President Oscar Arias recent decision to make Peace with Nature has touched off a series of skirmishes between environmentalists who say it s much ado about nothing, and supporters who say it offers a fresh, global vision.
Everyone supporters and detractors alike agree that the country s environment is under attack by a host of insidious enemies: rampant and uncontrolled development, mounting trash issues, a lack of wastewater treatment and inadequate water supply, among others.
But Arias highly publicized Peace with Nature initiative, which calls for eight specific actions to make amends with the environment, didn t account for the ongoing war of words raging among the country s outspoken activists, politicians and, most recently, the respected Biologists Association.
A positive global initiative like Peace with Nature loses its legitimacy when we have so many attacks inside our own country against the environment, said Grettel Ortiz, a legislator with the Citizen Action Party (PAC).
The legislator said the administration continues to show interest in petroleum exploration, and has allowed development to continue unchecked, all the while calling for higher profile global initiatives such as carbon neutrality.
Peace with nature begins at home, Ortiz said.
Mauricio Alvarez, of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), one of the country s most outspoken environmental groups, agreed, calling the initiative window dressing and lacking in true substance or concrete action (TT, July 13).
Not so, said Pedro León, the soft-spoken coordinator of the initiative and a biologist with a resumé that reads like the index of a science textbook.
Read the plan. Nothing could be clearer than the eight specific actions that President Arias has called for, he said, doing little to hide the impatience in his otherwise steady, professor-like voice.
The called-for actions include balancing the country s carbon output, such as vehicle emissions, with its carbon input, largely through reforestation efforts, by 2021 among the world s most ambitious carbon neutrality schedules.
It also calls on each government ministry to put together an environmental action plan to include mandatory ecofriendly practices in everything from recycling paper to planting trees, wastewater treatment and energy use.
These things will take time. Nothing is going to happen overnight. But how can we judge a program before it s really even started? León said.
The initiative instituted 11 commissions, each assigned to one of the country s environmental issues (see box).
Like many of the commission leaders, León has multiple degrees in the sciences from well-known U.S. universities and has authored dozens of scientific papers. He also served as president of the Biologists Association (1979-1980).
We have more than 150 people involved in this initiative, some of the most knowledgeable, technically able scientists and environmentalists in the country, he said.
Please, we must give them time to express themselves.
War or Peace?
On the heels of the full-day inauguration for the initiative and an evening gala at the National Theater, the Biologists Association held a meeting of its own this one staged in a modest concrete office building near the leaf-shaded La Sabana Park on the west side of San José.
The association announced that despite calls for Peace with Nature, developers have declared war on the country, scheming to sneak developments large and small through the crumbling framework of the National Technical Secretariat of the environment Ministry (SETENA).
Hundreds of applications sail through a woefully understaffed office each year, explained association president Noemí Canet most without review by scientists trained to measure a project s impact on the country s biodiversity.
There is a complete and utter lack of biological protocol in the process, despite the fact that this country promotes itself as ecofriendly, Canet said.
The association points out that this problem has only festered and grown worse since Arias took office, as SETENA remains critically under-funded and the number of proposals continues to increase, despite growing public scrutiny.
The government is a silent partner in unsustainable development simply because it has yet to take action to stop it, Canet said.
León responded, Is SETENA broken? Yes, of course it is. But we have other, very serious problems in this country climate change, extinctions, wastewater treatment and we re not going to make any of these a priority. If SETENA was the country s only problem, I d still be in a lab right now.
But the biologists believe the development question is central, citing multiple examples of illegal, unsustainable development on their Web site, ww.colegiodebiologos.org.
They are not alone. Last week, the Comptroller General s Office chastised the OsaMunicipality on the southern Pacific coast for its disorganized coastal development and set short-term goals for turning things around (TT, July 20).
The Guanacaste coast may be worse a study by the Federated Association of Engineers and Architects in March showed as much as 25% of new real estate development in the northwestern province is illegal (TT,March 16).
These problems are slowly eating away at the country s green image and eventually will turn it into another Cancún, Canet said.
She added that she was disappointed and shocked that the Biologists Association, of which all the country s practicing biologists must be members, was not invited to be a part of the new initiative, and demanded a meeting with León.
León said such concerns are baseless, as the initiative is still young, and much is still left to be decided.
Despite the mounting environmental problems and political bickering, those now involved in the 11 commissions formed by the Peace with Nature initiative remain cautiously optimistic.
It s a start, said Denise Echeverría, outspoken leader of Vida Marina, who serves on the Peace with Nature commission dedicated to marine resources.
She said she liked the direction the President has taken despite publicly criticizing the administration s announcement of a pending airport on the OsaPeninsula.
This is a sign that the administration wants to listen to our concerns. We should take advantage of this opportunity, she said.
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, who was chosen to lead the commission for financing of conservation areas and was well known as the Environment Minister during former President Abel Pacheco s administration, was also optimistic.
There will be peace with nature if there is the political will to change the patterns of development in this country, he said.
According to León, political will is vital, but then the program must be divorced from politics and stand on its own merits, which includes a system of metrics to measure its progress.
Are we carbon neutral? Yes or no? Are our government institutions using less water, less energy, recycling more? We will measure these things, he said, adding that the proof must be weighed after the initiative has had time to unfold.
The Fine Print: Peace with Nature
President Oscar Arias’ Peace with Nature initiative, first published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta, calls for four national and four international actions:
Nationally, he has committed to:
• Carbon neutrality by 2021.
• A mandatory plan to minimize environmental impact by each government ministry.
• An increase in forest cover.
• Addition of more protected areas via an expansion of the “Payment for Environmental Services.’’
Internationally, he has committed to:
• Lead a group of carbon-neutral countries.
• Create a global program of alternatives to deforestation.
• Support a program that allows developing countries to exchange debt for environmental service.
• Support an initiative to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
The program also establishes 11 commissions to discuss and develop plans of action in priority areas.
The commissions, and their chairmen, are:
Climate Change, René Castro, Professor, Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE); former Environment Minister.
Organization of National Protected Areas, Alfio Piva, director, National Biodiversity Institute (INBio).
Financing of National Protected Areas, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, regional vice-president, Conservation International; former Environment Minister.
International Environmental Policy, Luis Diego Escalante, president, CR-USA Foundation; former Foreign Trade Minister.
Water Resources, Emma Tristán, geologist, private environmental consultant.
Reduction and Management of Waste, Rónald Arrieta, University of Costa Rica (UCR) professor, expert in waste management.
Education, Pedro León, director, NationalCenter for High Technology (CENAT); director, Peace with Nature.
Tourism, Allan Flores, general manager, Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT).
Marine Resources, Michael Rothschild, director of environmental group Marviva.
Planning and Land Use, Ricardo Ulate, director of international relations, Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).
Toxic and Hazardous Waste Management, María Guzmán, director of environmental research, Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).