Residents worried about the environmental impact of a hotel, housing development or factory in their area have traditionally had two options: protests and lawsuits.
But legal reforms passed last week in the Legislative Assembly give them a new weapon: binding referendums and plebiscites.
“Costa Rica has taken a step forward in the creation of participatory democratic institutions,” said José Merino, the Broad Front Party lawmaker who pushed the legislation, which still must be signed by the president.
The legislation would change Costa Rica’s Environment Law to allow for, among other things, binding votes on whether projects can go forward.
The legislation, however, violates the Constitution by allowing the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) to hold elections, said Environment Minister Roberto Dobles.
“Everything that is an electoral matter, be it a referendum or a plebiscite, is the responsibility of the Supreme Elections Tribunal. It is not the responsibility of the Executive Branch,” Dobles said. “These are legal and constitutional problems that are being analyzed.”
According to Dobles, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) was not consulted, as is often the case with legislation, before these reforms were passed.
Business representatives are also worried that that emotion could trump technical and environmental criteria in deciding the future of a project, and have called on President Oscar Arias to veto the reforms. Arias told the daily La Nación that he plans to exercise his veto.
“It would be very dangerous to run the risk of having communities make decisions without the technical and environmental knowledge necessary to develop constructive projects,” said Rodrigo Altmann, president of the Costa Rican Construction Chamber (CCC), in a protest letter to legislators.
The law, passed unanimously, grants citizens broad rights, including increased access to environmental information and more participation in government “matters that affect the environment” according to the text of the law.
Currently, the government agency tasked with making sure development and construction projects are in line with environmental law is MINAET’s technical secretariat, SETENA.
By law, SETENA must evaluate any “human activity that alters or destroys elements of the environment, or generates residual (matter) or dangerous or toxic materials.”
The agency, however, has been criticized for lax oversight, and as its responsibilities have increased drastically in recent years, budget and personnel have not increased.
The reforms passed last week give individuals and organizations the right “to be heard” by SETENA during a project’s environmental evaluation and its operation.
But the most controversial of the reforms is the creation of environmental referendums and plebiscites.
According to the text of the reformed law, matters within MINAET’s jurisdiction can be put to popular vote when the ministry decides to do so, when national law requires it, or when 10 percent or more of an electoral district ask for it.
A series of environmental conflicts this year has pitted local citizens and environmental organizations against the government.
Most recently, anti-mining activists and environmentalists have called on the government to put a halt to the Las Crucitas open-pit gold mine a few kilometers from the Nicaraguan border (TT, Oct 31).
In May, protestors and police clashed violently in the town of Sardinal, along the northern Pacific coast, over a planned pipeline to siphon some of their local water supply off to coastal tourism developments (TT, May 23). The project has since been put on hold.
CCC President Altmann warned that the expanded powers threaten a construction industry already in the throes of a financial crisis and tightening credit.
“Currently, 20 percent of construction projects have been held up, which means that more than 15,000 people have lost their jobs,” he wrote. “The law in question would put just another obstacle in the way of future projects, while the procedural and legal structure is sufficient and sometimes excessive.”
Altmann insisted that current requirements for public hearings on zoning plans and for environmental impact studies give the public their say.
“It is an error to approve laws that, rather than strengthen the sovereignty of the people, would lead the country to stagnate in underdevelopment and produce more poverty,” he wrote.
The head of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), however, said the law would strengthen projects by giving them legitimacy in the community if approved, and warned that a veto would be “a historic mistake.
“That would be very dangerous and would send a message against the participation of the people in environmental matters,” said FECON President Heidy Murrillo.
“This is the first law that offers something of ‘peace with nature,’ because it allows each community to make decisions about its own territory,” she added, referring to Arias’ much-trumpeted environmental plan Peace With Nature. Power to the People
Power to the People
The reforms provide three ways citizens can weigh in on environmental matters affecting their community:
Plebiscite: A binding popular vote to accept or reject a decision or administrative action by the Environment Ministry.
Referendum: A binding popular vote on the approval, modification or overturning of zoning or management plans, environmental regulations or any other general environmental ordinances.
Public Hearing: An open meeting among residents, local government officials and Environment Ministry representatives to discuss matters related to the protection and improvement of the environment in a given area.