Oops… I did it again.
I think I just made a lot of people mad.
As some of you might know, I have spent the past two years living in Central America working on marine conservation issues. That work led me to collaborate with communities of poor fishermen, journalists, environmental groups, and government officials. It was an extraordinary experience that gave me a new understanding and perspective on the struggles to achieve meaningful conservation in the region. But it was also very frustrating to see the lack of resources, information, public commitment and/or political will to create lasting protections for these critical conservation areas.
My base was in Costa Rica, a country that has a global reputation for being an ecological paradise. And that brings me to why I think I just made a lot of people mad... A few days ago, an interview that I did a couple months ago was finally published (http://www.nacion.com/ln_ee/2007/abril/28/aldea1077541.html) and well, I think the title must have gotten people's attention. "Cousteau says Costa Rica isn't as green as they claim!" Yikes! That flies in the face of everything your average Costa Rican believes.
Of course, Costa Rica DOES have some achievements that they are justifiably proud of. They are a world leader in environmental services, a quarter of their country is put aside in national parks, they have no military and free health care, they helped to develop the concept of climate credits, and over 90% of their electricity comes from renewable energy sources (unfortunately though, mostly from damming rivers). The men and women that I have met and/or worked with at institutions like INCAE (www.incae.edu) or organizations like MarViva (www.marviva.net) are on the front lines of the struggle to promote sustainable development and find viable solutions to protect our environment and the people who depend on it. They are doing exceptional work and deserve our praise and support.
However, (and this was my point in the interview) Costa Rica does have serious challenges to overcome. Development is running rampant and sadly, over 95% of all the water used in households and industry throughout the country is channeled straight to the ocean with no treatment whatsoever. Deforestation outside the parks is as bad or worse than other Central American countries, and some laws that were passed to protect natural resources are not being respected by the government officials whose responsibility it is to uphold those very same laws.
One of the issues of poor governance that I am very worried about concerns the practice of shark finning. Although Costa Rica has laws prohibiting shark finning in their waters and/or the unloading of shark fins in their ports, the government officials are not enforcing the law as they should. The Taiwanese, who have long been fishing sharks (and just about every other fish they can get their hooks into) in Central American waters, have been granted "private docks" at which to secretly unload their catch. The docks exist behind high walls topped with barbed wire that prevent casual observation. Although officially, government officials are occasionally invited to observe the unloading of the ships to ensure that the Taiwanese are obeying local laws, I am positive there is a lot of additional unloading that also happens after they leave. Like those last few shark fins for example...
My friend Randall Arauz, president of Pretoma (www.tortugamarina.org) and one of the most dedicated and effective activists that I have had the pleasure of knowing, has actually taken the government to court to try to force them to comply with the law that states that private docks are now illegal. He has won three times and the government still won't act. I wrote a letter to President Oscar Arias (he may be a Nobel Peace Prize winner but is he a friend to the sharks???) and have received no response.
Another friend of mine, Rodney Pietra, is a park ranger at Baulas National Park (http://www.leatherback.org/lasbaulas/costa-rica/), one of the last viable nesting beaches in the Pacific for the severely endangered Leatherback Turtle. There is a heated battle happening now between the park rangers and conservation groups who are trying to protect the beach and the developers who are anxious to put up some more hotels on it. Are a few extra hotels really worth the extinction of a species that has existed since the time of the dinosaurs? I guess they are. And judging from the death threats Rodney has received recently, human life isn't that valuable either.
Costa Rica has spent gazillions of marketing dollars trying to convince the world to go visit their ecological paradise. And it has worked- Boeing-737s are dropping off thousands of new tourists every day. But there can be no doubt that if Costa Rica doesn't give priority to addressing some of the urgent environmental issues in their country now, their ecological paradise might not seem so in a few years.
So, while I am sure that I made some people mad by saying all this, there are also quite a few who want to take me out for a drink to thank me for talking about what few in Costa Rica ever dare to mention. They are the ones I care about and who need our support.