The government this week announced a major reduction in illegal logging – from 35% of all timber harvesting in 2004 to 15% this year, the lowest in Central America – thanks to a United Nations-backed program.
But despite this and other positive statistics, much remains to be done, say officials and environmentalists alike.
For example, in Hojancha, a coastal canton in the province of Guanacaste, the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) recently halted an illegal logging operation in the restricted Maritime Zone – land within 200 meters of the ocean – but not before a developer had cut 4,600 trees. Though the case has been submitted to the courts, Environment Minister Roberto Dobles and others acknowledged this week that the punishments for breaking Costa Rica’s forestry laws are weak.
Dobles said Tuesday officials are evaluating the nation’s forestry legislation to propose changes to make the penalties stiffer.
Current legislation says breaking forestry laws and illegally felling trees can be punished with fines and three months to three years in prison.
Danilo Méndez, who heads MINAE’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) local office in Hojancha, agrees penalties are far too lax.
“In 10 years working here I have never seen a case (of illegal logging) punished with prison,” Méndez said.
Illegal logging “is a big concern for us,” agreed Dimas Rojas, the SINAC official who oversaw the Hojancha investigation and halted the logging. “It is something we are seeing principally on the Pacific coast. In Guanacaste, in the past 30 years, a lot of forests have been recovered. However, the value of these trees and the pressure of investment is great. Many developers don’t respect the legislation.”
According to Juan Figuerola, who leads the forest workgroup for the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), the problem of illegal harvesting is “huge.”
“The 1996 Forestry Law (which lays out most of the current forestry regulations) was very influenced by the loggers, and it very much favors cutting down the forests,” Figuerola continued. “The Forestry Law sees only lumber in the forests and trees. It doesn’t see the ecosystems, biodiversity and the conservation of water.”
The reduction of illegal logging to 15% puts Costa Rica in a “privileged position” in Central America, where the average rate of illegal logging runs between 40-50%, according to Octavio Ramírez, the Costa Rican representative of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which oversaw and largely funded the $500,000 program.
In addition, 51% of Costa Rica is currently covered by forest, up from 45% in 2000 and 21% in 1987, according to MINAE statistics. Costa Rica’s success with the FAO program – launched by former President Abel Pacheco’s administration in 2002 – will serve as a model as the FAO takes the program to other countries in the region, Ramírez said at a press conference Tuesday.
An important aspect of the program, Ramírez said, has been attempting to bring people who log illegally into the legal system, rather than denouncing them as criminals.
“The excessive bureaucracy has a lot to do with illegal logging,” Ramírez said, noting the amount of paperwork and time it takes to get permits to cut trees legally can prompt people to do it illegally.
One of the trends officials found as they began to take a closer look at Costa Rica’s wood consumption was that the majority was coming from pastureland.
Between 1998 – the year after the Forestry Law was approved – and 2002, the percentage of wood consumed nationally that came from pastures rose from 54% to 71%, the program’s coordinator, Juan José Jiménez, explained. At the same time, the percentage coming from land declared forest decreased similarly.
Further investigation showed that much of the pastureland where the trees were being cut was forested a few years earlier, according to a 2000 map of national forest coverage.
Because it is much easier to get permits for cutting trees in pastureland, property owners were trimming out underbrush, removing trees and introducing cattle into areas they wanted to log, Jiménez continued.
“What they were doing was legalizing deforestation,” he said.
MINAE filed charges against some of property owners for an illegal “change of use” of their property, Jiménez said. But more importantly, MINAE and the FAO launched a pilot program in four regional offices using hand-held Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) equipped with the 2000 forest coverage map and GPS locators (TT, Feb. 25, 2005). Armed with more than 100 of these, MINAE officials in these regions now check any land where a permit for logging has been requested against the map to see if there has been a change of use.
The results are pleasing. In 2005, the percentage of wood coming from pastures dropped to 24% of national wood consumption, a 47% drop in three years, Jiménez said.
Though happy with the success, the coordinator said he believes about 15% of that pasture logging is still illegal.
A report on the project from 2004, already indicating success in preventing pasture logging, acknowledged that illegal forestry has found other ways around the system, including getting change-of-land use permits through proposing tourism activities in coastal areas and pineapple plantations in the northern Caribbean region.
In “one of the most serious cases” of illegal logging that SINAC’s Méndez said he has ever seen, the San José-based development company Loma Alta de San JoséS.A. cut 4,600 trees from a 10-hectare swath of beachfront property in Hojancha.
According to Rojas, the area was leveled not to sell the wood, but most likely to build hotels, condominiums, houses or other tourism developments.
“They dragged the trees out and threw them in a clandestine cemetery in order to hide the evidence,” the official alleged, adding the company had also cut an illegal access road through forest area.
Representatives from Loma Alta de San José have yet to explain their operations to MINAE, he added.
The Tico Times attempted to contact Loma Alta de San José, which, according to its records at the National Registry, is headed by U.S. citizen Larry Ford Ferguson from Houston, Texas, and represented in Costa Rica by José Antonio Tabush Cordero, a lawyer who has been suspended from the Costa Rican Lawyers Association for not paying his dues.
The Tico Times called three listings for Larry Ferguson in Houston and left messages at two numbers, but calls were not returned at press time. The Tico Times could not reach José Antonio Tabush at the numbers provided by the Lawyers Association.
While Méndez said the Loma Alta de San José logging is by far the worst, he said his office has received five other complaints of illegal logging this year, mostly for illegal access roads cut through forest, or trees cut down to clear land for homes.
“Most property owners buy areas that include forest and don’t know or aren’t told they must get a permit from SINAC to build there,” Méndez said.
Further south along the coast, in the central Pacific region, MINAE, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) and the Garabito Prosecutor’s Office are investigating at least 22 possibly illegal construction projects involving logging within the grounds of Punta Leona, a private beach resort that also encompasses subdivided properties sold to private owners.
According to Mario Coto, the director of MINAE’s Central Pacific Conservation Area, officials are investigating, but the multitude of different owners has made finding out who has permits difficult, Coto said. In addition, he complained that both Punta Leona and the GarabitoMunicipality – the governing municipality in the area – have been slow in responding to requests for information.
Mario Pacheco, Punta Leona’s lawyer, denies any illegal construction and said all the properties were sold with the proper permits. Pacheco also said he sent MINAE the names of the owners of the properties where MINAE has been investigating, and provided The Tico Times with faxed copy of a letter stamped “received” by MINAE saying the same.
Coto said the information is not what MINAE needs, and the ministry has since found more projects that appear to be illegal.