SAN JOSÉ DE LA MONTAÑA, Alajuela – Since 1968, when the Costa Rican government issued a decree to protect the first 2,500 hectares of what is now the Juan Castro Blanco National Water Park in north-central Costa Rica, protecting and expanding the park has been a constant battle.
The park has grown to encompass more than 14,000 hectares, after 11,000 hectares were added in 1975. Today, local activists continue fighting to place more public lands under state control. But their efforts have gained little support from politicians.
There are several good reasons to protect the area’s resources: Abundance of water can potentially provide for a large percentage of the nation’s hydroelectricity, nearly 150 communities downstream rely on the highlands as a source of potable water, and many farmers need the water for dairy farms and other agricultural operations.
The park, located between Ciudad Quesada and Poás Volcano, is also home to endangered tree frogs, endemic plant species, cloud forests, waterfalls, lagoons and volcanoes, and many hope it could someday serve as a local tourist attraction. It is known locally as the “sacred mountain.”
But what’s missing from government efforts is a plan to pay for private land within the park’s boundaries. More than 40 years after the first hectares were delineated, the
park is mostly just a series of lines on a map. Less than half of the land inside the park is controlled by the state.
“[The government] needs to contribute much more,” said Gerardo Rojas, director of the Asociación Pro-Desarollo del Parque Nacional del Agua Juan Castro Blanco, (Apanajuca), a local group that wants the entire park protected. “They made the decree, drew the lines and then left it there.”
Apanajuca, founded in 1998, and other local groups are part of a determined fight to bring the rest of the lands under government protection, yet they say they are battling a lack of government funds and little political will to see the initiative through.
In mid-April, Apanajuca, in coordination with a local electricity cooperative, received a $2.2 million loan from Banco Popular to buy 700 hectares inside the park but in private hands, to be paid back by an additional 50 cents per month tacked on local residents’ electricity bills. The association had already purchased some 300 hectares through similar efforts.
Rojas, who acknowledged that the land purchase was only a small percentage of the group’s goal, said he hopes the model of grassroots conservation will draw international attention and prompt donations and additional loans.
The association also helps coordinate surveys, promotes the park as an eco-tourism destination and negotiates agreements with local municipalities to discourage private development.
Through petitions, publicity and pressure, the association was one of the most vocal players in a fight to reclaim 7,000 hectares of the park that Rojas said was fraudulently transferred to private ownership in 1978, after a park expansion in 1975.
After a decade-long dispute, a three-judge court ruled in March 2010 that a former director of the National Registry fraudulently inscribed the land in question in the government’s property registry. A previous ruling by a separate court favored the private owner.
Rojas said the 2010 ruling, which returned the land to the state without requiring expropriation payments, vindicated the association’s efforts.
Of the land outside those 7,000 hectares, however, about 95 percent remains in private hands, divided among more than 1,000 property owners. Rojas said about 250 of the properties have questionable titles and will likely be disputed in court.
Gradually, as small farms are turned over to the government, they are allowed to reforest. But Rojas said that without public pressure, the park will never be completed. Since 1975, when the largest expansion of the land was declared protected, the government has only purchased 200 hectares, Rojas said.
Fausto Alfaro, director of the San Carlos sub-region of the Arenal Huetar Norte Conservation Area, also said that protecting the park is not a government priority.
“The problem is a lack of government funding,” Alfaro said, referring to Costa Rica’s burgeoning deficit problem.
Alfaro believes the area’s protection is vital, because it is a water source for several major rivers, Central Valley coffee towns Grecia and Naranjo and more than a dozen hydroelectric plants. The area’s official park status helps protect those resources from logging and mining projects, pollution, construction and other threats.
But while some are trying to thwart the park’s development, the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) is hoping it can become a popular tourist destination and a boon to the local economy. The ICT recently invested in a new visitor center, which is still under construction.
Currently, only three hotels serve the Juan Castro Blanco National Water Park, said Douglas Vargas, owner of Albergue Ecológico Monterreal, which offers small, family-style wooden cabins. He said his lodging, which borders the park, has a restaurant and a trout pond where patrons can catch dinner. It is the only option for lodging on the western side of the mountain.
According to Vargas, the park had 1,000 visitors in 2011 – a miniscule number compared to other Costa Rican parks. But that number is growing, having already surpassed last year’s total. Vargas said the park’s attributes are catching on, and the public is becoming curious about visiting a new place, where they can explore new attractions.
As an example of how off-the-beaten-path the park is, Vargas said that local residents discovered a frog once thought to be extinct, just two years before its disappearance was to be declared official. They reported its existence to scientists.
“We had seen [the frog] all our lives,” Vargas said. “We just didn’t know.”