With a staff of just 12 employees, the three judges of the Environmental Tribunal have taken on illegal development on both coasts, closing or suspending work on a slew of construction projects, including some of the biggest tourism developments in the country.
As a result, they received death threats, and their meager downtown San José offices were recently broken into.
But the full court press on coastal development, long denounced as uncontrolled and unsustainable, has won praise from environmentalists and legislators, who want to boost the tribunal’s funding, salaries and staff.
“We feel proud of the work the Environmental Tribunal is doing,” said National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Maureen Ballestero, head of the Legislative Assembly’s Commission on Environmental Affairs.
In a series of raids that began shortly after José Lino Chaves joined the court as its head judge in January, the tribunal and officials from both local and national governments have swept through the Central Pacific, primarily Jacó and Playa Hermosa; the Caribbean areas of Puerto Viejo, Manzanillo and Gandoca; the northwestern province of Guanacaste, mainly in the cantons of Santa Cruz and Carrillo; and the Southern Pacific.
The result: Some 40 construction projects have been put under investigation, suspended or shut down entirely. These projects amount to more than 4,000 luxury residences, hotel rooms and condominiums valued at nearly $1 billion. Some of the projects were in planning phases, some under construction and some already built.
The projects include the $300 million Hotel Hyatt Azulera, under investigation for possible environmental damage, on Guanacaste’s Brasilito beach, and the Ritz-Carlton’s $250 million Guacamaya project, suspended for “the extraction of geological materials,” also in Guanacaste.
Dozens of other projects were stopped for illegal logging, blocking waterways and building without the proper permits.
In some cases, entire housing developments had been built without any permits, Chaves and fellow judge Jorge Bonillas reported to lawmakers.
In other cases, developers had approved environmental permits for projects that, by the court’s criteria, violated the country’s environmental laws.
Chaves said the tribunal found “a high level” of unmotivated Environment and Energy Ministry officials in field offices who feel they do not have the support of their superiors.
Chaves said some officials are being investigated for colluding with developers or failing to carry out their duties. Others, he said, were thankful to see the tribunal taking action.
Various legislators praised the judges and promised help.
The legislative commission has prepared a bill expected to move to the legislature’s floor. The bill would modify a 1955 environmental law to give the tribunal more autonomy and financial freedom.