Plans to build an interoceanic dry canal in Costa Rica could become a reality, converting the project into a superhighway with airports, ports, trains and hydroelectric plants, and connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans between Guanacaste and Limón.
But can it be built without significantly affecting Guanacaste’s biodiversity? While environmentalists and managers of the Guanacaste Conservation Area are concerned about the plan’s potentially high environmental cost, business leaders are lauding its potential benefits, claiming $16 billion in investment and the creation of 80,000 jobs.
While conflict over the megaproject – called the Interoceanic Dry Canal, or CSI – is new, the project itself isn’t. It was first published in the official government newspaper, La Gaceta, in 1988, when a call for consultancy bids was opened for a feasibility study to be carried out.
Of 16 bidding companies, the winner was the consortium Caribbean Basin International Development Corp S.A., legally represented in the country by the private company Canal Seco en Costa Rica, or CANSEC.
Twenty-eight years later, the National Concessions Council (CNC) has yet to give final approval for construction to begin. The CNC currently is analyzing the project’s various technical, environmental, economic and financial feasibility studies.
The next step is the tendering process, purchasing of land (which should be completed by March), and finally, construction. If no delays happen, the project would be completed in five years.
Although CANSEC made public a map that traces the dry canal’s route, it doesn’t precisely identify the exact sites through which it will pass due to a confidentiality clause issued by the company that prevents the CNC from divulging its exact route.
CANSEC’s Communications Director Lucrecia Sandí said the project’s size means many people might want to sabotage it.
“There are a lot of people going around saying they’re buying land in our name (CANSEC), and that’s a lie,” Sandí said.
The strategy entails some real estate agents attempting to buy land cheaply to sell it later to CANSEC at a higher price.
“We prefer not to reveal the exact locations so that there is no false speculation. When all the land is purchased we will make that information public,” she said.
Looking at the route CANSEC presented to the CNC, the canal will pass through the canton of La Cruz, likely at the Santa Cecilia, Cuajiniquil and Santa Elena Bay sectors, where one of the ports would be located.
The canal would bypass the Guanacaste and Santa Rosa national parks, both declared natural patrimony of the state. While CANSEC insists it will not damage the region’s natural resources, Alejandro Masís, director of the Guanacaste Conservation Area, believes the canal could affect biodiversity on the Santa Elena Peninsula.
For example, Masís said he could not rule out a decline in nesting of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles at the Playa Nancite Biological Station due to constant ship traffic expected in the area.
“We want to be very clear that we are not against the project. What we oppose is damage to the country’s natural heritage,” Masís said.
Another environmentalist concerned by the project is Lenin Corrales, an expert in environmental modeling and climate change at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center.
“A project of this magnitude is going to affect the environment. We’re practically talking about splitting the country in two. Santa Elena Bay (the proposed port location), although it’s not a protected area, is vital to marine biodiversity,” Corrales said.
In March 2011, Executive Decree Nº 36574-MINAET declared all research, conservation and dissemination involving Santa Elena Peninsula to be in the public interest.
The decree also urges public institutions and academic entities to collaborate with research, conservation and dissemination of the value of the site’s natural, scientific and historic heritage, as well as the geological resources found there.
CANSEC’s Sandí acknowledged those concerns, but said the company has conducted studies showing the region’s biodiversity will not be affected. These studies have not yet been made public.
“The project respects the protection of 100 percent of what is considered a reserve. It borders the reserves and doesn’t enter them,” Sandí said.
Sandí also said she would meet with Masís and other environmentalists, and the project includes plans to reforest areas along the CSI ’s route with native tree species.