PUERTO JIMENEZ – Catalina Arias sees the concrete slowly creeping.
The road that lopes past her house, where she once slogged through mud up to her knees to make the two-kilometer trek to the beach, is now paved.
For decades, she walked with her daughter and her neighbor’s horse to the coast every week, often through heavy rainfall and muck, to collect 150 coconuts and carry them to her home in Barrio Agujas.
Sitting on a small, log stool outside her house, she scrapes the meat out of the coconut, dilutes it, filters it through a hand towel, and squeezes it into coconut oil for cooking and for skin creams. She funnels the liquid into half-liter plastic bottles and sells each one for ¢3,000 ($5.52). Alone, she can fill about 30 bottles per month.
Arias, who says she is somewhere around 74 years old, still makes the hike to the shore each week, but now her feet stay dry. She doesn’t have to wait stranded on the beach for the rain to stop because the mire is too thick for the horse to tread through or the rivers are too high to cross.
Instead, she walks along the new blacktop highway that was finished less than a year ago. Instead of inhaling dust kicked up by passing cars, the glow of yellow reflectors warns her of traffic.
Broad-shouldered concrete spans now stand alongside the rickety, one-lane bridges, built from logs or steel beams sunk into the riverbanks and topped with planks or slender sheets of metal that were once used.
“It’s changing,” Arias said as she chopped a coconut in half with her machete. “This little place, yes, it’s definitely changing.”
The OsaPeninsula, along Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, has always been one of the country’s most remote and least developed locations, but it’s quickly being connected.
Pavement is replacing gravel. Fields that have been owned and tended by Costa Rican families for generations are being sold to foreign developers.
Plans for more hotels are being sketched out, and talk of a marina has boat owners buzzing.
A proposed international airport in Sierpe, the gateway to DrakeBay, only lacks an environmental viability study before construction begins.
For the people living here, these signs of investment and infrastructure offer the promise of jobs, capital, and a more civilized future. Some wonder, though, at what cost this development will come.
“This place is going to explode,” said Mitch Zychowski, a U.S. citizen and partowner of the recently opened Agua Dulce Lodge and Resort here. “When that airport is built, people are going to come like mad.”
Zychowski, whose hotel offers sport fishing and a number of eco-tours and recreational activities, hopes that the airport and the new roads will bring enough tourists to fill the 84 beds in the 12 two-story cabins that he and his partners have built along the beach. In return, the lodge will put local residents to work.
Zychowski employs a team of Puerto Jiménez natives to make beds, clean, cook, and serve hungry visitors. More tourists, more employment, he reasons.
But flocks of tourists to the OsaPeninsula are precisely what some people fear.
So far, tourists have mainly been attracted by mother nature. The area’s isolation and lack of construction has helped preserve one of the planet’s most diverse stocks of flora and fauna. Small eco-lodges attract a modest number of tourists who come to marvel at the wildlife and forests of Osa’s national parks and refuges.
Alejandra Monge, executive director of the Corcovado Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting the peninsula’s CorcovadoNational Park, worries that the amount of people that an international airport would attract will threaten the natural beauty that has so far been conserved.
“The parks in the zone barely have the capacity to attend the amount of people that there are now,” Monge said. “When you build an international airport one thing comes right after another – first the airport, then the Marriott. There are not enough resources here to satisfy that kind of demand.”
Monge likens the proposed airport here to the international airport in Liberia, the capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, a project that facilitated floods of foreign investment and spurred a high-rise condominium and mega-resort craze.
Some developments in Guanacaste have led to violent clashes over natural resources, especially water supplies.
“That’s not the type of development model we need here,” she said. “We need small hotels. People love the rustic jungle lodges here. They preserve the nature and most of them are in the hands of locals, which gives people here the opportunity to learn the business too.”
The large-scale and often haphazard development schemes in Guanacaste have left a lasting impression on people’s minds, and many fear that similar plans here will ruin Osa’s unique tranquility and beauty, and threaten its natural wealth.
But Alberto Cole, the mayor of the OsaMunicipality, says that the airport will not lead to rampant development.
A team of researchers at the University of Costa Rica in San José are drafting the final versions of the regulatory and zoning plans for the OsaPeninsula. Cole said the plans will be completed within three months.
While the final drafts must pass through a series of steps before the municipality adopts them, Cole said that once in place, the new guidelines will help maintain the small scale that has so far characterized the development of Costa Rica’s ecological gem.
“We don’t want development without limits,” Cole said. “We have a market, a brand here of sustainable development, not megaprojects, and that’s the style we want to keep. What we are after is quality, not quantity.”
Among the plans are limits on hotel sizes – no more than eight meters in height. If a developer cuts down trees for a building, he or she must plant others nearby. In total, Cole said, only 20 percent of the Osa’s territory will be developable.
Later this year, the National Training Institute (INA) will open a center here to offer free English classes to residents in order to prepare them for an influx of North American travelers. With a better grasp of the language, taxi drivers can become tour uides and local pulperías can supply goods to visitors, Cole believes.
But those who oppose having the Osa so closely linked to the global community claim that locals will see few benefits from international visitors.
Rosa Jiménez, 39, also sells coconut oil in Barrio Agujas. The 20-hectare farm that she lives next to has been in the hands of Costa Ricans for as long as she has been alive. She sells bottles of oil to her neighbors “every once in a while.”
But with the freshly paved roads that pass the farm, the property’s value has risen sharply and the family has decided to sell. A North American man has visited the farm several times in the past two months.
Jiménez doesn’t know what his intentions are, but she does know that foreigners have a tendency to buy products elsewhere.
“I hope there is work,” she said. “It would be nice if the people who come, come and buy from us. But I don’t think they will. They have their own suppliers. They buy their supplies in large supermarkets or they bring their own. They don’t buy from us.”
Even Cole admitted that few tourists stay and spend money in small towns such as Barrio Agujas and Sierpe. Rather, they arrive in Osa and go directly to hotels or to the beaches, such as those at DrakeBay.
For Cole, a possible solution is to build on the natural or cultural attractions of these towns. Palmar Norte, an economically depressed gateway town to the Osa, could benefit from museums and tours that showcase the area’s historical sites and archeological treasures, such as the pre-Colombian stone spheres fashioned by the region’s indigenous inhabitants.
Another option, he said, is for the residents of these pueblitos to travel or move to DrakeBay or Puerto Jiménez to work in new hotels or as tour guides.
But for Catalina Arias, traveling, other than her one trip per week to the beach to collect coconuts, doesn’t seem appealing. She just hopes that buses that will fly past her house on the new blacktop road en route to their respective hotels will stop, once in a while, to say hello.
“They will build the airport and they will build the highways and that’s fine,” she said. “The people will come. I’ll still be here, God willing, making coconut oil. I just hope they don’t forget about me.”