In the 1980s, when René Castro was starting his political career as head of former President Luis Alberto Monge’s Ministry of the Presidency, he faced his first political dilemma.
The 25-year-old minister was sent to Osa Peninsula’s Corcovado National Park to drive a group of small-scale miners out of the park. A committed ecologist, Castro received a judge’s order and headed south with 50 rural policemen and several park rangers. He was convinced that forcing the miners out was the right thing to do.
Castro did not anticipate the shock that awaited him. “The small-scale miners were a group of poor people living in complete misery. They barely had a place to live or food to eat. Every day they risked their lives to eek out a living,” Castro said.
Now minister of the Environment, Energy and Technology (MINAET), a position he also held from 1994-1998, Castro said that day in Corcovado changed his life and his thinking. Although he executed the judge’s order, he decided to no longer be an “extreme ecologist,” but rather one with a mind toward the sustainable development of humans and the environment. He went to Harvard (twice) to fine-tune that philosophy.
Today, back at MINAET and with significantly more political experience, the Corcovado anecdote is a recurring memory. After serving two and a half years at the Foreign Ministry, Castro says he is “much more useful in the new ministry.”
“It’s my second time in MINAET, and I feel that the gap between extreme environmentalists and extreme developers has widened in a negative way, leaving little space for the sustainable development option between that gap,” Castro said during a recent interview with The Tico Times.
Castro said that his current challenge is bridging the divide.
His time at the Foreign Ministry, which ended July 28 when President Laura Chinchilla shuffled him to MINAET, was marked by controversy. Questions remain about the Chinchilla administration’s handling of the Isla Calero crisis, and Castro was a key figure in a scandal involving the hiring of more than 40 people with links to the ruling National Liberation Party for key diplomatic posts and Foreign Ministry jobs (TT, July 8, June 23).
On his first day back at MINAET, protesters gathered outside the ministry’s San José offices and demanded Castro’s firing. Some demonstrators blamed him for the environmental damage caused by Nicaraguan dredging operations at the Isla Calero, near the San Juan River. Others cited a decree he signed in the 90s that allowed oil companies to explore in Costa Rica. Opposition lawmakers held similar opinions.
“Dealing with the Isla Calero situation was perhaps one of the toughest moments of my career,” he said. “The country’s strategy against military invasion had never been updated. We had to come up with a new strategy, sell it to Costa Rican opinion-makers and implement it, all at the same time. In MINAET, the international issues are more long-term issues.”
Still, Castro says those events are in the past. On his first day back at MINAET, Castro signed a three-year moratorium on oil exploration, delaying questions over the future of oil companies here long enough for him to be out of office (TT, Aug. 1).
As to long-term oil strategy, Castro hopes for an “explicit decision where Costa Rica will proceed to be a responsible oil drilling economy like Norway. They are rich in oil but they are austere and impose national taxes to make sure that they don’t fall into a cycle of waste, like Venezuela.”
An alternative would be “an unexplored one, where Costa Rica decides not to drill oil, but in a responsible way proposes new alternatives,” such as more hydroelectric, wind, bio-mass and geothermic energy sources.
Another of Castro’s top priorities is water management. He is pushing for a new water law, since the current one hasn’t been overhauled in 69 years (see story, Page 1). Castro said he understands that obtaining full support in the Legislative Assembly will be difficult, if at all possible. But, he said, “consensus and agreement do not necessarily mean unanimity.”
“Costa Rica is a fragmented country. In terms of environmental policy, 50 percent of the population is deeply ecologist, and the other 50 percent is deeply committed to the developers,” he said.
A self-proclaimed “middle class professional,” Castro said his current term as minister will be his last in public office. “I have reached the end of my savings, and after this period of [public] service, I will go back to my job as a teacher at INCAE Business School,” he said.
But the remainder of his term likely won’t be easy, something Castro acknowledges. Ironically, one recent disappointment happened when President Chinchilla partially vetoed a law designed for gluten-sensitive consumers. Castro is gluten intolerant.
“It wasn’t easy to hear that, since I am obviously in a conflict of interest regarding that law,” Castro said, referring to a bill that would have required food product manufacturers to provide labels identifying the presence of gluten in their products.