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Save Rio Tigre....Save All Osa's Rivers

Community Fights to Save Its River
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Summer 2009:  The Campaign

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Located near the end of a dirt road about eight kilometers from the coastal route that links Puerto Jimenez with the Pan-American Highway, the small community of Dos Brazos epitomizes the change that is coming to the Osa. The tiny town started in the days when gold seekers worked the mountain streams in what was to become Corcovado National Park.  At the beginning of this century many of its residents still made their livelihood panning for gold in the Rio Tigre and its tributary, the Rio Pizote, but the delight of a mountain stream edged by rainforest and the extraordinary concentration of birds and wildlife began to attract ecotourists. A few expatriates from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. bought property and started small ecolodges.  Some residents found steady work with the lodges and a few of the most talented trained as local nature guides.  New businesses including a pulperia (general store), soda, and bar began to flourish with the tourism trade. Residents began to understand that their economic future was tied to the beauty and health of their environment and founded the Conservation Association of Dos Brazos-Rio Tigre (ASCODOBRARTI). 

 

For several years some residents of Dos Brazos protested the illegal practice of extracting sand and gravel from its river – a nuisance activity that occurred sporadically when there was a demand for the material in Puerto Jimenez. Eventually they decided to tolerate the activity as long as it was minor, temporary, and benefited the local community.  But in the spring of 2009 they discovered that they were threatened with seeing their river sold from under them.  No less than six companies had applied for concessions to mine sand and gravel on 10 kilometers of the short 11-kilometer stretch of the river between their town and the coast.  Plotting the concessions on a map showed that they were lined up back-to-back downstream from the town bridge to just one kilometer upstream from the river’s mouth. 

 

The Conservation Association mobilized to stop the concessions. The key here, as in the Platanares and the tuna farming issue was convincing SETENA of irreversible environmental damage that would prevent the granting of more concessions.  The picture looked grim with one mining concession (Materiales Occidente) approved and operating on the lower river before they could organize to stop it.  Concessionaires were adept at producing environmental impact studies to meet their own ends, but Dos Brazos conservationists learned that they had a right to challenge the company studies by conducting their own report - if it could be submitted before the permitting deadline.

 

The environmental case seemed easy to make.  River mining – the practice of using machines to extract materials from the bed of running rivers – has been denounced worldwide for the damage caused to rivers and the surrounding ecosystems and banned by most developed countries.  The removal of materials changes a river’s shape, smoothing the bed, removing the rocks, riffles, and deep holes that once provided habitat for a variety of creatures.  The smoother bed increases a stream’s velocity, which then accelerates erosion of the banks, causing collapse of the riparian vegetation that offers a bridge between the land and the water, sheltering and feeding a broad range of animals - ultimately including man

 

One of the results of stream bank collapse is increased frequency and severity of flooding, which destroys homes, businesses, and farms. A flood had already damaged Dos Brazos during the previous winter, so the community was well aware of the danger.  Further, they had already observed a river mining concession (Materiales Occidente) in full operation and could clearly see the damage to the surrounding countryside.  By early summer 2009 this concession had devastated nearly more than a kilometer of stream from bank to bank, completely removing the bed of the still-flowing river.

 

Members of the Conservation Association understood the threat, but they were overwhelmed by the cost and complexity of doing their own report.   A counter environmental impact study would have to be prepared by qualified professionals including a lawyer, a hydrologist, and a biologist.  It would be expensive, and in this community no one, including the expatriate lodge owners, had money to spare. 

 

Encouraged by national environmental leaders, the small group of grassroots activists decided to bite the bullet and contracted with an environmental lawyer who could help them file necessary papers, obtain copies of concession EIAs, and keep them on track.  To pay the bills, they started a fundraising effort through Ventanas en Corcovado Foundations, a U.S. based nonprofit corporation that supported a small research station in Dos Brazos. They reached out to request donations from ecotourists who had been guests at the local lodges. They found Eduardo Chacon, a certified Costa Rican biologist who had done his graduate research on the Rio Tigre and was willing to write the study pro bono, but they lacked a hydrologist – someone to analyze the EIS for accuracy and consistency with standard physical and engineering protocol.  Finally Bruce Melton, an American civil engineer with a specialty in hydrology and critical environmental issues agreed to spend two weeks on the Rio Tigre to do the necessary study.  Miraculously, by mid summer of 2009, the technical team was in place.

 

As might be expected, the two reports – the hydrology report by Melton  followed by a full environmental impact report certified by the Chacon – revealed serious flaws in the EIA submitted in support of the concessions.  The engineer showed that calculations in the EIA used by one concession (1) were based on a methodology that had been replaced in other countries by more refined techniques, (2) had used inaccurate or incomplete data, and (3) had made errors in choosing calculation variables to represent the conditions in the Rio Tigre watershed.  Strangely enough, all of these errors worked in favor of reducing the predicted environmental impact. 

 

A matter of grave concern to the community, given its increased orientation to the ecotourism industry, was the impact on wildlife species.  The Rio Tigre had become an acknowledged “hot spot” for birdwatchers, with a verified bird count of 358 species, seven of them in danger of extinction, and 34 classified as threatened.  According to biologist Chacon, at least one-third of these depend upon the river and its surrounding vegetation (Chacon, 2009, p. 20).  Any reduction of the vegetation and insect life in the river would have an adverse impact on the abundance and diversity of the bird population, which in turn would impact the tourism economy.

