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In Limón, battle lines are drawn

From the print edition

PUERTO VIEJO, Limón – Thirteen homes and businesses built on the southern Caribbean coast near Puerto Viejo and found to be in violation of the Maritime Zone Law must be destroyed by Nov. 30, according to an order by the Comptroller General.

Residents are horrified.

“It will devastate this area,” said Niki Chapman, co-owner of the Lazy Mon Bar at Stanford’s, a long-standing Puerto Viejo beachfront locale overlooking the area’s coral shoals, and one of the properties on the list. “The entire city is within the maritime zone.”

The area, known for it’s lush jungle, gorgeous beaches and distinctly Caribbean vibe, is a tourist hotspot for Costa Rica and a major corridor for tourism to Panama’s northwestern Caribbean coast.

Costa Rica’s Maritime Zone Law, passed in 1977, defines all coastal areas within 50 meters of the high-tide line as public domain in which no structures can be built. The next 150 meters are considered restricted areas in which buildings can be legally built through a concession system administered by municipal governments.

Puerto Viejo 2

Khalil Chapman, his wife, Nicole Chapman, and their son, Makai Evan Chapman, sit on the beach in front of the Lazy Mon Bar at Stanford’s, in Puerto Viejo. The Chapmans are co-owners of the bar, which has been slated for demolition.

Alberto Font

Municipal officials worry that destroying businesses will lose tax revenue for a municipality that has one of the highest rates of extreme poverty in Costa Rica. Talamanca Mayor Melvin Cordero said the municipality relies on taxes generated from coastal businesses for financing 90 percent of health, education and infrastructure projects in the rest of Talamanca.

Home and business owners worry about their livelihoods.

The 13 buildings on a list issued by the Comptroller General’s office – prompted by a complaint from a Puerto Viejo resident – are within the 50-meter zone. Documents provided by the Comptroller General’s office indicate the structures are not governed by a zoning plan or concessions issued by the Municipality of Talamanca and are subject to demolition.

The Comptroller General’s office gave the Municipality of Talamanca until May 17 to provide documentation that plans to destroy the properties are underway. 

Chapman and her husband, Khalil, sat on the balcony of Lazy Mon Bar with their 3-month-old son, Makai, and their business partners – Khalil’s brother, Abasi, his girlfriend, Krysta Price, and friend Bryant Newby – discussing the situation. They learned of the list during Easter Holy Week, when reporters showed up outside their bar.

“We got together and just scraped up what we could to chase this dream in paradise,” said Khalil, while holding his sleeping son. “And they could just sweep it all away. … We dropped everything to do this.”

The bar’s co-owners have leased the building since November 2010. Now, with one newborn and another baby on the way, the Lazy Mon’s owners are just starting to see their business catch up with investment. 

“The [municipality] has been giving permits,” Newby said. “We have permits from the Health Ministry, we’re registered in the National Registry. If the [central] government is just going to say ‘it’s all null,’ then why is the National Registry even accepting these?”

The structure where the bar is located was built many years ago, well before the law passed in 1977. For years, before the Lazy Mon crew started their business, it housed Stanford’s Bar – a cultural relic of the area’s Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Gina Brown, owner of the house, said she and her husband bought the land with the house on it in 1975, and they should be exempt from demolition.

But for Brown, the issue is about more than just property. 

“My children were born in that house,” Brown said. “I’ve been there forever. I’ve been there since I was 19. … They’re taking a law that is supposed to protect the beaches and applying it against citizens.”

The City That Wasn’t

Costa Rican President Alfredo González Flores established the southern Caribbean city of Cahuita in 1915, after Afro-Caribbean residents of the area rescued him when his ship wrecked on a reef off the coast. 

In 1935, Costa Rica’s Constitutional Congress officially recognized Puerto Viejo as a city. Since passage of the Maritime Zone Law, however, recognition of both Puerto Viejo and Cahuita as cities – which would entitle the Talamanca Municipality to manage concessions in the maritime zone – has been glossed over. 

The law, as it has been interpreted, annulled any land rights of people in the two communities – both of which fall almost completely within the maritime zone.

