GOLFITO, Puntarenas – Bulldozers and backhoes, accompanied by government officials and a squad of National Police dressed in riot gear, arrived at the remote Playa Platanares beach earlier this month, much to the surprise of nearby residents.
The workers were there to open an abandoned public road, according to the local municipality and the regional office of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).
But witnesses here in the southern Pacific’s OsaPeninsula say they were shocked by the damage to beach habitat and the secrecy surrounding the project, and have questioned the project’s legitimacy.
During a flight with the environmental monitoring and education organization CAVU, The Tico Times confirmed from the air that much of the beach’s vegetation was stripped along a section of the beach.
In an e-mail press release sent out the following day, Toby Cleaver, whose hotel Iguana Lodge is adjacent to where the construction began, said he and his neighbors were “stunned at the scope and level of destruction.”
Officials “aren’t talking,” he wrote, and an official from the local government harassed a local photographer, “yelling that taking his picture or any picture of this epic destruction is prohibited by law since the photographer was standing on government property (the beach).”
The presence of two officials from the national Comptroller General’s Office, which normally doesn’t oversee municipal works projects, also raised suspicions.
Mariela Azofeifa, a spokeswoman from the Comptroller’s office, said the officials were in the area on official business, but were not involved with the project.
Three days after Cleaver sent his e-mail, which was forwarded through environmental circles, the work stopped. Three weeks later, the crews have yet to return, and the details surrounding the project are still unclear.
While all government officials contacted over the past week eventually referred questions to the mayor of Golfito, whose municipality encompasses Playa Platanares, messages left at the mayor’s office seeking comment were not returned.
Victoria Blanco, a lawyer in the municipality’s Maritime Zone Department, said that a road is established in the area’s zoning plan to run parallel with the ocean, just inside the restricted area of the maritime zone. Another swath of land, an untouched green area, separates the road from the public zone, she said.
The road has since become overgrown after years of neglect, she said, and the municipality had decided to move the road so it lies directly adjacent to the public zone, eliminating the green area.
That move is to be included in a new zoning plan for the area, which has yet to be approved.
Blanco said the police presence was a standard procedure when dealing with maritime zone demolitions: A yoga platform belonging to the Iguana Lodge had to be removed because it strayed into the public zone.
The municipal lawyer also added that all the neighbors had been told about the construction.
Cleaver said the municipality had met with him and others from the area in January and told them the road was to be moved, but that they would be given warning and would be included in the planning.
Cleaver also noted that the beach is a nesting site for sea turtles, and that between 10,000 and 15,000 turtles hatch there every year. In fact, he added, the construction was temporarily halted when one of the nests hatched and the workers stopped to watch.
Tilma Morales, director of MINAET’s Golfito office, said her office was brought in to confirm that the area was not forested, and added that no environmental laws were broken.