Category Archives: Costa Rica

Friedman does Costa Rica

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman paid Costa Rica a visit recently, and decided to take the chance to pen a column lauding the country’s forward-thinking environmental policies. His information seems to have come entirely from a conversation he had with former environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, who — I am inferring — painted a pretty nice picture of the environmental situation.

Being on vacation, Friedman apparently couldn’t be troubled to apply the same level of critical thinking to these claims as he does the praise espoused by U.S. politicians when speaking about their own work.

No doubt, Costa Rica is doing a much better job than most of its neighbors in the hemisphere in protecting its natural resources. And many in the private sector, particularly tourism businesses, have stepped up to the plate in making their business practices more sustainable. But then, it pays to be green when you operate in a country known for eco-tourism — a country, it’s worth mentioning, where the vast amount of sewage is untreated and ends up dumped in the rivers (the Health Ministry recently acknowledged it has not had a functioning waste treatment plant for years in the populous Central Valley, which includes the capital, leaving the companies that pump septic tanks to dump their sludge in fields and rivers). Another good amount of waste is piped directly out to the ocean, in some cases at top tourist beaches.

The country’s national park system, when created, was revolutionary and a good chunk of Costa Rica is now under some type of protected status (though the 25% figure he cites is debatable). But these areas are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Manuel Antonio National Park — the second-most-visited national park in the country — is now biologically isolated, as all surrounding forest has been cleared either for agriculture or tourism and real estate development. Its famous populations of monkeys are falling ill or critically endangered, depending on the species. The park was recently threatened with closure when it was discovered that the decrepit and abandoned public bathrooms were seeping sewage into the environment, among other problems.

Friedman also praises Costa Rica’s Payments for Environmental Services program, which is widely cheered, but its real impact has been questioned. While the country has been able to first stop, then reverse deforestation, it is a combination of both sound policies and good luck. The collapse of Costa Rica’s beef exports went a long way towards allowing pastures to regenerate.

The government has also been pushing carbon-neutrality left and right, though most of that work is being done by private businesses while even the Environment Ministry’s offices have yet to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs.

Friedman said Costa Rica “did something no country has ever done: It put energy, environment, mines and water all under one minister.” Roberto Dobles, the President’s second cousin and former telecom exec (telecommunications was also put into the same ministry), was the head of that ministry for the past three years, finding himself on the business side of a series of environmental conflicts (like this one over an open-pit gold mine). In March, he was forced to resign after it became public he signed a mining concession connected to his family and business associates, much to the joy of many in the nation’s environmental movement.

The same Carlos Manuel Rodríguez that spoke with Friedman for yesterday’s column gave me a much more critical view in an interview in January:

What are the greatest environmental challenges that Costa Rica is facing in the coming year?

Rodriguez: Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is the lack of environmental leadership on behalf of the government, which has demonstrated little environmental commitment and a lack of coherence between political discourse and actions. The government has expressed an unconditional support for the economic sector without considering environmental costs. The isolation of the protected areas, the opening to mining and oil exploration… are examples of these circumstances.

While there are many things being done right in Costa Rica, nobody wins when the real story is glossed over, as my friend Patrick put it. This present administration running Costa Rica has taken considerable heat for talking a nice game on the environment but failing to really do anything to back it up, and uncritical praise from such a tall podium like a New York Times column only inflates egos while giving little pressure to enact truly progressive policies.

I would love to see the United States using much, much more renewable energy and putting environmental protection at the top of its list of priorities. But for those of us who see Costa Rica as more than a pretty vacation destination, real environmental commitment here — a tiny country with a lion’s share of the world’s biodiversity — is critical, and it does no good to gloss over reality in order to make a case for change in the United States.

Dobles goes down

You could almost hear the cheers go up in the halls of Costa Rica’s grass roots environmental organizations and public universities: Environment (and Energy and Telecommunications) Minister Roberto Dobles had announced his resignation.

After a a series of environmental scandals and increasingly hostile criticism, Dobles, a former telecommunications executive, announced Friday that he will step down today. This, after Costa Rica’s Telenoticias TV news revealed last week that he awarded a mining concession to a corporation where his uncle (and cousin to President Oscar Arias) is the vice-president.

According to an investigation by the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), and headed by one of the country’s most reputable investigative journalists, 100% of the shares of the company that won the concession are owned by a corporation that, in turn, is owned by four other corporations where Dobles’ wife, mother and other family members are owners.

These last corporations exist largely on paper, according to the PAC investigation, a practice common in Costa Rica for purchasing property, owning businesses or reducing “tax exposure.” Dobles himself was listed as the president of one corporation until he stepped down, five months before awarding the controversial concession. 

Dobles claims he did nothing wrong, citing Costa Rica’s mining code, which prohibits government officials from granting mining concessions to family withing one degree of “consanguinidad,” or blood relation. Dobles said that his uncle is actually three degrees away, and claimed to not have known about the connection to the corporations owned by his immediate family.

He also noted that his uncle’s corporation originally applied for the concession — which is to pull sand and rock from a riverbed over five years — in 2001. It was through a combination of bureaucracy and coincidence, Dobles said, that it did not get through all the necessary hoops and red tape until just after he was named Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Minister by President Arias in 2006. 

Speaking to the Legislative Assembly Monday, where opposition legislators pounded him with questions and accusations of fraud and corruption while friendly lawmakers came to his defense, Dobles said he was stepping down not because he had done anything wrong, but because he didn’t want the controversy to hinder the president’s agenda during the last year of his administration.

Dobles, who prides himself on his work on Costa Rica’s national climate change strategy and a massive tree planting campaign, has become enemy number one for many environmental organizations after a series of decisions that appeared to put business interests before environmental protection

Both Dobles and Arias are now facing an investigation by the state Prosecutor’s Office into whether the concession broke the law.

Costa Rica’s secret police?

What is a country with no military and an international reputation for peace and human rights doing with a secret police that is authorized to spy on its own citizens and answers only to the President?

The question, which has been asked before, has taken on renewed importance since it became public that Costa Rica’s Dirección de Intelligencia y Seguridad Nacional (Department of Intelligence and National Security), or DIS, was apparently keeping a file on a journalist who vocally opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, known as CAFTA. President Oscar Arias campaigned on  a promise to approve CAFTA, at one point nearly staking his presidency on its passage.

Gilberto Lopes, who was born in Brazil but has spent the past 30 years working as a journalist in Costa Rica, was denied his request for citizenship last year because, as the Civil Registry put it in the rejection letter it sent him, Lopes “had not conducted himself well” in Costa Rica. The Civil Registry drew this conclusion after checking with the DIS and being told that Lopes’ name was “annotated” in their files.

Though he has never been convicted of a crime, Lopes did publish a booklet critical of the free trade agreement and spoke out on panels and round-table discussions against CAFTA, which polarized the country and was barely approved in a national referendum in 2007. Lopes also has long worked at Semanario Universidad, a left-leaning weekly published by the left-leaning University of Costa Rica. Semanario Universidad was first to publish a leaked, now-infamous memorandum written by a legislator and administration minister advising the president use fear tactics and other unsavory strategies in order to win the referendum.

When asked if he believed that the DIS was monitoring him because of his political activities, the 66-year-old writer, literary critic and BBC-collaborator said, “It’s evident.”

“But if you ask me for proof, the only proof I have is that file,” Lopes said.

Lopes has not seen the file, because the DIS refused to give even the Supreme Elections Tribunal, which oversees the Civil Registry, access to it during the appeals. The DIS is authorized to withhold information pertaining to ongoing investigations or deemed “state secrets,” but it did not specify where the info on Lopes fell.

Now, it appears that the whatever it was, the information has disappeared, or never existed at all.

“I have investigated and there is no file on him here. We are completely sure about this,” said the sub-director of DIS, Jorge Torres, in an interview this week inside his wood-paneled office in the unmarked, nondescript DIS headquarters off a busy intersection in San José.

Torres also denied that the DIS ever investigated opponents of CAFTA.

“That’s totally false. We are not a police force that has been created for that. In Costa Rica, we have the freedom of expression,” Torres insisted.

This defense is unlikely to go far with critics, however. The DIS was rocked last year when Torres’ predecessor, former sub-director Roberto Guillén, was forced to step down after being accused of robbing property and money from at least 14 businesses and individuals by accessing their personal information.

The nation’s chief prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese has called for nothing less than the total dissolution of the DIS.

In an op-ed for the daily La Nación, he wrote: “It is worrying that in a nation of laws there exists an entity such as the DIS, which, contradictory to Article 11 of the Constitution, is not called to account, does not file reports nor assumes responsibility for what it does.”

Calle 13 shows heart in Fraijanes

Latin hip hop/reggaetón megastars Calle 13 went straight from their closing performance at Costa Rica’s drink-a-thon fiesta Palmares today (Sunday) to the mountain hamlet Fraijanes, where families displaced by the Jan 8 earthquake are being sheltered.

