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The local government along Costa Rica’s Southern Caribbean coast is pushing to approve a regulatory plan for the region that many residents say would open it up to a wave of development from high-end resorts that would transform their lives and their homes. They fear for the fate of the local environment, the forest, the reef, the pristine coastline, their community, and their future.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Michael Fox
Additional camera work: Rosa Fox
Additional Video: YouTube @RobinRaePhoto
University of Costa Rica television, Quince-UCR


Michael Fox (narration): Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Jungle. Sun. Surf. Gorgeous beaches. Some of them, ranked the prettiest in the world. And much of it, largely undeveloped, especially compared with the rest of the Caribbean. Here’s an example… 

This is Cancun. And this is the Coastline south of Puerto Viejo, just north of the Panama border. Until just a decade ago, these were dirt roads. But tourism and development have driven in fast. Boutique hotels, high-end supermarkets, and more tourists than ever before. 

Mickey Ryan: We have a lot more people than we used to. And what this town used to be no longer exists. What it’s brought is just you know as we know worldwide is gentrification, is gentrification and development.

Michael Fox (narration): And this is likely just the beginning. The local municipal government is pushing to approve a regulatory plan for the region, that many residents say would open it up to a wave of development from high-end resorts that would transform their lives and their home. If the plan is pushed through, they fear for the fate of the local environment, the reef, the pristine coastline, their community, and their future.

Maritza Gomez: What’s the goal? This. To turn this into a Miami. So that their friends can come here and have fun and do whatever crazy things that they do.

Michael Fox (narration): Here’s what the fight is over: Since the 1970s, Costa Rica has had a maritime law that prohibits building within 50 meters from the coastal waterfront. It also restricts development on land 200 meters back from the water. But the Southern Caribbean coast has never had a regulatory plan to define what those restrictions mean, where building can and cannot take place, and for what purpose. That means that development has happened on the fly.

Most residents agree that the region needs a regulatory plan—urgently. But locals say they want a plan that they actually have a hand in crafting. They say that is not the case with the current plan. And groups are organizing against it. They’ve held signature drives and protests.

Bernardo Archer: They should have consulted us about what to do on our land, from the first day. Not come at the end and hand us a 400 page document for us to study and tell them what we think. That’s not how it works. Mr. Mayor, I respect you a lot, but that’s not how it works. They should tear up this Regulatory Plan and start again.

Andrea Mora: Today is the beginning and I think we have to lift our voices, not only at the national level, but internationally.

Dulcelina Sanchez: There are still Indigenous peoples here who defend our rights and our Mother Earth. So, don’t forget it Mr. Mayor. The Kekoldi people are awake. The Kekoldi people are here. And we are going to defend our land until the very end.

Michael Fox (narration):  Dulcelina Sanchez is a leader of the Indigenous BriBri people on Kekoldi land. Their territory stretches over several miles of  coastline that will be impacted by the regulatory plan. And they are concerned.

Dulcelina Sanchez: We are very worried for our Indigenous land, because from the beginning when they developed this plan among the officials, the municipality and its commissions, they never took us into account. They didn’t inform us. We had no information. The government never tried to get our participation over the proposal. 

Michael Fox (narration): The Bri Bri people have particular reason to be concerned. In 1996, the local government expropriated part of their territory, along the coast. . The Indigenous community fought and won recognition. But it took more than 20 years. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that they had the legal right to the land, because they were never consulted. Butby then, their land was largely already occupied by others. The state has not taken any steps to physically return it to them. Now, they have requested an injunction in the courts to stop this regulatory plan until their concerns are seriously addressed. Their top concern? That they weren’t consulted at all by the plan’s authors.

Dulcelina Sanchez: They didn’t present anything to us. They didn’t take us into account. Nor did they give us any information about what this plan would be.

Michael Fox (narration): Mickey Ryan grew up in the stretch of coastline known as Cocles. It’s part of the area that was taken from the Bri Bri people by the local government in the 1990s. He’s a filmmaker and one of the organizers of the region’s yearly Wolaba Parade, a huge festival celebrating Black culture and traditions in the region. 

Mickey Ryan: So the Caribbean culture of Costa Rica, the Caribbean part because of the Jamaican and Afro Caribbean immigrants that came here back in the 1800s have formed and given its like identity to the Atlantic part of Costa Rica.

Michael Fox (narration): Mickey doesn’t like many aspects of the plan. He too believes the plan was created without vital input from the community. But, he says, some regulation is better than nothing. Development is coming — like it or not.

Mickey Ryan: The plan regulador is necessary in the Old Harbour we need a plan regular because if not all of this development, which is anyway, you’re going to still come, it’s just going to hammer us stronger than we think.

Michael Fox (narration): Here’s the other thing. The local government has a trump card that has swayed the opinion of many locals. It says that if the plan isn’t in place by next July, it will start to demolish properties within the restricted zone—200 meters back from the ocean. Many people have something to lose–homes, businesses, rental properties. They don’t want to take the chance. This has happened before.

