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Costa Rica Rejects Oil-Drilling
Along Caribbean Coast

Jim Lobe,OneWorld US


Fri May 17, 9:13 AM ET
One World/yahoo


Environmentalists are hailing as a major victory the unprecedented rejection by the Costa Rican government of a request by a United States oil consortium for permission to drill along the country's Caribbean coast.

The decision, announced by the Costa Rican environment ministry last week, was "an important step in protecting the world's oceans and biodiversity," Mark Helm, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth (news - web sites) in Washington, said Thursday.
"It is our hope that the United States will follow Costa Rica's lead and see it as a model for environmental protection and reducing our dangerous dependence on oil," he added.

"The decision was very appropriate as we mark the tenth anniversary this month of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro," said Martha Honey, director of the Ecotourism and Sustainable Development project of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

"In Latin America, Costa Rica has long been a pioneer in protecting the environment and renewable resources, so it's...fitting that the government could take this important decision, especially as we've seen the damage that oil drilling has done elsewhere in the region."

The decision, announced two days before last week's inauguration of Costa Rica's new president, Abel Pacheco de la Espiella, ensures for now that one of the region's most biologically diverse coastal ecosystems will not be threatened by oil development.

In his inaugural speech, Pacheco himself suggested that he was satisfied with the decision. Costa Rica, he said, should become "an ecological leader, not an oil enclave."

In late February, the National Technical Secretariat (SETENA) of the environment ministry rejected an environmental impact statement filed almost two years ago by a U.S. consortium consisting of Texas-based Harken Energy company and Louisiana-based MKJ Xplorations. They had wanted to explore for oil just off the coast of Limon.

The region where the consortium wanted to drill, however, constitutes part of the special biodiversity zone, which is home to rare species, such as tucuxi fresh-water dolphin, marine turtles, and manatees, as well as indigenous communities.

Foes of the development--including local communities, Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense, Accion por la Biodiversidad, Anti-Petroleum Action (ADELA), Earthjustice, and Oil Watch--mobilized against the project, arguing that it could pose a major threat to three Caribbean wetlands recognized by an international conservation treaty as deserving special protection.

SETENA, which led a major, 18-month consultation process, found that activities described in the consortium's impact statement could have a negative effect on both the ecology of the area and on local communities which have begun to benefit from Costa Rica's booming eco-tourism industry.

"Oil exploration leads to a great uncertainty regarding environmental risk...and represents a possible threat to the consolidation of a Meso-American Biological Corridor," the decision stated. "Such an activity contradicts Costa Rica's image as a leader in the field of conservation of natural resources."

The consortium charged that the agency's decision was "politically motivated" and appealed to environment minister Elizabeth Odio to overturn it. But she upheld the decision.

According to an account by Chile-based news agency Noticias Aliadas, at the core of the debate was a controversial 1994 law on hydrocarbons which divided the country into 27 oil and natural gas exploration blocks, including some encroaching on indigenous reserves and protected lands, that were opened to bidding by foreign companies five years ago.

The consortium acquired four of the blocks in 1998, which was followed in 1999 by a contract with the government to explore them.

Last December, Costa Rica's Supreme Court ruled that the process of granting concessions was unconstitutional. But the SETENA decision, according to Oil Watch's Costa Rica spokesman, Mauricio Alvarez, goes beyond the court's ruling by explicitly relying on international environmental treaties, including the Declaration of Rio on Development and the Environment, signed at the last United Nations (news - web sites) "Earth Summit" in 1992.




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