According to a video and account by Cristian Cambronero, over at fusildechispas, Residente and Visitante, the two principal members of the group, toured the shelter and town unnanounced, shaking hands and talking with people there but avoiding the media.

Calle 13 has proved itself to be irreverent and original in a musical genre dominated, at least in the mainstream, by shallow derivitives of whatever was hot last month. It’s nice to see that they appear to be compassionate human beings as well.

Media crisis reaches Costa Rica

Word first leaked out on Twitter last night: Grupo Nación, publisher of several publications including what is considered by many to be Costa Rica’s largest and most influential daily, La Nación, would be cutting up to 100 jobs, including 14 reporters. This followed news earlier in the afternoon that the company would stop printing its recently launched, college-oriented newspaper Vuelta en U, leaving only the website.

Informa-Tico, the on-line daily that broke the news on Twitter, had a story up within a few hours quoting unnamed reporters from La Nación saying they were shocked by the news.

“This feels like a funeral. Even though there had been rumors in recent days, nobody expected layoffs. This has been very hard, very sad,” said one reporter who kept her job.

Informa-tico also ran the text of a memo sent to La Nación employees that included news that those remaining would receive a 5% raise in February.

La Nación today ran a story announcing in the lead “changes in the organizational structure and some products in order to increase efficiency and create savings that will allow (the company) to face the foreseen contraction in the advertising market within the context of the global economic crisis.”

Buried in the 17th paragraph (fourth to last in the story), La Nación revealed it would be cutting 25 positions immediately, and not refilling other positions that are left vacant in the future.

The news came as a shock to many in Costa Rica, but there were already symptoms that the country’s media was not immune to the same ills afflicting U.S. publications.

After a steady decline in ad pages, the English-language weekly The Beach Times quietly closed down at the beginning of this month, though a few stories have been posted to the website since then.

The Beach Times, where I worked for a year, was founded in 2003 by Ralph Nicholson, a life-long Australian journalist who worked his way up to vice-president in charge of new media at Reuters International. The paper served an audience of expats, investors and tourists with hard news and feature reporting from the booming northwest Pacific coast.

Meanwhile, at The Tico Times, where I currently work, ads have been shrinking steadily for months, and when one of the weekly’s four full-time reporters quit last year, no replacement was hired. This month, management announced there would be no raises until further notice.

Founded in 1956, The Tico Times documented much of Nicaragua’s civil war, losing a reporter in the infamous 1984 La Penca bombing (that link is in English, I promise), and has been a pioneer in environmental reporting over the last decade.

And finally, there have been rumors that AM Costa Rica, a staple website for expats in Costa Rica, would be shutting down this year. When I called and asked about the possibility, owner Jay Brodell oddly told me that he doesn’t talk to reporters.

Costa Rica’s earthquake hits environment hard

The full impact of the 6.2 earthquake that hit Costa Rica earlier this month is still coming into focus. Officially, 23 people are confirmed dead, but there are another seven people missing, presumed dead and likely are not going to be found any time soon (more on that next week).

Meanwhile, the environmental consequences are just beginning to emerge:

Thousands of fish in the Sarapiquí River were killed when mudslides choked the waterway, turning it into a continuous trough of sludge. Researchers fear that the river’s entire fish population may have been wiped out.

“For the Rio Sarapiquí, the earthquake was a catastrophe,” said Ron Coleman, a researcher from Sacramento State University in California. “As far as we can tell, the mud that went into the river choked all the oxygen out of the water and killed all of the fish and likely much of the other aquatic life.”

The Sarapiquí is a vital river for the region surrounding it, as well as one of the major rivers for whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. Ron Coleman later wrote me:

“The consequences are definitely serious to the region and certainly important to the country. This is not just a little thing. This is a big thing.” 

He said that it is not a major food source, but it has critical ecosystem importance, not to mention the tourism brought by whitewater rafting.

“Equally important, people are closely connected to the rivers of Costa Rica in many complex psychological ways,” he wrote. “It was clear to me that the death of the river was deeply disturbing to people who have grown up around it. It is a personal injury that will take time to heal and hopefully the river will recover fast enough to help that process.” 

How to help in the United States

More than 1,500 people are currently sleeping in temporary shelters in the mountainous region of Costa Rica that was devastated by a 6.2 earthquake Jan. 8. At least two villages have been chalked up as a total loss. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, houses rebuilt, lives relocated. Western Union has donated $50,000 and opened a special account for donations from the United States. More information here.