Mickey Ryan: The con of this, of not approving this plan regular order is that we’re back to 12 years ago where they demolished certain places and hotels and even traditional houses. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before. They’ve come here and they’ve bulldozed down these places and like there’s all of a sudden, hundreds of people don’t have a job or don’t have a place to live anymore.

Michael Fox (narration): In other words, the local government is playing hardball to push this through. And not everyone is against it. Edwin Patterson is descended from one of the Black families that founded the city of Puerto Viejo a century and a half ago. He runs one of the busiest restaurants in town. An institution that proudly celebrates the town’s Black ancestry. 

Edwin Patterson: I think that some of the so-called development of electricity and the roads, they never built for the Black community. They build for the tourist industry. They were never thinking of the local people, they have no plan for us. The only plan they have is to get rid of us. That’s mathematics.

Michael Fox (narration): Nevertheless, this plan, he says, is necessary. And it’s about time. 

Edwin Patterson: Right now, if you want to build a hotel, you don’t know restriction. So if you want to take your wastewater and destroy it in the street or in the ocean, you are free. Put your garbage in the street with the zoning plan. The idea is that if you build an hostel for an example of more than 50 rooms or 25 rooms, it’s just an example you need to have. You need to treat your water.

Michael Fox (narration): If the plan is approved, Patterson’s property and that of the long-time residents of Puerto Viejo won’t be affected by the new zoning law. They have the titles to their properties — grandfathered in long before the maritime law was approved in the 1970s. Patterson says the new plan will put up guardrails and ensure more order in the region’s ongoing development, which, until now, has been unregulated and haphazard. 

Edwin Patterson: This zoning plan says if I am here and I am in. I’m in a residential area and I cannot build up another business here. I can remain here, but I cannot build business. If I am in a commercial area, I cannot build a house or I cannot build an industry. You have to go to the industrial area. Which I think is fine. We’re gonna have a spot for the fisherman. We got our spot for the bus station. OK.

Michael Fox (narration): The plan is backed by the national government and the environment ministry. And the plan won’t impact the environmental reserves already under protection. But many residents remain concerned. On a Sunday afternoon in mid September, dozens of residents packed into the Puerto Viejo community hall to discuss the plan’s implications for the community. Activists from a regional group presented, and detailed the different planning zones that would be laid across the coastline.

Speaker 1 [presenting map]: This area is for low-intensity tourism. You can see that it covers this whole forest. You can imagine that there won’t be much forest left. Over here is another parking lot. I love the parking lots. Let’s cut down this forest to put up a parking lot. What a victory. When you see the map like this, you can tell that there has been very little community input, because who would want parking lots in areas where there are forests? Or that we designate areas only for high-intensity tourism?

Michael Fox (narration): They raised many issues. That 70% of forests on properties in the tourist zones could be cut down. That big companies bringing in private investment could receive tax exemptions. That the region does not have enough infrastructure, water, sewage and electricity to handle the increased development. Many in the room were particularly concerned about the environmental impact.

This is Playa Grande today. The largest stretch of unprotected undeveloped coastline south of Puerto Viejo. 

And this is Playa Grande under the plan: Slated for development in one of the tourist zones.

Speaker 2 [presenting map]: Remember that in all of these areas, you are permitted to construct on 70% of the property. This is important. You can see that all of our forests can be transformed into some beautiful properties with pretty little gardens.

Maria Suarez Toro [presenting at meeting]: If this forest disappears, the certified Underwater Cultural Heritage in this region also disappears. Because it’s being protected by the forest. Just like how the corals are the protection wall for our people. The forests are the contention walls for the corals and the ocean. What are we without our oceans? I’m leaving that here, because I will fight to the death. This cannot happen.

Michael Fox (narration): She is ready to fight. As are many in the community. But, local activist Maritza Gomez says they  is up against powerful interests and big money.

Maritza Gomez: Why? Because there hasn’t been the necessary planning? That’s why they’re rushing now. They’re rushing, because there are many interests. And they have been selling land fast. And there is a handful of big investors who have been selling things like hotcakes.

Michael Fox (narration): But Maritza believes that community organizing can stop them. This is not the first development plan pushed in the region. 

Maritza Gomez: We had to fight opponents on two different occasions. The first was in 2008. And it was “No to Oil”. Because they wanted to drill offshore. Because they said there was oil there. We fought and we won with the help of the Indigenous people. Years later they wanted to build a big marina across several blocks along the waterfront of Puerto Viejo.

Michael Fox (narration): They successfully blocked both projects. Now, she says, groups have been trying to divide the Black and Indigenous communities.

Maritza Gomez: There’s an old saying in Costa Rica: Divide and conquer. But I also have a saying: Not everyone who divides will win.

Michael Fox (narration): Right now, there are more questions than answers. But the struggle here over the next year will determine the future of Costa Rica’s Southern Caribbean coast—and whom that coast belongs to. And many are ready to fight. 

For The Real News, reporting from Costa Rica, I’m Michael Fox. 

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Michael Fox is a Latin America-based media maker and the former director of video production at teleSUR English.