An Environmental Test Case

New Costa Rican government to rule on building of chip mill in rain forest

HERE in the last remaining stretch of Pacific Coast rain forest in Central America, the silence is disturbed only by the waves of the Golfo Dulce lapping on the rugged shore. Or by the occasional dull roar of a howler monkey or the screech of a scarlet macaw.

But this natural symphony may soon be replaced by the cacophony of chain saws and sawmills and the rumble of tractor-trailer trucks and cargo ships.

Stone Container Corporation, a $5 billion paper and packaging company based in Chicago, wants to open a $60 million wood-chip mill and logging operation here in Punta Estrella, in the rain forest. Environmentalists from around the world are protesting.

``It's absurd to build an industrial plant in the middle of a protected area,'' says Oscar Fallas, of the Costa Rican Ecological Association.

Fallas's group has enlisted the help of international environmental organizations - including Greenpeace USA and the Rain Forest Action Network of San Francisco - in its fight against the Stone project.

And after a series of political and legal setbacks against the previous Costa Rican government, the groups recently won a small victory when the new administration of Jose Maria Figueres Olsen announced a complete review of the project.

Natural Resources Minister Rene Castro, who is completing his doctorate in ecology at Harvard University, has set up an independent commission to study the environmental impact of the chip mill. A decision is expected by August.

The Stone case is the first environmental test for President Figueres, who rode a wave of ``green'' support in February's presidential elections. Costa Rica's reputation as an international environmental and ``ecotourism'' leader is at stake.

Company sees positive impact

Stone says its chip mill will create up to 2,500 jobs, since workers will be needed in the factory and to plant and harvest 24 million gmelina trees across 24,000 hectares (about 60,000 acres) of rented farm land along Costa Rica's Pacific coast.

The fast-growing trees will be clear-cut in five years - the first crop will be ready in 1996 - then chopped in the chip mill and shipped to Stone plants in the United States, where they could be turned into film paper, newsprint, toilet paper, or boxes.

``We think the government will see it's positive for the area and the country,'' says Max Koberg, general manager of Ston Forestal SA, Stone's subsidiary in Costa Rica.

But environmentalists say the jobs and economic benefits can't justify the environmental damage.

The area is among the most biologically diverse regions in Costa Rica and in the world. Two-thirds of Costa Rica's plants and animal species are found here, along with numerous endangered species such as jaguars, scarlet macaws, and ocelots. Some 350 types of birds live in the area, along with several endangered tropical hardwood trees, including tiger wood, purple heart, iron wood, and monkey wood.

Punta Estrella sits between two national parks: the Corcovado National Park on the Pacific shore of the Osa Peninsula and the Piedras Blancas National Park on the mainland.

Environmentalists are trying to protect a natural corridor between the parks. This will be impossible if the chip mill is built, they say.

``It would have a devastating impact on the wildlife and the biodiversity,'' says Atossa Soltani, campaign coordinator for the Rain Forest Action Network, which is trying to rally opposition to the project in the US. ``We're talking about the largest chip mill in Central America being located in one of last pristine areas in Costa Rica.''

Stone will send 168 trucks back and forth from plantations to the mill every day. The noise and pollution will disturb the wildlife, environmentalists say. The saws, both within the mill and in the plantations, will add to the noise.

``It's a very fragile place,'' Ms. Soltani says. ``Already most of Costa Rica's rain forests are gone. This [area] is the jewel of what remains.''

Marine biologists are concerned about the impact on marine life in the Golfo Dulce as well, which includes coral reefs, sea turtles, humpback whales, and nearly 300 dolphins, according to Gabriel Rivas, a biologist with the Costa Rican Ecological Association.

Marine research done for the association found that there are only three gulfs like the Golfo Dulce in the world. It is remarkably deep - 200 meters or 656 feet. Since there are few currents, any pollution from the ships or sediment from the chip mill would remain in the area.

``Any accidents in the gulf would be catastrophic,'' Mr. Rivas says.

Stone plans to build its own dock at Punta Estrella, which the previous government designated as a free-trade zone, meaning Stone would not have to pay taxes. Two cargo ships would arrive every month to transport the wood chips to the US for manufacture.

Opposition to the chip mill

Stone tried to set up a similar chip mill and pine-tree plantation in nearby Honduras in the early 1990s, but widespread public opposition drove them out, says Pamela Wellner of Greenpeace USA in San Francisco.

Stone has embarked on a massive publicity campaign with videos, pamphlets, and its own environmental study to counter these charges.

Mr. Koberg says the natural corridor exists only in the minds of environmentalists. The area around the gulf is already dotted with farms and cleared areas. And foresters have permits to log 40,000 hectares (about 99,000 acres) around Punta Estrella.

Environmentalists counter that 70 percent of the area between the parks is still primary or secondary forest.

``Just because there has been deforestation does not justify that there should be more,'' Ms. Wellner says. ``That makes it even more important [to preserve it].''

Stone insists the noise will be minimal and that no earth will be dumped into the gulf. What's more, no tropical hardwoods have been - or will be - cut to build the plant, Koberg says.

``All of [the environmentalists'] charges are not based in fact,'' Koberg says. ``We're not cutting trees, we're planting trees. This is the largest reforestation project in Central America.''

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