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Costa Rica sees tourism's environmental dark side

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

By David SherwoodContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2008

Tourists watch for monkeys along the canals of Tortuguero National Park, one of Costa Rica’s premier ecotourism destinations. Government reports released last fall revealed that 97 percent of Costa Rica’s sewage flows untreated into rivers, streams, or the ocean.

David Sherwood

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Playa Grande, Costa Rica

On a quiet night in February, when winter temperatures plummeted below zero in North America, leatherback sea turtles the size of golf carts lumbered onto this tropical beach to lay their eggs.

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Yet just a sandy stroll away, in the booming surf town of Tamarindo, runaway tourism development is turning the sea into an open sewer.

Water quality tests conducted by the country's Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) over the past year found fecal contamination far above levels considered safe by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Such contradictions are now a part of everyday life here, as this ecohaven the size of West Virginia struggles to deal with a tourism and development surge three times the world average.

"Welcome to the Costa Rica the promoters don't want you to hear about," says Gadi Amit, tireless leader of a local activist group called the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association.

In the past decade, construction of hotels, second homes, and condominiums has surged in coastal regions, taking advantage of a vacuum in planning and enforcement. The total land area that has been developed grew 600 percent in that time, according to a government report.

As a result, the biodiversity that has long lured visitors is disappearing, say scientists. Monkey and turtle populations are plummeting, and infrastructure is strained to a near breaking point.

Now a streak of alarming environmental calamities has the government caught in a tug of war between investors and environmentalists wanting to protect natural resources.

"This is a free-for-all," says Mr. Amit, "and it's coming at the expense of local communities and the environment. If something isn't done soon ... there will be no reason left for tourists to come here."

Costa Rica's highly regarded, nonpartisan State of the Nation report aired the country's dirty laundry last November, alarming both the press and the public.

Statistics revealed that 97 percent of Costa Rica's sewage flows untreated into rivers, streams, or the ocean, and that more than 300,000 tons of garbage was left uncollected on streets in 2006. And a flurry of illegal well-drilling is running aquifers dry, ironic in a country where as much as 20 feet of rain falls annually.

Despite the chaos, less than a quarter of coastal towns have zoning plans to balance tourism development with natural resources and government services such as sewage treatment and public water supply.

The report's authors concluded that the government "lacked a clear political commitment" to reduce environmental impact, and that investors simply "lacked interest."

Forcing discussion of the issues has become the mantra of the country's burgeoning environmental movement. Community activists are organizing, filing lawsuits, calling for development restrictions, and insisting on their constitutional right to a "healthy environment."

Last year, a rash of alarming reports validated their fears.

Monkey populations, symbols of the rain forest and a charismatic tourist attraction, declined an estimated 50 percent in little more than a decade, according to a recent report by a team of wildlife scientists.

In the northwestern province of Guanacaste, luxury hotels and condominiums were once unheard of. But along those booming shores, recently anointed as the Gold Coast, such accommodations are now the norm.

These sprawling developments, with their well-manicured lawns and golf courses, produce a soupy, nutrient-rich runoff that feeds caulerpa sertularioides, an aggressive species of algae that is smothering coral reefs in the Gulf of Papagayo.

"It's an ecological disaster," says marine biologist Cindy Fernández, who spent years cataloging the damage.