The little court that could

Arguably the single most effective government agency protecting Costa Rica’s environment is an underfunded, short-staffed, three-judge administrative court called the Environmental Tribunal.

While Costa Rica has won praise internationally for high environmental standards, with the oft-quoted statistic that 25% of the country is under some type of protection (national park, wildlife refuge, etc.), a closer look reveals some serious contradictions.

One of the biggest threats in recent years has been an onslaught of tourism and real estate development. Real estate agents and baby boomers discovered cheap land, sunny living and breathtaking views and descended on some of the most pristine regions in this hemisphere, where building and environmental regulations are often flimsy or not enforced (especially in exchange for a bribe).

A study in 2007 found that 1 in 5 projects along the central Pacific coast and in the northwestern province of Guanacaste — the fastest growing regions in the country, per new construction — lacked basic construction and environmental permits.

Enter José Lino Chaves, who in January 2008 was sworn in as the lead judge on the Environmental Tribunal, a court that before then held little name recognition, let alone fame.

In his first 12 months on the job, Chaves led a series of regional inspections he termed barridas ambientales, or environmental sweeps. With little to no notice, he and a squad of geologists, hydrologists, engineers and other specialists and local officials would visit construction sites checking paperwork and looking for environmental violations.

The total number of cases opened by the tribunal in 2008 increased by 50% from the year before to 461. Nearly 60 of those were allegedly illegal construction projects along either the Pacific or Caribbean coast, uncovered during the sweeps. Among the projects either suspended or put under investigation were the $300 million Hotel Hyatt Azulera, on Guanacaste’s Brasilito beach, and the Ritz-Carlton’s $250 million Guacamaya project in Guanacaste.

It is of little surprise that the newly invigorated court would have stepped on some toes. Politicial pressure, a break-in at the court’s offices and death threats to the judges and Chaves’ wife however failed to slow their actions.

But with a total staff of 12 employees — five of whom are on loan from other institutions and whose availability depends on their workload at their other offices — the cases have piled up. Construction projects have had to fire workers as they waited for investigations to begin, riling local unrest.

Chaves estimates that cases currently average about two years in the court before being resolved,  but the tribunal has agreed to prioritize the development projects caught up in last year’s raids, and a new budget will add nine new full-time positions to the staff. Chaves, who was inspecting projects in Guanacaste this week, said he will continue full-force this year.

“One alternative was to slow our pace this year to give us a chance to catch up. But what is lost? A delay in the cases because of a lack of personnel, or continued environmental damage in this country,” Chaves told me in a recent interview. “Obviously the answer is that we cannot allow continued environmental damage. We have to be inflexible, and we have to go back out in the field.”

The tribunal has announced six more sweeps for this year, with an emphasis on chemical and waste pollution in the country’s waterways. Those inspections will target construction and industry on the Nicoya Peninsula, the San José greater metropolitan area, Guanacaste, the Caribbean province of Limón and the Osa Peninsula, and look at the heavily criticized pineapple plantations in the northern plains.

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