On Friday, January 14, neighbors of Esterones of Samara were frightened as flames flared up along Buena Vista Beach. Davina Pritchard, who lives near the beach, received a frantic phone call from neighbor Elizabeth Jenkins informing her that the beach was on fire. At first, she didn’t think it was that serious, but then she said she could hear the crackle of burning palm trees and she headed to the beach, where she witnessed the flames flaring up between the beach and the ecologically important mangroves.
She related that the fire in some places was actually on the beach and she and others tried to detain it. She said she threw sand on the flames, trying to save a few precious trees on the beach where shade is limited. The firefighters were called but it took them about an hour to arrive. The fire raged on until it burnt itself down.
Fear turned to fury as they learned who was responsible for the fire. Topographer Manuel Ayerdi Gonzalez was hired by Fabricio Sanchez, a doctor and Vice Mayor elect of Nicoya for the Liberacion Nacional (National Liberation) party, to cut down the brush on a lot that he says belongs to a relative of his, but Sanchez and Ayerdi said the burning was an accident.
“I went to mark out a property that Francisco Sanchez inherited,” said Ayerdi Gonzalez. “The laborers were burning some hives and the wind blew it out of control.”
Fabricio Sanchez admitted that he hired some laborers to cut and clean the property to which he says a family member has the title, but he never ordered to set it on fire. He wanted them to cut down the brush so the topographer could do his job. “We’re going to wait and see what Minaet says [to know if mangrove was burned or not], but unofficially they told me that it was an accident.”
Sanchez claims that no protected area was affected by the fire. “We didn’t touch any mangrove but rather we even made spaces [while cutting the area before the fire] so the mangrove grows with more strength because there was a parasite that was killing it,” he said.
Damage Caused by Fire Under Investigation
There is some debate over whether the mangroves were damaged by the fire. Some mangrove trees and some palm trees were burned, according to Roy Hernandez, Administrator of the Buena Vista Beach turtle camp project of the Asociacionde Voluntariospara Areas Protegidas(ASVO – Association of Volunteers for Protected Areas). He said the problem is that the lot is between the maritime zone and the mangroves and if people continue to burn like this it will impact the environment. Although the sea turtles that come to the beach don’t generally lay their eggs in that particular area, he said the habitat of many birds, snakes and crabs is affected.
On the other hand, Gerardo Martinez, chief of Minaet’s Nicoya office, stated that two officials visited the area on Tuesday, January 18, and said that the mangroves weren’t burned but rather the vegetation next to the mangroves had been burned. He said they are going to request that a biologist prepare a report on the area. Regardless, Martinez said “The burnings in this zone are illegal because it is a public zone. Only the Municipality can do something [in the 50 meters] and it should be for the benefit of the community.”
According to document ACT-OSRN.023-11 from Minaet dated January 20, 2011, denouncing Sanchez, officials from Minaet arrived at the property at 11 a.m. on January 18 and found Sanchez and Jose Anoldo Tasara chopping at the property and verbally informed Sanchez that his labors on the property should stop. They also presented him with a Notice of Suspension of Activities (un boleto de “Aviso de Suspension de Actividades”). However, Sanchez abstained from signing the notice.
The same document states that the affected area is within the Maritime Land Zone in a restricted area and that 6,000 square meters where chopped and burned. The officials reported observing that the chopping and the heat of the fire affected mangrove foliage.
Assistant Rodrigo Acuña, from the Maritime Land Zone (ZMT) office of the Municipality said that on Monday, January 17, two inspectors visited the burned area and that they are making a report. “We’re going to go with a GPS to set up tracking [of the affected area],” he said.
Neighbors Publicly Denounce Burning
Since the fire, the neighbors of Esterones have been busy building a legal case and working with Minaet to present a legal complaint. On Friday, January 21, several people from the community went to Nicoya to publicly denounce Sanchez. They met with officials of the Municipality, Minaet, ICT and others, presented legal documents to the court and posted photos of the burned area to seek public support. Shirley Perez Hernandez, Vice President of the Committee of the Board of Neighbors (Comité del la Junta de Vecinos), said that many in the community participate in cleaning the beach and then to confront a case like this makes her feel bad. “We have to put a stop to it,” she said, “because this is declared national heritage. It belongs to all Costa Ricans. No one can touch it.”
Sanchez affirmed that his vision is ecological. “I make the commitment that there isn’t going to be any hotel there, nor cement nor anything that isn’t ecological,” he stated. He also said he wants to declare the property as a protected zone to study the mangrove and possibly put in a center of aquatic or hyperbaric medicine with the help of INS, CCSS and the Municipality. He also mentioned wanting to put in an office for officials of Minaet and the Municipality.