The Road to Tortuguero — A Two-Way Street

Summer 1998 Issue Articles:

* Struggle to Strengthen Sea Turtle Protection in Costa Rica
* The Road to Tortuguero — A Two-Way Street

Next Issue
Previous Issue

The Road to Tortuguero — A Two-Way Street

By Cindy Taft, Director of International Programs

The debate about whether to build a highway to Tortuguero continues, this time with increased possibilities that the road will soon become a reality. Political will for the road is growing at local and municipal levels, funding may be available, and Costa Ricans from the interior are showing more interest in having access to the north Atlantic coast of their nation.

Opponents of the road, which include long-term Tortuguero residents, tourism entrepreneurs and conservationists, feel that a road to Tortuguero will bring more problems than it will solve, and forever change the isolated and tranquil character of the area that makes it attractive to residents and visitors. The opponents feel that the roadway will open the area to more development, more settling of the area by squatters, and facilitate illegal timbering, wildlife poaching and drug trafficking between the coast and the nation’s interior. They expect that increased development and accessibility will undermine the natural, scenic beauty and sense of isolation that attract tourists to Tortuguero.

The anti-road group is also concerned that national and international nature-oriented tourists may become less inclined to visit the area. They could be replaced by tourists who will drive to the area for short stays or to camp out, bringing their own foods and beverages, spending less time and money in the area while leaving much more rubbish. The road would bring vehicles whose exhaust will affect air quality. Oil and fuels will leak onto the roadway and run off into adjacent terrain and water bodies along with silt from lands that have been cleared as a result of their new accessibility. And, some argue that road construction through an established protected area will set a dangerous precedent for inappropriate development in other natural sanctuaries in the nation.

Those who favor the road argue that Tortuguerans have the right to affordable access to and from their town, that the road will help the villagers acquire adequate educational, health care and emergency evacuation facilities for the area, and that it will help bring down the costs of goods and services in the area, which are currently high due to transport costs. The pro-road group does not deny that the road will bring problems, but argues that measures should be taken to counteract them. Is this a reasonable expectation given the difficulties that the under-funded, under-staffed and under-trained authorities already face in trying to control illegal timbering and hunting in the area?

Undoubtedly many residents of Tortuguero desire improvements in access, education, health care, public safety and affordable goods and services. But is it reasonable to expect that most modern amenities be provided in a remote protected area that has been designated part of the nation’s natural heritage? Or should those who desire the security and comforts of development seek those conditions in areas where they already exist, rather than promote impacts on the few wild places left on the planet? And if a road is constructed, will it bring the solutions to Tortu-guero’s development problems? Or are there alternatives, satisfactory to both pro- and anti-road camps, that will fulfill the development desires of the community without undermining the natural area that is the foundation of the tourism-based economy of the region? Informed discussion and critical analysis of the impacts of road construction on Tortuguero are essential for the planning of appropriate development in the area.

Cahuita Pre- and Post-Road—Many Expectations Unfulfilled

A 1990 study by Duke University student David Lee examined Cahuita—another isolated Caribbean coastal village in Costa Rica that had a road built to it in 1976. Some lessons learned from this study are relevant to today’s Tortuguero road debate. For instance, 14 years after the road was constructed, Cahuita still did not have a secondary school or a sewage system, but it did have two resident physicians. It also benefitted from more police protection and from organized trash pick-up. But, food prices in Cahuita were the same or higher than in Tortuguero. And, while Cahuita had ten times as many annual visitors as Tortuguero, they spent less time there than visitors to Tortuguero, tended to use lodging facilities less often and brought their own foods, beverages and other supplies. In 1990, 16% of the Cahuita population made their living from tourism, whereas 37% of those in Tortuguero did, due to the increased need for hospitality, transportation and guide services in such a remote area.

Before the road, foreign land ownership in the area was only 7%, but after the road went through, it grew to 82%. Land prices rose sharply after road construction, making land purchase in the area impossible for most Costa Rican buyers. Likewise, local business ownership, which had been 100% Costa Rican before the road went in, dropped to only 40% afterwards.

Additionally, visitors to Tortuguero indicated that they probably would not recommend others visit Tortuguero if it were to have road access. Apparently, Tortuguero’s isolation and distance from developed areas is a major attractant to tourists. Visitors to Tortuguero also indicated greater willingness to support park protection programs financially than visitors to Cahuita did. Cahuita’s image suffers somewhat from the reputation it has as a place for drug use and prostitution. Many fear that a highway to Tortuguero will open the area to more activities of this unsavory kind.

Also, a road would not provide much advantage in em-ergency evacuations—a fast, ocean-worthy boat would be better for rapid transport to Limón. And whenever weather and daylight conditions permit, air evacuations would always be the preferred means of transport, getting patients to one of the nation’s hospitals in as little as an hour.

As such, we cannot conclude that a road will automatically bring the desired improvements in education, health care, sanitation, public security and lowered costs of goods and services.

Final Thoughts

Tortuguero village is completely surrounded by protected areas…a national park to the south, a wildlife refuge to the north, and a protected zone corridor linking the refuge and the park. Any route for the proposed road would have to traverse one of these established protected areas to provide access to the village. Allowing development in a designated natural sanctuary would set an extremely dangerous precedent for Costa Rica that could have serious legal and financial consequences. Tortuguero National Park was established after many decades of natural resource management planning, environmental education to raise consciousness about the values of the area for the common good of Costa Ricans and the globe, and endless fund-raising for land acquisition and ongoing management expenses. National and international groups raised the money to purchase, establish and protect the natural resources of Tortuguero, long before most of those who now promote the road had ever set foot there. Allowing development that would seriously impact the natural resources of the area would be illegal and unconstitutional in Costa Rica, and it would be a serious affront to those who struggled and supported the protection of those resources for the common good. And Costa Rica’s ability to acquire monetary assistance for the protection and management of natural areas could be jeopardized as well, since taxpayers and other contributors would be unwilling to provide funding to a conservation area sys-tem that fails to protect its natural resources.

Political pressure is building for the road, primarily from folks outside the Tortuguero area who hope to set up farms and groceries along the new route. Despite significant opposition to the road within Tortuguero and the formidable legal hurdles that would have to be overcome for it to be constructed, the road may become a reality yet. The inhabitants of Tortuguero are going to have to find a way to reconcile their desires for development with the need to conserve the natural character of the place that is the basis of their livelihood. The example of Cahuita, and indeed of many other areas where roads were built into forested areas, demonstrates that a road to Tortuguero will bring many more problems than it will resolve. Thorough environmental and socio-economic impact studies need to be conducted and discussed with the area’s residents so that informed decisions can be made. And if road construction is inexorable, effective regulatory mechanisms to prevent habitat and wildlife degradation, much stronger than any we have seen in Tortuguero to date, will have to be put into place to mitigate the undesired effects the road will bring. Promoters of the road ought to be careful what they wish for, because they might get it.