From above, the Fila Costeña coastal mountain range looks like it got a bad shave.
As the verdant range piles up just inland from the long stretch of unpopulated southern Pacific coast north of the Osa Peninsula, the green gives way here and there to brown scrapes of bare earth cut for houses and roads.
Developers have pushed up the sides of the mountains looking for the perfect plots, with ocean views, for luxury homes and housing developments.
But environmentalists and area residents have been warning for nearly two years that the construction is putting the ocean, the protected natural areas and the communities below at risk.
The Fila Costeña mountain range drains half a dozen rivers into the ocean, feeding the towns below and flowing directly into the BallenaNationalMarinePark and the Sierpe-Térraba National Wetlands, a delicate ecosystem that includes the largest mangrove forest in the country.
Researchers have warned that sediment from the rivers is killing the corals in Ballena and harming the Sierpe-Térraba National Wetlands.
The latest to join the clamor is the University of Costa Rica (UCR), whose highest body, the University Council, issued a resolution calling the development boom along the Pacific coast “one of the most worrying environmental catastrophes our country has experienced in recent years.”
Saying construction along the southern Pacific coast and farther south on the largely wild OsaPeninsula is out of control, the council is calling for a temporary moratorium on construction permits along the coastal mountain range.
The resolution also calls on local governments, as well as President Oscar Arias’ administration, to crack down in the region.
“This natural and cultural heritage, just like the integrity of the natural resources in the region, is being profoundly altered by the tourism and real estate development of recent years,” reads the council’s resolution.
“Just in 2007, the canton of Osa registered an increase of 202 percent in the number of construction permits, most of those granted on the coastal shore and in the mountain ranges in the northern part of the canton,” it says.
The canton of Osa runs south from the beach town of Dominical, encompassing most of the Fila Costeña and the OsaPeninsula.
Osa Mayor Alberto Cole took umbrage at the resolution, and said he must put his citizens first. Without a booming construction industry, he said, his citizens face poverty.
“They are up there in their classrooms and university with their air-conditioning and don’t know the challenges we face,” Cole said. “More than 500 people have lost their jobs in Ciudad Cortés. Who is going to feed them? The University of Costa Rica?”
Cole insists that since he took office, he has been strict with environmental regulations.
After residents and biologists began sounding the alarm early in 2007, the Osa Municipal Council passed a resolution to temporarily stop granting construction permits along the mountain range until a zoning plan, being drafted with help from the UCR and funding from The Nature Conservancy, was put in place (TT, March 30, 2007).
Cole said the resolution was in place for four months and then repealed in favor of new, stricter municipal regulations for construction permits.
“We went beyond the national requirements,” he said, claiming that the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) has since based new regulations on theirs. “Let them show me the damage that is being done on the Fila Costeña.”
Jorge Lobo, a UCR biologist who has worked extensively in the region, said the proof is in a series of projects shut down in recent inspections by MINAET’s Environmental Tribunal.
Following the surprise inspections carried out in July, 14 projects in the canton of Osa were put under investigation for possible environmental violations, and one was temporarily shut down.
Cole said in total, 10 projects have since been frozen by the tribunal, but insisted that most were built on former cattle pasture and didn’t touch local forests.
In a press release following the inspections, however, the tribunal said its officials saw “dozens” of construction sites and lots that encroached on and “invaded” primary forest.
Cole acknowledged that the majority of the projects shut down had construction permits from the municipality and environmental permits from MINAET’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA).
“The municipality continues giving out permits without inspecting the site and with no idea of what is going on,” Lobo said.
Cole said the Osa municipality gave out 415 construction permits last year, more than a 200 percent increase from the year before, and has given out 430 so far this year.
The surge in construction permits last year, when the municipality supposedly stopped permitting for four months, shows that the municipal regulations are anything but environmentally strict and did little to slow development, Lobo said.
“It seems to us that the (new) regulations were intended to increase municipal income. Very little is about the environment,” Lobo said. “If the regulations were being carried out, the pace of the construction would have slowed.”
Cole said the construction industry in his canton directly employs between 1,500 and 2,000 people. After the Environmental Tribunal shut down projects this year, their employees filled the ranks of Osa’s unemployed, he said.
“Osa has been improved by development. We’re better off with construction, including luxury homes, than with pastures,” he said.
“We can make all of Osa a national park, but everybody needs to be compensated. The people who live in Osa are an endangered human species.”