Environmental organization Asociación Conservacionista Yiski and its president, María Elena Fournier, plan to fight a defamation lawsuit filed by a former environment vice minister widely regarded as the “father” of Costa Rica’s national parks.
Mario Boza, who served in the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) during two administrations, claims Yiski and Fournier engaged in a campaign to discredithim and his nearly four decades of achievements in promoting conservation in Costa Rica.
He is suing for 100 million colones (approximately $190,000) in damages plus legal fees, an amount Fournier says neither she nor the nonprofit advocacy group possesses.
Fournier maintains that Yiski has done no wrong and acted in the public interest by exposing a harmful proposal that would have resulted in the privatization of Costa Rica’s national parks and protected areas.
Lacking the resources or desire to hire a private attorney, Fournier and Yiski have acquired the services of a public defender, Fournier told The Tico Times. In recent days, the environmental advocacy group has received letters of support from several organizations and individuals, including a penal law expert from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) who has volunteered to provide advice.
Fournier first learned about the suit, filed Sept. 28 in San José, after being summoned to a settlement hearing scheduled for April 11, in which Boza requested that she retract statements made as Yiski’s president and apologize.
“I rejected the proposed hearing because there was nothing to reconcile,” Fournier said. “It was a matter of defense of the national patrimony and freedom of expression through the media.”
Privatizing the Parks?
Boza became the first director of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), the branch of MINAE charged with managing the country’s national parks and protected areas.He has written extensively on the parks system and is the recipient of multiple international conservation awards.
More recently, Boza helped file an injunction in February before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) aimed at ending construction inside Las Baulas National Marine Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Sala IV ruled on the case last month, ordering the government to begin expropriating privately owned property within the park “immediately” (TT,May 16).
Boza filed his defamation lawsuit in response to comments by Fournier published in UCR’s weekly Semanario Universidad, as well as a series of messages sent through Yiski’s electronic mailing list that accused Boza of sponsoring a measure aimed at privatizing the country’s protected areas. The measure in question was a draft of a now-abandoned bill proposal that sought to transform SINAC into a sociedad anónima, a corporation that, although owned by the state, would be managed like a business. Transforming SINAC into a company able to administer the resources it generates would have improved protected areas’ funding situation.
The proposal’s aim, says Boza in the lawsuit, was to resolve SINAC’s chronic funding problems. SINAC relies on the government for funding. The funds generated through park fees are transferred to the government’s coffers, where SINAC’s needs compete with other government priorities. This has left protected areas with insufficient funds to ensure their adequate protection and conservation.
Boza claimed that, in certain years, more than half of the funds generated by the parks are spent on non-park-related programs (TT,May 4, 2007).
Yiski sees the proposal as an attempt to privatize Costa Rica’s national parks and wildlife reserves, which cover approximately 17 percent of the country. In response to the outcry and “impertinence” of Yiski and other opponents, Boza told Semanario Universidad on Jan. 18, 2007, that he would desist in promoting the reform. Yiski considers the controversial proposal’s demise a victory, Fournier said.
On the advice of his attorney, Boza declined to discuss the lawsuit with The Tico Times.
According to the lawsuit, Boza accuses Fournier and Yiski of distorting the truth with the intent of damaging his reputation.
“The claim that the reform sought to privatize the country’s protected areas is false, as Article 3 of the proposal states that the national parks would remain the patrimony of the Costa Rican state,” the suit states.
A series of e-mails sent out from Yiski on the group’s mailing list insinuating that Boza had profited from efforts to privatize the parks are among the evidence cited in the suit.
Another Yiski e-mail dated Sept. 17, 2006, and cited in the lawsuit states, “Boza, in a previous time known as the ‘Father of the National Parks,’ now recognized as the ‘gravedigger of the protected wildlife areas,’ has benefited and continues to benefit from consulting jobs aimed at bringing about privatization.”
Fournier told The Tico Times that the emails cited as evidence in the suit should be dismissed because they were not acquired through the “proper channels,’’ which raises the possibility they may have been altered.
Free Speech Limits
Fournier said the suit would not prevent her organization from continuing to denounce what it perceives as threats to the country’s protected areas. “These things don’t intimidate me,” she said. “I feel that what we’re saying is correct.We will not stop denouncing what needs to be denounced. Senseless actions like these will not stop us from making responsible use of freedom of expression.”
Given the large backlog of cases in Costa Rica’s legal system and the generally slow pace of the judicial process, it could take several years before the case goes to trial.
Fournier says she is confident she and Yiski will prevail. “The accusation is not based on facts,” she says. “To denounce something like (Boza’s proposal) is not a crime. It’s both a right and a privilege.… We still live in a democracy. I still have faith in the legal system.”
Costa Rica’s freedom of expression laws, however, may not be on her side. Antiquated defamation laws put the burden of proof on the defendant and carry stiff penalties, including jail time. They have prompted the U.S. State Department to condemn the laws as threats to human rights within the country.
Press freedom activists have lobbied for years to change existing defamation laws. A proposed Freedom of the Press and Expression Law has languished for y