Frustrated by the slow progress in solving sanitation problems at Costa Rica’s popular ManuelAntonioNational Park, the local mayor said this past weekend he wished to see the park closed in order to find a sustainable, long-term solution.
Oscar Monge, mayor of the Aguirre canton in the central Pacific, whose territory includes the national park, told The Tico Times that politics would prevent the park from closing, but stressed that shutting Manuel Antonio’s gates could be in its ultimate best interest.
“Politicians cannot allow the park to close, because it would be an embarrassment for the country,” Monge said. “I would love for it to close for about four months to build a (wastewater treatment) plant, to maintain the (infrastructure) that’s there and to make something well-put together that would last 15 to 20 years.”
In mid-February, Health Minister María Luisa Avila gave the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) threatened to shut down park within 10 days if the ministry did not resolve the park’s longtime sewage pollution problems, but eventually granted a four-month extension on Feb. 27 when MINAET promised to install portable toilets while beginning construction on new, permanent bathrooms and a sewage treatment facility for the park.
Now, nearly two months have passed and MINAET has installed 20 portable toilets and leveled the bathrooms and a building for park guards that had been emitting sewage into the park. But progress has been slow on the permanent bathrooms and sewage treatment facility, local business and government leaders said, prompting Monge to call for the local government to assume control of the park from MINAET.
“One day,” he said, “this municipality will have control of this national park, because it is our territory, and I believe we could do things well – maintain the infrastructure, keep the trails clean and regulate the entrance to the park.”
Monge estimated that 90 percent of the local population relies on the park directly or indirectly, but said closing the park temporarily would be in the community’s longterm interest.
Other local leaders, however, said the mayor’s position on closing the park would be harmful to the local economy.
“We can’t permit” Manuel Antonio to close, said Luis Alberto Bolaños, owner of Best Western Kamuk Hotel and Casino in Quepos, and one of the locals behind the park’s creation in 1972. “We have to work so that will not happen. Otherwise, we will see our own economic crisis.”
Between 1,000 and 2,000 tourists enter the park every day, making it the secondmost visited national park in the country, and generating over ¢1 billion (nearly $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 earmarked specifically for Manuel Antonio, both park administrators and local leaders complain.
The Health Ministry’s extension, for example, came only after the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) offered ¢120 million (about $214,000) to fund the sewage treatment plant and other infrastructure improvements, including new buildings to house park rangers.
Last week, MINAET officials gave Richard Lemire, president of the Aguirre Chamber of Commerce, word that more funding for the park was on its way, but, as Lemire told The Tico Times, “We don’t know what’s happening exactly.”
On Friday, Lemire hosted a meeting for locals interested in an update on the park’s progress. But both park Administrator Belfort Cubillo and local MINAET Director Luis Quirós, who were scheduled to attend, had meetings in San José and were not present.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Lemire said.
According to Cubillo, plans have been submitted for new bathrooms, aqueduct and guard housing, funded by ¢820 million ($1.5 million) from MINAET and ICT. The contamination from sewage in the park has been cleaned up, Cubillo said, adding that he expects the park to remain open after the Health Ministry’s deadline expires in late June.
“We have already presented everything,” Cubillo told The Tico Times Wednesday. “We are now waiting for approval from the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA).”
Construction would likely begin in the next 15 to 22 days, Cubillo added.
For Bolaños, whose hotel relies on the park to draw tourists, it is time for “actions, not words.” “The problem goes beyond the problems of bureaucracy and leadership,” he said.
“This is a problem of attitude. This is a problem of wanting things to be better,” he said. “Really, at the end, it is to love Costa Rica. If you don’t have money, it’s another problem. But they have money. This park (brings in) millions of dollars each year. And what happened?”