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Costa Rica sees tourism's environmental dark side

Lax regulations have allowed development to surge to the breaking point.

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Sea turtles, another tourist favorite, are also threatened. Populations of the critically endangered Pacific leatherback have plummeted 97 percent in 20 years, say scientists. While the threats leatherbacks face range from fishing to global warming, many scientists believe development, particularly along Costa Rica's nesting beaches, may be the last straw.

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The government has been slow to rally to the turtles' defense.

"Everyone is fed up," says Frank Paladino, a biologist and vice president of The Leatherback Trust, a nonprofit based in New Jersey that raised millions of dollars to protect the turtles. The group, frustrated and feeling pressure from donors, recently broke a long-standing fundraising agreement with the country's environment ministry. "We can't keep waiting for the Costa Rican government to do the right thing," Dr. Paladino says.

The solution, agree most activists and scientists, is better planning and stricter environmental safeguards.

"We're not asking to end all development," says Jorge Lobo, a University of Costa Rica professor. "What we need is to take a break, so that our coastal municipalities can catch their breath, set zoning plans and laws in place, then resume, but at a more sustainable pace." Professor Lobo has led the charge for development moratoriums in sensitive areas of the Osa Peninsula, a region scientists say boasts 2.5 percent of the world's biodiversity.

A torrent of revealing local and international press coverage may pressure the country to turn the corner.

Travel guides, including the "Lonely Planet" series, have led the way. The most recent edition warns: "If anyone reading this thinks that Costa Rica is a virtual eco-paradise where environmental conservation always takes precedence over capitalist gains ..., educate yourself...."

But Michael Kaye, a New York transplant who's widely regarded as a pioneer of the country's ecotourism industry, says tourists themselves aren't pushing hard enough.

"Ecotourism is a media phenomenon," Mr. Kaye says. "The people that are really willing to sacrifice comfort for sustainability are few. That would need to change."

Setbacks aside, promoters such as Kaye, and even many detractors, acknowledge that Costa Rica remains decades ahead of its neighbors. More than 26 percent of its national territory is under protected status, 80 percent of its energy is produced from renewable resources such as wind and hydropower, and the country is growing more trees than it cuts down – an anomaly in widely poor Central America.

Costa Rica's natural resources are equally impressive, with its 11,450 species of plants, 67,000 species of insects, 850 species of birds, and the highest density of plants, animals, and ecosystems of any country in the Americas.

Lately, the government, sensing the urgency of the situation, seems increasingly willing to listen.

In January, the Health Ministry closed the Occidental Allegro Papagayo, one of the country's largest all-inclusive resorts, when inspectors discovered pipes pumping sewage into a nearby estuary.

The state-run Water and Sewer Institute stepped up next, revoking "Ecological Blue Flags" from seven beaches, including those fronting the popular tourist towns of Dominical and Tamarindo on the Pacific, and Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean, citing fecal contamination in ocean waters.

And on April 9, the Costa Rican administration issued a temporary decree restricting building height and density along the northwest Pacific coast, the country's fastest-developing region, and coincidentally, one entirely without zoning plans.

"Things will likely get worse before they can get better. Remember, in the United States, rivers were catching on fire 30 years ago," says ecoindustry leader Kaye. "We are making progress."

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