- Category: The Nation
- Published on Sunday, September 04 2011 04:48
- Written by Rod Hughes
- Hits: 632
A proposed international airport on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica is raising fears of irreparable damage to one of the richest natural areas in the world. The Osa contains an estimated 3% of the world's known biodiversity.
A hooking promontory extending into the Pacific Ocean, the Osa is currently home to a few exemplary nature lodges keeping careful low profiles so as not to disturb the environment. Public hearings promise to be acrimonious as government and nature advocates clash.
The projected airport was first proposed in 2006 but it was not until last October that President Laura Chinchilla spurred on the project as a job creator for reducing poverty and environmental impact studies went forward.
Environmentalists and other critics are only too sure they can already predict the results, citing the tourism mecca of Guanacaste province, where cattle ranching and later breakneck building changed the face of the area.
The planned airfield is only three miles from the edge of the ecological paradise of the Terraba-Sierpe Wetland, designated a wetland of international importance with a calculated annual ecosystem value of $2 billion.
But critics doubt an airport will fulfill Chinchilla's promise of creating jobs and defeating local poverty. They point out that the expansion in 2002 of the Guanacaste airport in Liberia to an international terminal resulted in jobs for people from outside the area -- but depressingly few for locals.
It also raised the cost of living for provincial residents without affecting wages much. It helped create a wild building spree of tourist resorts and retirement homes that threatened the environment and available water supplies, an over-development curbed only by plummeting U.S. home values and a recession that dried out the thirst for real estate development.
The poorly controlled real estate boom in the province also spawned a nickname--"desarrollo hormiga" or ant development, points out the nature blog Green. This, as well as rampant cutting of the dry forests decades ago to establish cattle pastures, has changed the face of the province permanently.
These concerns are mirrored in a recent report by the Center for Responsible Travel, a non-profit research organization with offices in Washington D.C. and Stanford University. Opening the airport "with few rules, limited government resources and little planning or control could readily lead to the same negative effects seen in Guanacaste," reads the report.
With one-hour light airliner flights into small airstrips and a highway leading to it, tourism amounts to 250,000 visitors annually to the Osa Peninsula, hosted by carefully low key lodges. In fact, far from damaging the environment, a 2010 report shows that the greatest reforestation occurs on land owned by an ecolodge and the area around it.
Supporting this finding, the management of a pioneering nature lodge in the central mountains of the country, Rara Avis, maintains that national parks and wildlife reserves could be benefited by being ringed with private nature lodges. Studies show that visitors on foot do not penetrate usually more than a mile into reserves with little disturbance to wildlife.
In another case, a tapir would visit communal areas of the Rio Colorado Lodge in the northeastern corner of the country for many years, nosing around the intrigued guests before wandering out again. This pioneering fishing resort had little impact on nature.
The airport site is a 1,000-acre agriculture area owned by two government agencies that recently turned it over to a third agency. Currently it is used by local families, now bracing themselves for eviction notices.
They will testify before the little-known Environmental Committee of the Legislative Assembly next week. Since Assembly is dominated by a coalition of opposition lawmakers, the families may receive a more sympathetic hearing than from the President's own National Liberation Party deputies.
Nature defense expert Carolina Herrera, who works with many nonprofit organizations and communities, observes that, "The mere announcement of the proposed new airport in the south of the country is being used by real estate developers in their advertisements." Over-development is her fear, shared by many others.
Ranged against her and her fellow critics are a host of government agencies and local development supporters who hope the airport will help fill the economic vacuum left when United Fruit Company left in 1984.
To show the potential impact of the airport, it is slated to get a 10,000 foot-long runway, capable of landing the world's largest airliner, the 853-passenger A380 Airbus. It is planned to be constructed in two phases from 2012 to 2016 at a cost of $35 million. The first stage will only land 50-passenger aircraft.
The government's Peace with Nature initiative promises that it will have "green" characteristics but specifics are lacking. Also lacking are studies of possible dangers to aircraft from bird species inhabiting the nearby wetlands soaring into airliner flight paths.