Costa Rica: Wildlife in danger

by Nefer Munoz

San Jose, March 18 - The peninsula of Osa, a strip of land in the southeast of Costa Rica and home to some of the most unique flora and fauna in the country, is in danger due to illegal logging. For years, the territory has been the victim of a systematic attack by loggers and their power saws - the main enemy of ecosystems there, which is growing stronger.

The present situation in Osa contradicts claims that Costa Rica has achieved a near balance between the rate of deforestation and reforestation, officials concede..

According to a study undertaken in 1997, Costa Rica has two million hectares of forest cover, equal to 40.4% of its national territory, which is distributed among forests, deciduous trees, mango groves and moors.

The deputy minister of the Environment and Energy, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, says that Costa Rica is living a huge paradox: while there are more trees in the country today then there were 15 years ago, there is also less diversity.

"That there are fewer species of flora and fauna is not because we are cutting down more trees, rather because we are cutting down the best trees, those which most favour the environment," he told IPS.

Statistics from 1997 indicate that, in the last decade, deforestation rates were 16,400 hectares per year, but the rate of recuperation fell to 12,600 hectares.

The problem is rooted in the fact that primary forest is being targeted for logging, while reforestation takes place in commercial or secondary forests, which do not replace lost biodiversity. This is what happened in the rich peninsula of Osa.

In its territory, barely 25 kilometers wide and 57 km. long, grow the last forests of the entire Pacific coast of Central America.

"Those woods are comparable - in structural complexity and biological diversity - with those of Amazonia and other tropical forests of the world, in Africa and in Asia," says a report by the environmental organization Fundacion Neotropica.

For Rodriguez, the illegal logging in Osa is "only a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the country."

Although the logging is low-intensity and continues to be prohibited, as much in Osa as in the rest of the country, the government is granting permits for controlled cutting called "plans of operation," which once approved must undergo a government investigation. "The problem is that we do not have the human capacity to exercise this control," says Rodriguez, who adds that in all of the peninsula, his ministry scarcely has four forest engineers and reduced personnel who are unable to cope with their duties. The last straw has been the recent approval of laws which give the ministry more functions but not more economic resources, he emphasizes.

In Osa, there are two national parks (Corcovado and Piedras Blancas) where the felling of trees is totally prohibited, but there are also two areas denominated as forest reserves, Golfo Dulce and Manglares de Sierpe-Terraba, whose expanses are in private hands.

Ecological groups - like the National Front for the Forests - have denounced abuse of logging permits and, in some cases, clandestine logging in these areas.

They argue that what is at stake is the survival of the species of the region. In Corcovado alone, scientists have documented 124 species of mammals and 375 species of birds.

In the entire peninsula, there are more than 1,513 species of plants, of which a large number are unique to the area. There also are about 500 species of trees. Among the most desirable to the woodcutters are the species of cristobal, mahogany and nazareno (whose wood has a yellow hue), although espavel and cedar are also found here.

"Parallel to the forest problem in Osa exists a greater problem: the social conditions of the peasants of the zone," indicates Alvaro Leon, a member of the Costa Rican Ecological Association (AECO).

The 6,000 inhabitants of Osa for years have suffered the problems of unemployment and this has pushed many small business owners into accepting the proposals of the woodcutters.

The sawmill owners offer the peasants money if they let them present "plans of operation" for the exploitation of wood on their property.

"The reality that we, the government officials of Osa, are living is that we have to work with very few resources and it has made it very hard for us to carry effective patrols," comments Carlos Mendez, director of the Conservation Area of Osa. "Today, we are paying for years and years of negligence in the adoption of adequate controls," he observes.

In an attempt to end the abuses, the Minister of the Environment is coordinating the support of groups of volunteers, the national police and other state institutions to allow more patrols of the zone.

"Those we find logging illegally in Osa are going to be put in jail," said Elizabeth Odio, vice president and minister of the Environment.

The Forest Law of Costa Rica does not prohibit logging, with the exception of zones like national parks, which are untouchable. The owners of the wooded lands, if they comply with the technical procedures for detailing their operating plans, may fell trees on their properties.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .