the rest of Central America, when Costa Rica had earned a reputation for being a land of peace.
The statue, held up by a rock stretching some 300 meters skyward at the northern entrance to the Southern Zone on theInter-American Highway
, became known as the Príncipe de Paz (Prince of Peace).
The fate of the monument and the towering roadside boulder that serves as its pedestal, if a quarry were installed, prompted a two-year dispute between residents and the quarry concessionaire.
The Environment and Energy Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA) rescinded the quarry project’s environmental viability permit Sept. 11, after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) accepted for review a lawsuit filed by a neighbor against SETENA and the Environment Ministry, alleging irregularities in the permitting process. The court has not yet issued a ruling on the matter.
SETENA annulled the viability permit on the grounds that, because it was granted in 2004, it has expired. Quarry concessionaire Juan Ramírez appealed this decision Sept. 22; SETENA has not yet ruled on the matter.
The Tico Times contacted Ramírez but he declined to comment.His lawyer, Lucrecia Quirós, was out of San José this week and did not return Tico Times’ phone calls.
Concerned residents joined forces in 2004 to protect the landmark against the threat of the planned rock quarry. Early last year, they went before the PérezZeledónMunicipality to denounce irregularities in the quarry’s concession, granted by the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE). In response, the municipality began investigating the planned project, municipal legal advisor Juan José Mora told The Tico Times.
Ramírez obtained a 17-year concession in 2004 to extract 90,000 cubic meters of gravel per year from a five-hectare area near the Christ statue. He has a 25-year lease for the land, which is divided into lots with various owners (TT, Dec. 17, 2004).
Toward the end of last year, the municipality officially requested that SETENA review the permitting process for the quarry project, alleging irregularities may have occurred.
The owner of property adjacent to the quarry site,U.S. citizen Carol McConnell, also requested that SETENA annul the project’s environmental viability permit Sept. 4 after quarry workers allegedly trespassed through her property to start work on the project.
According to McConnell’s lawyer, Belisario Solís, his client filed the suit because she received no response from SETENA, and quarry workers were entering her private property without authorization.
Workers for quarry concession holder Ramírez began using heavy machinery to remove trees and material from the proposed quarry site Aug. 25, Pérez Zeledón police officer Javier Cordero told The Tico Times.
He confirmed a bulldozer protected by an armed private guard made its way through McConnell’s property until it reached the planned quarry site.
According to a press release from Voces Nuestras (Our Voices), a nonprofit communications agency representing Pérez Zeledón residents who oppose the quarry, workers had cleared some 50 square meters of land before opponents arrived.
A crowd of approximately 70 blocked the bulldozer’s path, said Edwin González, coordinator of the Committee to Rescue the Rock, a community group created in early 2005 to protect the landmark.
The quarry workers left after police arrived and found that the guard carried no documents for his gun, police officer Cordero said.
After the incident, however, the guard provided paperwork proving his registration is in order, Cordero added.
Ramírez’s lawyer Quirós told The Tico Times last month she had no knowledge of the event but would attempt to find out what had happened. However, she did not return Tico Times’ calls.
McConnell’s lawyer said he filed a criminal complaint alleging trespassing before a Pérez Zeledón court Aug. 30, but he has not yet received a response from the court.
The lawyer said he believes his client’s battle is half won. SETENA cannot rule on Ramírez’s appeal until the high court resolves McConnell’s lawsuit, which could take a few months or more.
“No authorization was given to enter her property. She bought this property for conservation purposes,” Solís said. He alleges SETENA never consulted the community before granting the viability permit.
For Ramírez’s project to be carried out now, he would need to win his SETENA appeal or apply for another environmental viability permit.
According to area resident González, it is unlikely that “after everything that has happened,” SETENA would uphold Ramírez’s appeal or grant him another permit. González said he believes God’s hand was involved in obtaining the permit annulment.
“We put this in God’s hands; he heard us – the clamor of a people – saying, ‘this must be annulled,” he said.
National Monument Proposed
Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) legislator Jorge Eduardo Sánchez, who hails from Pérez Zeledón, presented a bill to the Legislative Assembly in August that would make the Christ statue and the rock beneath it a national monument.
It establishes prison sentences from one to three years and fines for anyone who damages or destroys the statue and boulder. It also authorizes the PérezZeledónMunicipality to expropriate the properties on which the Christ is located, Sánchez told The Tico Times.
The Committee to Save the Rock, a group of community members, also wants the rock to be a national monument, but coordinator Edwin González said they oppose Sánchez’s bill because they fear that if it passes, the government would be forced to provide financial compensation to Ramírez.
Sileny Rivera, Sánchez’s spokeswoman, denied the bill includes indemnification, and said the legislator seeks only to preserve the monument he holds dear.