Deforestation Threatening Costa Rican Wilderness

by John Burnett

PUERTO JIMENEZ, Costa Rica, Oct. 14, 1997 - In the 12 years he's been crisscrossing the Osa Peninsula as an air taxi pilot and environmentalist, Alvaro Ramirez has noticed a dramatic change in the densely forest hills below.

"Look!" he says, pointing to a brown stream bisecting the velvet green landscape, "this is one of the tributaries to the Rio Tigre. This road is where the tractor goes up to cut wood. See it? It's a new road. Look there, where they take out the wood. They're not supposed to cut there, it's too close to the river."

Through the windshield of his Cessna, we can see ahead of us the sumptuous forest canopy of Corcovado National Park - which is still protected from timber cutting. But directly below, loggers have been looting the forest reserve surrounding the park, which provides critical additional habitat.

The hilltops are checkered with clearcuts that look like soccer fields; from them lead logging roads, "ant trails," he calls them.

We turn around and head for the airstrip in the trading center of Puerto Jimenez. Ramirez stares ahead, a look of resignation on his face. "They're clear-cutting the watersheds," he says.

The Osa Peninsula is one of the largest expanses of lowland tropical forests left in Central America. Jutting off of the Pacific Coast just above Panama, the Osa is Costa Rica's poorest, most remote - and in biological terms - its wildest province. Down here, jaguars still come out on the beach to hunt. Scarlet macaws and toucans are as common as sparrows. It is home to the world's largest pit viper, the bushmaster - an eight-foot monster they call "matabuey" in Spanish, the ox killer. And on the Osa, the forest canopy rises taller than anywhere else in Costa Rica owing to the abundant rainfall.

Consumers certainly benefit from the giant hardwoods waiting their turn at the sawmill. In the hands of craftsmen, they become doors and credenzas and bannisters and floorboards. But environmentalists on the Osa rarely see the end product. They see what's left behind.

"We're standing right here by the banks of this river right now looking at the erosion, this water is chocolate brown," says a Greenpeace activist named Joel Stewart, who lives on the Osa when he's not at sea working as captain of the organization's ship, the Rainbow Warrior. He's looking at a muddy torrent that drains an upland region which has been heavily logged recently.

"One of the things that bothers me a lot is the last coral reef in the Golfo Dulce region. (The Golfo Dulce is the body of water that separates the Osa Peninsula from the mainland.) It's dying because of the sedimentation," Stewart says. "You go out and dive on this reef and it's covered with silt and it's choking it to death. The other reefs that I've dove on around the gulf have already died because of sedimentation."

Stewart says Costa Rica is practicing hypocrisy if it continues to promote itself internationally as an environmental haven, yet they're "only going to preserve what's in the parks as a type of biological zoo and allow everything else to be cut."

When the contralto whine of the chainsaw starts to echo in the rainforests of Costa Rica, conservationists have learned to fear the worst. Over the past three decades, this country had the foresight to protect large tracts of wilderness by creating a system of nature preserves that comprise 11 percent of the national territory.

Yet while conservationists were setting aside some forestland, cattlemen were mowing it down elsewhere, giving Costa Rica one of the highest rates of deforestation in the Americas. Here, as elsewhere in the region, government policies rewarded landowners for converting forest into what was considered "productive" land - namely, cattle ranches.

Today, almost all the virgin forest outside of national parks is gone, or going fast.

"Even though there are not enough park guards, we can guarantee that there is no logging in national parks," Says Carlos Herrera, who headed the park service in 1994. "But the rest of the land is simply not protected. It is in danger."

A new forestry law passed last year by the Costa Rican congress includes innovative economic incentives for landowners to preserve these fast-disappearing woodlands. But another section of the same law - reportedly crafted by the timber industry - encourages deforestation.

"Unfortunately, we have a new forestry law that does not benefit us. On the contrary, it has made the problem worse," says Cecelia Solano, who belongs to the Association for the Defense of Natural Resources of the Osa. "The new law has been a disgrace for this country, for the forests, and for those of us who are responsible for conserving for the next generation."

Under the old law, landowners had to request timber cutting permits from federal forestry engineers in San Jose. But the procedure was slow and riddled with corruption. In an effort to decentralize the permitting process, lawmakers took away the federal authority, and split it between the municipalities and private forestry engineers.

Critics say the result has been chaos: the municipalities are handing out permits, though they have no experience in forest management, and the private foresters, known in Spanish as "regentes," are just as corrupt as the federal foresters were.

A former national park guard, who doesn't want his name used, has come to a riverbank deep in the Osa, to show what he considers proof of how regentes abuse their authority.

"In the Osa, the permits appear to be legal. But they're done below the table," he says. "We're standing within 10 meters of the Rio Tigre, where it's illegal to cut trees, and we can see the stumps of a Guanacaste tree and a Guallabon tree that have been cut. These regentes sell these management plans for sausage (Costa Rican slang for bribes), and they allow the illegal extraction of wood."

The government acknowledges the new forestry law has caused problems. Environmental Minister Rene Castro says that his office has filed charges against several private foresters, and complained to the national forestry college about others.

"We know there are abuses and we have sent the accused regentes to the tribunals," he says, in an interview in his office in San Jose. "But part of the complaints about illegal tree felling is simply ignorance. There will always be trucks carrying logs out of the Osa, because some have permits. There is a mixture of valid and invalid complaints."

While the government defends itself, and environmentalists fume, small landowners in the Osa applaud the new rules, which have made it easier for them to cut and sell timber.

"There's lots of poverty. I have old friends who I grew up with. They left their farms because they couldn't make it, because of the conservation," says Freddy Gonzalez, who lives near the community of Rio Nuevo, in the heart of the Osa Peninsula. "We have to sell a little wood to survive. Let me tell you something, mister: the monkeys can eat fruit. But human beings can't, we have more needs."

The situation has quieted for the moment on the Osa Peninsula.

In late August, as public outcry and international attention intensified, Environmental Minister Rene Castro imposed a temporary timber-cutting ban in the Osa, and created a commission to investigate reports of illegal logging.

Environmentalists have cautiously praised the moratorium, although they're worried what happens when it expires this month.

Meanwhile, concerned residents near other Costa Rican forests being ravaged by loggers have reportedly asked the government to extend the timber ban to their regions as well.

Copyright 1998 John Burnett

This article or any portion of the article that appears on UT-LANIC may be downloaded, quoted or referenced with the stipulation that it be credited to John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

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