The clock is ticking for ManuelAntonioNational Park, which had until Thursday to correct health and sanitary problems or face closure at the hands of the Health Ministry.
Health Minister María Luisa Avila had given the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) 10 days to correct the problems at the park, which included mosquito-breeding standing water, a garbage dump within the park and sewage leaks from the bathrooms by the park’s most popular beach. Avila is set to visit the park today, along with officials from the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), to inspect progress and announce a decision on its closure.
In multiple interviews with park administrators and local officials, many expressed frustration at MINAET’s failure to address the sanitary problems, which have dogged the park for decades. Such a longstanding situation, they said, could not possibly be rectified in the 10-day window.
On Wednesday, Richard Lemire, president of the Aguirre Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, sent a letter to Avila asking for an extension. The problems of standing water and garbage have been cleaned up, Lemire said, but the sanitary issues involve a longer-term solution that requires more than 10 days.
“As the chamber of commerce, we don’t want a patch,” Lemire told The Tico Times. “We want a good, long-term solution to this problem.”
According to park administrator Belfort Cubillo, the sanitary problems at Manuel Antonio are nothing new. While the number of visitors has skyrocketed, he said, the park’s infrastructure hasn’t developed much since it was founded in 1972.
“There are many problems, historical problems, complex problems,” Cubillo, who assumed the administrator post in January 2008, said. “There hasn’t been the necessary investment, and the park reflects this.”
Between 1,000 and 2,000 tourists attend the park every day, generating over ¢1 billion ($1.8 million) last year in revenue. That money is put into a general fund and split among the country’s national parks, however, leaving meager resources for the country’s second-most visited park, Cubillo said.
“All of the money that the park takes in every day goes to the bank,” he said. “This money does not return to the park. The director has to decide what are the most important parks, which draw the most people. Then, if Manuel Antonio is the most visited park in the country, then you should have more investment. But it does not work like this.”
Manuel Antonio is the second-most visited national park in the country, after Poás Volcano. But Cubillo said the park doesn’t “receive a single cent” for maintenance and small purchases.
“We don’t have money to operate,” he said. “In a year, they didn’t send me a single broom, for example.”
According to Lemire, part of the problem is a 2003 law that created a special board to oversee Manuel Antonio and mandated at least half of the park’s revenues to pay back the original debt from purchasing the park, with the other 50 percent earmarked for operational expenses. The funds have been “manipulated” by MINAET and National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) officials, Lemire said.
“There is no reason for this park to be in these conditions,” he said. “It’s clear that over the last years, MINAET has demonstrated it cannot operate or administrate the park efficiently, to the level of service that we want to offer to the tourists that visit this beautiful country. The bottom line is MINAET has to release the funds to the board of the park, which sum up to ¢2,5 billion $4.5 million).”
Writing on the Wall
In November 2007, Matt Cook, the former director of the non-profit environmental group Fund for Costa Rica, set out to raise $20,000 for install environmentally friendly, compost toilets in the park. But Cook said interest from local hotels, restaurants and tourist outlets was minimal, and he could raise only $1,500 from local businesses, including $500 of his own.
“The vast majority could not be bothered to do something about this problem,” he said. “We had those toilets designed and ready to go. It was basically a big middle finger to the National Park and the environment of Manuel Antonio by these businesses. And here we are.”
Tuesday morning, however, Cook resent his email and found local businesses more receptive. By Tuesday afternoon, Café Britt owner Steve Aronson had offered to donate water-free urinals for the park, which the coffee company currently uses in its factory and tour facility.
And Wally Pereyra, who had offered to match up to $10,000 raised in 2007, upped his offer to match up to $12,500 today.
“The writing was on the wall. This was not a surprise that the park was being contaminated,” Cook said. “The whole place is going down the toilet, literally.”
Cubillo, too, had proposed implementing compost toilets in the park last year, but said officials from MINAET told him the plan was too expensive.
MINAET officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Business owners and street merchants alike, many of whom rely on its allure to fuel the tourism industry in the area, expressed alarm that the park might close.
Eugenio Mora has worked outside the park for three years, selling coconut water to thirsty tourists.
“All my family depends on the park,” he said. “It is very worrying. But the town will fight” if the park is closed.
Pedro Su, who has worked in the region for 14 years offering tour information and driving services agreed, argued that the local community, which relies on the park for an overwhelming majority of its income, would not let the park close without a fight.
“I don’t think the people here are going to let that happen,” Su said. “We will stand up.”
Tourism losses may already be forthcoming with the park’s reputation under question. On Tuesday, AyA revoked the Ecological Blue Flag for the park’s four beaches because of the risk of sanitary contamination. Darner Mora, director of water laboratories at AyA, said the beaches were “in good condition,” but the risk of contamination from the nearby sewage leak was enough to warrant revoking the distinction.
For now, the park’s fate lies in the hands of Avila. While officials said they would be willing to negotiate and that closing was “the last resort,” any lingering problems must not pose a health risk for tourists.
“It’s very difficult to keep the park open if there is still a health risk,” said Dr. Carlos Manuel Venegas, Central Pacific regional director at the Health Ministry.
“If the park closes, everybody in Manuel Antonio would be in trouble,” added Anita Myketuk, owner of La Buena Nota Bar & Restaurant. “It would be a tragedy.”