PhD student Adrian Arias sends news from Costa Rica, and asks the tough question: Are developing countries fit to effectively manage protected areas?

I am currently doing fieldwork in Costa Rica, my country, for my PhD studies on fishers’ compliance with marine protected areas (MPAs). This is a short and quick write-up of my impressions from one of my study sites, Santa Rosa National Park.

Santa Rosa National Park
Santa Rosa is one of Costa Rica’s largest and oldest marine protected areas. It was created in 1971 (expanded to its actual coverage in 1987), it covers a marine area of 460 km2 and a land area of nearly 400 km2. Santa Rosa is beautiful, and historically and ecologically important—worthy of its world heritage status. Its socioeconomic importance, however, is debatable when considering local fishermen.

IMG_1218The conflict
Just north of the MPA there are more than 300 artisanal fishermen living mainly in three impoverished communities. North of these communities is the border with Nicaragua. West is a sometimes insanely windy sea —90km/h gusts—, and a restriction on the fishing licence that prevents fishermen to travel further than 3 nautical miles offshore. South is Santa Rosa, a no-take MPA, and then a considerably less productive fishing area. Simply put, heaps of fishermen in a small area. And on land there are more protected areas and few jobs. Fishing is one of the only job opportunities in this coastal area; but the fishermen who I spoke with in the entire province say that fishing is not even nearly as good as it used to be ‘back in the day’. Few fish for many fishermen.

There is an interesting historical context to Santa Rosa. Years ago people here worked in large cattle farms—one was owned by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. IMG_1215After discovering that this region holds one of the few remnants of tropical dry forest in the world, the government—influenced and supported by renowned international scientists—started expropriating land and dedicating it to conservation . This basically forced many people into the then highly productive sea. An increased number of fishermen and decreasing fish catch at a national level has caused friction between the Park and fishermen. Fishermen see the Park as a nearby productive area, but the Park is off limits for fishing. Additionally, the historical context exacerbated the conflict as some fishermen complain to wardens something in the lines of “You people forced us into the sea and now want to force us out of it”. From interviews with fishermen and key informants I perceived a high level of illegal fishing. And unfortunately the Parks’ efforts to control illegal fishing through enforcement and by educating children appear to have failed.

When the Park’s patrol boat goes out of service the word spreads quickly amongst fishermen, and illegal fishing soars

IMG_1358The pressure has been and continues to be high on the Park. Local anecdotes reveal the magnitude of the illegal fishing problem in Santa Rosa. When the Park’s patrol boat goes out of service the word spreads quickly amongst fishermen, and illegal fishing soars; evidenced for example by the presence of many unusually large fish at the local fish markets. Also, some fishermen have started forest fires in the Park as a diversion, allowing them to fish in the Park while Park wardens are busy managing the fire. Allegedly some fishers also start fires and poach species like deer in retaliation for enforcement actions. These striking accounts also occur in neighbouring areas outside Santa Rosa. In Cuajiniquil, a fishing port north of the Park artisanal fishermen catch juvenile snappers (Lutjanidae), a commercially important fish species, and sell them live to pelagic longline boats. Longline boats then use those thousands of snappers as live bait. Nowadays artisanal fishermen in Cuajiniquil are having a hard time landing fish and earning a living, but in a few years their situation will be dire because generations of snappers have been wiped out. So where do national institutions stand on all these problems?

The wicked problem
The Fisheries Institute and the Environment Ministry are both weak institutions. However the reasons for their weakness are different. The Fisheries Institute has a strong conflict of interests within its Board. The majority of the Board represents larger scale commercial fishing such as bottom trawling, purse seine tuna fishing and pelagic longlining. Most fishermen in Costa Rica are artisanal fishermen and sport fishermen, yet they have no Board representation—tyranny of the minority. Years of mismanagement have nearly collapsed Costa Rican fisheries, impoverished fishing communities, and created conflicts between marine resource users. The Environment Ministry on the other hand is severely understaffed and underfunded. Approximately 26% of Costa Rica’s land territory is under protected area categories and managed by the Environment Ministry. However, the Ministry receives less than 1% of the national budget; a far cry from what is actually necessary to manage nearly 1/4th of the country. Costa Rica’s political will to natural resource management does not reflect the country’s fame as a “green republic” which was earned years ago thanks to enlightened leaders.

Illegal fishing at Santa Rosa, however, is a too large and complex problem to be managed by only one or perhaps even both of these institutions (which typically do not get along and do not work together). Some would argue that many things could be done to reduce illegal fishing in Santa Rosa, broadly: reduce fishers’ dependence on middle men, foster fishing associations and/or co-ops, create more jobs, and manage fisheries in the areas outside the Park. I would agree with all that…only if there were strong institutions and political will.

Santa Rosa is not a residual park—it is not remote, it is not diseased, it was and is not politically and economically easy to conserve, and it is not in the wrong place. Conserving Santa Rosa is definitely important, but weak institutions and lack of political will prevent effective management and erodes the legitimacy of this and other protected areas.

Are developing countries fit to effectively manage significant (non-residual) protected areas? Can something be done now to help manage illegal fishing in Santa Rosa and other MPAs with similar characteristics (unfortunately many MPAs around the world) while institutions strengthen and political will builds up? Would these efforts be worth it, or would it just be a Sisyphean task? Feel free to comment here or drop me an email.

Adrian’s PhD is supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, PADI Foundation, and the Australian People, through AusAID.

5 thoughts on “Impressions from Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

  1. Apparently there’s a browser incompatibility causing some people to have problems posting comments from Firefox. When you click “Post Comment” you should see your comment appear above with a note that it is awaiting approval. If you don’t see that, please try another browser whilst we work on fixing the bug. Thanks!

  2. Brilliant input by Mr. Arias! Indeed, as a Costa Rican, I’m totally convinced that, nowadays, our country is far from the ‘green republic’ discourse that it sells worldwide. The improper management of marine resources, favoured by an institutional chaos, champions this position. What is worse, it is clear that many of the protected areas created to shape this ‘green republic-nation brand’ jeopardize the livelihoods of many fisherfolks. Urgent political, institutional and legal measures must be taken. I’m sure that an important sector of our civil society, i.e., conservation NGOs, has much to say vis-à-vis this topic.

    I’m really looking forward to Adrian’s next input on these crucial development matters.


  3. The main problem in CR is the true meaning that simple little term they repeat over and over again: Pura Vida !.All day, every day. Pura Vida ! The terms closest correct translation IS : “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF”.
    Nobody in this country gives a damn about anything but themselves. Give them a title and name tag and they consider it permission to subvert and abuse.
    It’s a sick, evil society, not at all unlike the USA.
    Smoke, mirrors(green ones here), and first and foremost.LIES. Lots and lots of lies and liars and the thieves that they are.Like Americans, they almost believe their own BS !
    If it weren’t for international pressure and the few here that truly are naturalists(mostly foreigners) they would have killed, eaten and or sold every living thing within the borders and the place would like like Haiti.They were barreling in that direction until the brakes were put on in the mid eighties.

Leave a Reply to Rebecca Weeks Cancel reply