Oil exploration threatens Costa Rican coast

Posted: 13 July 2001

Over the past two decades, Costa Rica has built a huge tourist industry on its reputation for environmental protection. Now one of its most beautiful protected areas, parts of which are a World Heritage Site, is threatened by oil exploration.

The "rich coast," named by Columbus, is the region now known as Talamanca - one of the most biologically rich areas in the world. Marine resources, including magnificent coral reefs, mangroves, sea turtle nesting beaches, rare manatees, and over 100 species of fish, are protected by Cahuita National Park and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge.

Ground-breaking dolphin research is being conducted in the only area in the world where two dolphin species are known to interbreed in the wild. Talamanca's mountainous terrain and tropical rainforest vegetation are as biologically rich as the sea, earning protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In all, 88 per cent of Talamanca's territory has some degree of protection.

Talamanca's biological diversity is matched by its cultural diversity: Bribri and Cabecar indigenous groups manage two indigenous reserves, and the coast is dotted with fishing-farming villages founded by immigrants of Afro-Caribbean descent. Eco-tourism has become the most important source of income in Talamanca, drawing visitors from around the world.

The diverse Talamanca peoples are united in their opposition to oil development along their coast. The municipal government declared Talamanca county an "oil free zone," and 30 citizens' organisations (virtually all in the region) formed a coalition called ADELA to stop oil development before the damage to Talamanca ecosystems becomes irreversible.

Who would drill for oil against such united opposition? The answer is Harken Energy, a Houston, Texas, company that has strong links to US President George W. Bush, formerly a major shareholder and member of the board of directors. Harken's off-shore high-energy seismic explorations may already be affecting marine mammals, lobster and other marine species,according to marine scientists.

ADELA won a major victory in September 2000, when the Costa Rican Supreme Court invalidated the Harken concession. But the same Court later gave in to pressure from government agencies and oil companies, and reinstated the permit. Now, thousands of Costa Rican individuals and organisations have signed a Public Declaration calling on the Government of Costa Rica, as a signer of the Rio Declaration of 1992, the Climate Change Convention of 1993 and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, to become a leader in clean energy development, since fossil fuels threaten biodiversity, local economies and the global climate.

Source: Global Response Action, March 2001.