 

Further, the river was one of the few remaining refuges for the neotropical river otter, a species considered threatened with populations in peril of extinction in Costa Rica (Chacon, 2009, p. 23).  The otter’s preferred diet is freshwater shrimp, a species requiring migration between the river and the sea as part of its life cycle. River mining operations that block the movement of shrimp from the gulf to their freshwater spawning grounds would remove the major food source for the river otters, whose homes in the riverbanks were already under siege by the changing river. 

 

Other endangered mammals sighted on or near the Rio Tigre include the tapir, the saino, the white-faced peccary, the jaguar and five other species of jungle cat, and three of Costa Rica’s four species of monkey  (The fourth species or capuchin, although not technically in danger of extinction, is also found there.)  All of these would suffer habitat destruction with associated degradation to adjacent habitats, not to mention machinery noise and intrusion of workers.

 

A major consequence of river mining noted by both hydrologist and biologist is the inevitable increase in sediment load from erosion.  This increases the turbidity of the river, raising the temperature and eliminating life forms that require a cooler or a cleaner environment.  It also brings an increased load of sediment into the gulf, posing a direct threat to the coral reef(s) and the mangroves at the mouth of the Rio Tigre and starting a chain of adverse impacts to the marine environment.

 

One of the standard arguments used by developers in fortifying their case for use of resources is the supposed economic benefit to local communities. This was argued by the president of the Puerto Jimenez Integral Development Association (ADI-Puerto Jimenez), the only one of the six concession companies directly linked to local development.  “The poor people in my community need this material so they have the opportunity to build and develop,” said Lidiethe Franceschi, a businesswoman and political leader in Puerto Jimenez (Tico Times, April 25, 2009).

 

This is an argument that sets the supposed benefits to the larger town of Puerto Jimenez against the interests of the actual residents of small communities in the Rio Tigre Valley.  Those who live in the immediate vicinity of the concessions dread the noise and chaos of the project, the damage to the forest and wildlife, the reduction of tourist income, the increased flooding, and the very likely impairment of drinking water quality in their wells.  They know the damage that heavy trucks will do to the narrow, unimproved roads that pass through their community.  Those who still depend on gold panning for their pocket change will be forced higher on the rivers, even into the national park.  Dos Brazos will no longer be a nice place to live.

 

Yet the pressure to develop remains, now augmented by construction of a paved highway from the intersection with the Pan-American in Chacarita along the coast to Puerto Jimenez.  The new highway could be built at far lower cost if materials were available locally instead of being trucked down from the Central Valley. The highway will also increase the pace of development on the Osa and with it the demand for sand and gravel. There is definitely money to be made. 

 

Yet this overlooks the abundant sources of sand and gravel that are easily available without river mining – some of it nearby on the flood plain and some of it farther removed in the beds of prehistoric riverbeds. In the uplands there are construction materials that are superior to river gravel – decomposed granite and caliche and limestone, which is easier to crush and even better for concrete.  These materials can be removed through pit mining with far less impact and ultimately less cost than from the flowing rivers.  The practice of excavating rivers is partly based on long-standing habit and partly on the mistaken belief that rivers belong to no one and are there for the taking.  The fee for a concession application makes it seem cheap compared to the cost of land purchase, but it does not take into account the enormous public cost through loss of wildlife habitat and ruin of communities.

 

The pressure from commercial interests that see profit in undeveloped land is unrelenting, augmented by pressure from a national government committed to increasing the gross national product and other indexes of “development.” Since tourism has become the largest source of foreign exchange, the government has advanced plans for increasing the tourism flow, particularly to the southern zone, where the renowned biodiversity provides the most important magnet for ecotourists.  Thus emerge the projects for paving and widening the main roads, building new ones, and even for opening a new international airport at Sierpe near the gateway to the Osa.  

 

Here we see an unfolding of the classic story of the goose with the golden egg.  In process of building new transportation infrastructure and bringing in masses of tourists, the country is in grave danger of destroying the biodiversity that has made it a world-class destination.  Typically the roads and airports are built and the tourism promotions done without first implementing improvements to protect the delicate balance between man and nature. On the Osa this ranges from providing basic services of waste water disposal and garbage recycling in communities like Puerto Jimenez to increasing the number and quality of guards for the national parks and wildlife reserves.  Sadly, Costa Rica has seen its national park system as a source of general revenue but has not been willing to reinvest that revenue, even the earnings from a gem like Corcovado National Park, into services and protection for the park itself.  Much less have been the investments in rural communities like Puerto Jimenez and Dos Brazos, which are still governed as outposts of Golfito cantonment on the far side of the Golfo Dulce.

 

That leaves the task of protecting local environments and advocating for local communities to a handful of grassroots groups.  Assisted by ecotourists, environmentalists, and the Internet, they have managed to slow down the assault, but the work has taken an enormous amount of time and energy and has come close to exhausting their limited financial resources.  They continue the battle sometimes at the expense of their own livelihood and sometimes, as in notorious cases of the past, at danger to their own lives.

 

(Excerpt from Assault on the Osa, Carol H. Cespedes, Ph.D.)

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