 “All these areas were swamps, inhospitable areas,” said Edwin Patterson, a fifth-generation Puerto Viejo resident and former lawmaker representing the area. “Now they are wetlands and heritage of the state. One hundred years ago, nobody could live here.”

The area developed for years without help from the central government, Patterson said, and it developed according to the unique needs and cultures of inhabitants. Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, for example, were both established within the first 50 to 100 meters of the coast because farther inland the area turns to uninhabitable swamp.

In 2003, Patterson presented a bill to the Legislative Assembly proposing to recognize Cahuita and Puerto Viejo as cities, and to issue titles to landowners inside the maritime zone who could prove they had been on their land before the 1977 law. The bill, known informally as “Patterson’s Law,” was passed by the assembly but annulled in 2005 by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

Nowhere to go

Tensions are running high in Puerto Viejo. “There’s a lot of pressure around here,” Cordero told The Tico Times. “There are [government] security and intelligence people who have been visiting the canton because they know a big fight could develop here. The municipality, community organizations and the Southern Caribbean Tourism Chamber do not promote [violence] in any way.”

“What you shouldn’t do is tell people you’re going to tear down their whole lives,” Newby said. “It’s not that people here are afraid of change. Change is going to happen, but people don’t want to be swept away.”

Andrew Bacon, owner of Chile Rojo restaurant in Puerto Viejo, which sits at 65 meters from the high-tide line, said even one more demolition would drive tourists and investors from the area.

 “How can you sell a house or a business when the government can come in and just sweep it all away?” he asked. “If these buildings are destroyed, nobody’s going to come down here.”

In July 2011, police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who burned tires and blocked the highway running south from Puerto Viejo when Environment Ministry officials arrived to demolish two hotels – Hotel Las Palmas and El Suerre Hotel – allegedly built within the borders of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. When they clashed with police, protesters chanted: “If you take away Las Palmas, you take away our lives”.

You can hear echoes of that refrain in Puerto Viejo today.

“They’re trying to destroy my dream,” said Debbie Spencer, who lives in a house in a small community just off the beach at Playa Negra, a few kilometers north of Puerto Viejo. Almost all the homes here are within the restricted zone. 

“We’re not going down without a fight,” she added. “We have nowhere else to go.”

Several kilometers south of Playa Negra, the rubble of the Las Palmas and El Suerre hotels still sits in the jungle almost 10 months after their destruction.


Manuel León runs a commissary beside the National Police building on the beach in Puerto Viejo. His father opened the store when Puerto Viejo was only accessible by boat. 

Let the municipality handle this issue, he said, as for years it has been giving land-use and business permits and collecting taxes from businesses in the maritime zone.

“Now, suddenly, they say that they have to be evicted,” León said. “We’re against that because it’s wrong. If you permit this, the coast of Talamanca will die. … We are not going to allow the same thing to happen as [what happened] with Las Palmas and El Suerre. Here it will be different, because we are people who live, work and were born here. We are not squatters, we are people of the pueblo, and as such we are going to fight as a pueblo.” 

Walter Céspedes, a lawmaker who represents Limón for the Social Christian Unity Party, recently presented a new bill to Congress that would recognize Cahuita and Puerto Viejo as cities and obviate the need for demolitions. The proposal is similar to the “Patterson Bill,” but different in that it would garner city status for Puerto Viejo and Cahuita while offering 99-year land-use concessions to occupants of properties in disputed areas.

“It is exactly the same as in Puntarenas,” Céspedes said, referring to similar problems in the central Pacific port town. “If you go to Puntarenas and see the road, and see the stands built at the edge of the ocean, one has to ask, ‘Why can Puntarenas [find a solution], but not Limón?’ The bill is almost an exact copy of the bill for the City of Puntarenas.”

He said he hopes the bill will be signed into law in less than one month.

In the meantime, Vice President Alfio Piva told the daily Diario Extra that he would support a one-year moratorium on demolitions in the maritime zone in all of Costa Rica until a solution can be reached in the assembly. The vice president estimated that some 50,000 families could lose their homes across the country if the law is strictly enforced.


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