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Environmental court cases piling up

Halfway through 2011, the monthly total of cases filed before Costa Rica’s Environmental Administrative Tribunal (TAA), a court that reviews complaints of environmental damage, has doubled since January, according to a recent government report.

The tribunal, part of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry, which issued the report, said that in January it received 24 complaints. But in June, that number had risen to 57, for a total of 254 cases so far this year.

Polluted or damaged water sources were the most reported environmental crimes (83 cases of a total of 254). In 2010 water-related crimes represented 28 percent of total complaints, while in the first half of this year that figure has already increased to 33 percent.

Other complaints included damage to wetlands, poor sewage management, deforestation and illegal land-use.

Environmental Court 1

Denouncing the Damage:  An aerial shot of destruction to Puntarenas’ mangrove system, caused by farmers. Courtesy of the Environmental Administrative Tribunal

“This shows how individuals and developers of tourism projects do not abide by the country’s environmental laws,” the report’s authors stated. “This is a cultural problem where the economic, social and environmental efforts undertaken to enforce the production, development and commercialization of forest resources in a sustainable way are totally failing.”

According to Yamilette Mata, the environmental court’s vice president, 3,500 cases are under investigation. “Unfortunately, we have only 19 officers in charge of inspecting the entire country. We need our staff to increase to at least 40 people in order to do a better job,” she said.

The report says that developers commonly deforest land either to convert it into farmland or for real estate or tourist development. Other complaints include inefficient management of solid waste, air and noise pollution, illegal extraction of minerals, threats to wildlife and encroachment on protected maritime zones (areas where private ownership or construction is prohibited).

The western province of Puntarenas accumulated the highest number of complaints so far this year, registering 77 cases of alleged criminal environmental damage, followed by San José and Alajuela, with 73 and 39 cases, respectively.

Cartago has 18 ongoing investigations, followed by 16 in Guanacaste, while Heredia and Limón have the fewest with 12 complaints each.

“The increase in the number of complaints is because citizens are better informed now and they are more aware about environmental issues,” Mata said.

Puntarenas’ environmental problems are mainly located on the Nicoya Peninsula, especially in the districts of Cóbano and Paquera, where hotels and other tourist infrastructure are being built inside protected areas, the report said.

Puntarenas’ protected mangroves are in 16 complaints by area residents, who say farmers and hotel developments are damaging the vital natural resource.

During a TAA inspection, officials found problems with seven seafood-processing companies that were discharging wastewater directly into the province’s main estuary.

In San José, the municipal council of the Mora canton presented 12 complaints against property owners for building in protected river areas.

In San Ramón de Alajuela, northwest of San José, residents filed five complaints against several hog farms, alleging sewage mismanagement, and air groundwater pollution.

Some public institutions are also under investigation, particularly for disposing untreated sewage. The court has received cases filed against the Costa Rican Electricity Institute and the Public Works and Transport Ministry, among others, said Mata.

“Most of the time, complaints happen because public institutions fail to build treatment plants for sewage,” Mata said.

Despite the increase in complaints, TAA rulings are not always enforced.

A recent investigation by the weekly Semanario Universidad, published by the University of Costa Rica, found that a pineapple plantation shut down by the TAA last year in Caño Negro, a wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica, remained in operation.

“When the TAA stops a tourism project or a company closes, in many cases the order must be self-enforced. Unfortunately we need more officers to monitor enforcement of sentences,” said Mata.


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