Orlando Ordóñez stops his vehicle at an intersection and says in a low voice, as though he doesn’t want anyone else to hear, that this is where they hide when they come to catch hunters. “We all run out together because if we don’t, they’ll escape.”
Hunting, logging and fishing are illegal on the 3,030 hectares (7,487 acres) of the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve. This park guard and two other officials dedicate 10 of every 15 days of their lives to this protected land. “Sometimes 11 or 12,” says Manrique Montes, manager and park ranger in this protected area. “We don’t have enough resources and that endangers conservation areas and their sustainability,” he adds.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles from here, legislators are voting a law that also puts part of the reserve at risk, but that, on the other hand, will give the state the resources to take better care of this protected area.
The law, called the “modification of boundaries in Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve for the development of the project to supply water to the Tempisque river basin and coastal communities (Paacume)” will allow the flooding of 113 hectares —3.7% of the reserve— and require the state to compensate for the flooding with neighboring properties in order to mitigate the environmental damage.
The National Water, Irrigation and Drainage Service (Senara), the institution spearheading Paacume, presented the environmental impact studies in 2017. The study explains how the damage caused by the Río Piedras Reservoir will be compensated for.
The project has to bring more officials to the reserve. There are so few of us that we have gone from being the watchdogs to being the watched.” Manrique Montes. Manager of the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve.
The law have received a warm welcome in Congress and have already been approved. But there is strong opposition from a growing group of environmentalists who are pushing for further studies showing the true mitigation of the damage. They also question the necessity of developing the reservoir.
Sitting on a bench inside the reserve’s house, Manrique Montes says that they did everything they could to prevent the flooding, but, as it is now practically a done deal, they reviewed the studies that show the damage mitigation. They know that the state will have to invest more in the reserve once the project is approved, which will improve the amount of available resources to fight crime inside the protected area.
Amid such divided positions, The Voice of Guanacaste created a summary of what the province will gain and what it will lose as it cedes a part of its biodiversity to the reservoir.
1. Affected animals
“They are going to flood little by little so the majority of animals can leave,” says Orlando Ordóñez as he walks along one of the trails in Lomas Barbudal. “Some will certainly die, but we are going to try and save the majority.”
Senara confirmed that they will design a management plan before starting construction of the reservoir and that they will have a biologist and a veterinarian to move animal species.
According to a study by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OET) the largest plot of land that the state will buy only contains between 50 to 55 percent of the mammal species and trees inside the reserve and between 62 to 79 percent of bird species, arthropods (different families of insects) and amphibians.
The study also shows that some species are already accustomed to moving between the neighboring lands and the reserve, such as the white-headed capuchin monkey.
- Loss of primary forest
The main property to be bought doesn’t contain gallery forest, which is a corridor of trees that forms around rivers, while on the land that will be flooded contains 30 hectares of this type of forest.
“In general, the potential flood zone in Lomas Barbudal has a larger structure, more dominant trees, biomass and potential for carbon capturing,” the document indicates.
In order to compensate for the smaller amount of biodiversity on the compensatory property, OET recommends buying more than triple the number of flooded hectares (530 hectares or 1,309 acres in total) and include another two properties where there is primary forest around the rivers.
But environmentalists worry that there aren’t enough in-depth studies about the biodiversity on the other plots of land. The OET studies recommend including one of these properties as part of the compensation, but states that the analysis of the zone is preliminary and based on one field observation.
Another one of ecologists’ criticisms is that the state doesn’t have enough money to buy the neighboring properties and that the owners of the properties has given higher numbers than those budgeted. According to Senara, the increase in price is due to the fact that property owners are requesting the inclusion of a luxury home on one of the properties in the expropriation.
In a statement, Senara said that the $1.6 billion they have to buy the land is enough to pay for it all. Marin Coto, director of engineering and project development for the institution, said that once the project becomes law, they will begin expropriating these 1,309 acres in order to buy them before they start construction on the project.
- More resources
The three officials who work in the reserve do literally everything. They watch from a tower for potential forest fires, they seek out volunteers to maintain trails, they attend to the public visiting the reserve and researches that come to study it, they chase hunters, file criminal complaints with the Attorney General’s Office and, in general, look over more than 3,000 hectares of forest.
The excessive workload due to a lack of resources puts the sustainability of the reserve at risk, according to administrator Manrique Montes. For him, the megaproject is going to attract the eyes of visitors and must come with more resources to strengthen supervision, and not just over the area that they already have but also over new areas and the project itself.
The bill, that received final debate this Thursday, September 6th, indicates that 50 percent of the water tax charged by the Environment and Energy Ministry will go to the National System of Conservation Areas in order to implement the General Plan for Management and Sustainable, Rational Use. But it doesn’t mention greater allotment of resources for the reserve.
- A new wetland
Once construction is finished, the law requires the reservoir to be set up as a wetland ecosystem. The OET study suggests declaring it a wildlife refuge and recommends maintaining a forested rim of native species around it without affecting the extraction of water.
- Water for farmers and hotels
Paacume will distribute water through the construction of an irrigation canal, taking it to communities, planted land and coastal zones for hotel developments. While it will reserve two metric meters per second for human consumption, executive president of the Costa Rica Aqueducts and Sewers Institute, Yamileth Astorga, said in an interview with this newspaper that water from Paacume won’t be needed for human consumption for another couple decades.
Another one of the criticisms from the group of environmentalists that is pushing to declare the project unconstitutional is that half of the water is going to be used for sugarcane crops belonging to big business owners.
“The whole project seems to only benefit a few sugarcane growers and real estate developers that are going to use public funds to grow their businesses with the excuse of bringing water to Guanacaste,” the Front for Protected Wildlife Areas said in a statement.
In response to this criticism, Senara says that small landowners will proportionally receive more water than large landowners since large landowners have greater capacity for installing irrigation techniques that take greater advantage of water. The fee will also be different. According to the institution, they are working on a rate determined by volume and not by the number of flooded hectares in order to encourage responsible consumption of the liquid.