Costa Rica cracking down on illegal development

UVITA DE OSA, Costa Rica — When judges from Costa Rica's Environmental Tribunal emerged from the rain forest recently, they were horrified.

In places along Costa Rica's still wild Pacific frontier, rogue developers had slit the roots of ancient trees to hasten their death, clearing the way for ''ocean views.''

Primeval rain forest sanctuaries, home to scarlet macaws, jaguars and blue morpho butterflies, had been flattened for luxury home sites.

And backhoes had turned rivers chocolate, threatening local water supplies and offshore coral reefs, sea turtles and dolphins — the foundation of the country's tourism-driven economy.

The Tribunal, the country's highest environmental court, took immediate action — confiscating heavy equipment and demanding investigations of more than 1,000 home sites. It was a dramatic end to a four-month crackdown on illegal development, in which judges ordered the investigation of thousands of hotel rooms, oceanfront homes and condominiums.

The total projected value of these developments is estimated at more than $1 billion.

''Much has been lost, but much is left to save,'' said Tribunal President José Lino Chaves, who spearheaded the administrative court's recent rebirth.

The raids, considered unprecedented in Latin America -- a region known for its lax laws and enforcement -- have drawn cheers from environmentalists.

But others, including the prominent National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), have accused judges of ''sensationalism'' and worry about Costa Rica's image.


Tribunal judges also have received anonymous death threats and pressure from a gamut of real estate and construction interests to ease the crackdown.

Still, the judges insist their work is necessary to guarantee all Costa Ricans their constitutional right to a "healthy and ecologically balanced environment.''

Lawyers from some developments stung by the Tribunal's raids said that their clients agreed with the actions of the Tribunal and would do what they could to protect the environment.

Chaves, the Tribunal president, said they are not ''anti-development,'' adding that this developing nation depends on attracting tourism investment to keep afloat. ''This is a poor country, and we need all the investment we can get. We simply demand that our environmental laws be obeyed,'' he said.

In the past, he said, it was often those looking to make a quick return on investment that came to booming Costa Rica, to take advantage of what some have called a Wild West-style market -- with little regulation and less enforcement.

Many environmentalists hope the Tribunal's crackdown will send new signals at home and abroad, as development pressures and illegal construction eat away at the country's long-held ''green'' image.

Scientific studies have uncovered the alarming negative effects of the recent development boom, which according to the Costa Rican Hotel Association has led to as much as a 500 percent increase in the construction of condominiums and apartments in some areas.

Monkey populations, according to a report from the University of Costa Rica, plummeted 50 percent in the past decade, their habitat destroyed to make room for housing developments. Turtles now shy away from beaches lined with second homes and hotels. And sewage from large, often all-inclusive hotels is pumped raw into ocean waves once coveted by surfers.

Such findings prompted the cleanup, Chaves said.

''Last year, we would go to the coast to investigate a case, then come back with five more. We realized we needed a new, more comprehensive approach,'' he said.

The raids have rocked this small nation, sparking headlines and debate about the future of eco-tourism and the country's laws and infrastructure.


Many environmentalists have been shocked by the grand scale of the Tribunal raids: ''Almost a miracle,'' said Hector González, director of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), a coalition of more than 30 of the country's most active green groups.

''The Tribunal has done valiant work,'' he said. "But like so many institutions, it suffers from an extreme lack of funding. What they've revealed is only the tip of the iceberg.''

The court, housed in a ramshackle, single-story building in the downtown district of the capital city of San José, has only 12 employees and three judges to handle thousands of cases each year across the country.

Studies by the country's Federated School of Engineers and Architects (CFIA) revealed nearly one in four developments along the Pacific coastline lacked proper permits — a daunting task for a small administrative court.

''It's David vs. Goliath,'' said González, whose group is calling for more funding of environmental permitting and enforcement institutions. "Enforcing the law after it's been broken is one thing. But the question is, how do we make developers obey it from the start?''

Still, the raids have left their mark.

Judges have received multiple anonymous death threats, been pursued by unmarked vehicles, and even Chaves' wife was threatened after high-profile raids of mega development projects along the North Pacific coast.

It was evidence, he admits, of the high stakes involved in Costa Rica's big-money construction market — which last year attracted $800 million in tourism investment, according to the country's Tourism Institute (ICT).

Though the perpetrators have yet to be found, the Tribunal insists the strict enforcement will continue.

''The time has come for Costa Rica to own up to its environmental commitment,'' the three judges wrote in a letter of solidarity shortly after the death threats.

"Do we force compliance with our environmental legislation, sending the country on a clear course towards sustainable development, or do we give in to this pressure?''

Many developers, even those punished by the Tribunal, have come to agree.

Andrea Ovares, a lawyer for Costa Montaña, a Pacific coast development recently charged with more than $1 million in environmental damages, says her company and others have learned the hard way.

''Many people come here with money to invest, but without the expertise or understanding of the laws,'' she said. "The Tribunal is forcing that to change, and we support it.''


The development has since hired new environmental consultants and proposed a $500,000 remediation plan. Tribunal judges have allowed Costa Montaña to continue building on part of its property, though the case remains under review.

Mauricio Castro, president of the Costa Rica Real Estate Broker's Board, says the effect on developers, real estate agents and even those looking to buy property will be monumental.

The country, he says, was caught unprepared by an onslaught of development — often illegal — and now must make up for lost time.

''If we don't start to respect our laws, the Costa Rica we have all come to love will cease to exist,'' he said. "If the water is polluted and the forest lost, our homes and properties will be worth nothing.''