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Cable Car proposed for Cerro Chirripo

Costa Rica

In another misguided attempt to promote tourism, a proposal has been made to install a cable car to the top of Chirripo, in the middle of a National Park (Parque Nacional Chirripó or PNCh) that some would argue is the most important nature reserve in the country.

Cerro Chirripó is the highest mountain in Costa Rica, with an elevation of 3,820 metres (12,533 ft). It is located in the Chirripó National Park and ibecause of high elevation, creates essentially a island ecosystem for many species of plants and animals. On a clear day one can see both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts from the summit.

Summiting the peak begins with a hike along a 16.5-kilometre (10.3 mi) uphill trail from the town of San Gerardo de Rivas at 1350m to the park ranger's refuge in the Los Crestones sector; that is followed by a 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) walk to the peak. That is more than 8,000' of elevation change from the San Gerardo Station to the peak at Mount Chirripo, Costa Rica.

Vegetation and climate conditions change with elevation, and temperatures can be below freezing at certain times of the year. The park is one of the coldest places in Costa Rica. In fact, the coldest temperature - 15°F (-9°C) - ever recorded in Costa Rica was recorded here. No technical climbing or mountaineering expertise is necessary to reach the peaks in the Park, but the steep trek is approximately a 25 mile round trip, and typically planned for 3 days and because of the elevation, dehydration and altitude sickness need to be considered before making the climb.

At a recent meeting of the Municipal Council of the Canton of Perez Zeledon with its capitol in San Isidro, on February 21, 2017, an agreement was approved with 9 votes in favor, to declare of cantonal and public interest a project to install a cable car to the top of the Chirripó National Park. 

Point 2 of the agreement is to ask the Government of the Republic to declare the project of "national and public interest, to enhance the name of our country through the implementation and execution of this project, in addition to the benefit to the people around ." They expect this to have a positive impact on the area and create a worlwide tourist attraction.

Of course this viewpoint contradicts the function of a National Park in that the commercial and tourist exploitation of a national park violates the purposes and objectives of its creation and safeguards to preserve it in a natural state. In this case it is not just a national park. It is a place already recognized worldwide for its beauty value to the country and the planet, and not for its financial potential. The creation of a cable car system to the peak in essence would create the opposite result.

The purpose of the creation of the PNCh of 50,158 hectares on August 19, 1975, was and remains - to protect water sources, the high cloud forests formed by oak forests, watersheds and habitats in danger of extinction such as felines, tapirs and quetzal, and that for years the maximum visits per year was fixed at 6,000, precisely because of its fragility. Just a few years ago, entry was reduced due to the waste generated by people, such as human waste and garbage of all kinds, threatened the ecosystem. Fires also caused the park to close on several occassions in the past.

The value of tourism to an area does not improve when it interferes negatively the natural landscape that is its main strength. And since the governmant itself is unlikely to fund the project in its entirety the municipality hopes to create alliances with foreign governments, and investors who wish to invest in projects in the area.

The agreement on Tuesday, February 21, 2017 ignores the protection and vulnerability of the park. It is already a global tourist attraction partially due to its protected status and the unique environments it contains. The construction of the cable car system will disturb the protected ecosystem with untold results. Once in place, it requires maintenance and access to do so. This requires roads or expensive helicopter transport, the impacts of which need to be considered in any proposal.

Of course one could ignore the views of environmental groups both within the country and those global in status who may oppose the project, and the negative publicity that will ensue. However one cannot ignore the stated purpose of the establishment of the park in the first place. It was never designed to be a tourist attraction, but a preservation of a natural environment important to the heritage of the country and the value the Costa Rican people place on protecting wilderness and their unique environments and biodiversity. It is precisely this concept that makes Costa Rica unique and one often lost on politicians and foreign developers.

The creation and maintenance of the National System of Conservation Areas of Costa Rica by SINAC- has objectives and guidlines establiched in law. To install infrastructure to encourage incursions, even if controlled, that could overload the park is not one of them. Any possible impacts on the protection of the ecosystem requires study and national approval. Even if it were a mythical "cable car that is friendly to the environment", as the mayor says, one must consider the opinion of environmental groups and the citizens of the entire country, since such a change in policy requires it. There is abundant scientific literature that addresses the protection of ecosystems in Latin America, including the Cerro Chirripól, and it is clear when in need of protection of the "main" systems like a national park, and also of the buffer spaces.

The agreement of the Municipal Council of Perez Zeledon should not be reviewed in isolation, because it is part of an continuing process of crisis and threats against SINAC that have yet to be resolved by numerous administrations. Recent issues with many national parks such as Corcovado, Manuel Antonio and Chirripó itself. Many arguements are valid when it comes to those displaced during the formation of National Parks, however many outrageous claims are made for the value of such displacement. If settled at the time land was appropriated the value of claims would no doubt be far less than they are today.

In 2009 the State of the Nation report repeated the well-known figure of US $150 million in debt for non-payment of land added to the national parks In 2015 it was said that debt was more than 190 million. This overhanging debt affects SINAC directly, through funding shortages that result in fewer workers, limited hours of operation, aging equipment and a lack of maintence both mechanical and for infrastucture.

It is not because the Park System does not generate the necessary funds.

According to the National University (CINPE-UNA) and the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) in 2002, the national contributions of national parks and biological reserves were approximately 325,171 million colones, of which 246 millions colones were contributed by the PNCh. This shows that national parks could survive and likely improve entirely with their own income. Unfortunately it is impossible to maintain a conservation funding system that adds the funds they generate to the National ledger and then in turn, underfunds the system. This is not a problem unique to Costa Rica. It is similar to a fuel tax in Canada that is supposed to be directed to maintain the roadways and infrastucture that instead finds its way into other programs. If left to its own management SINAC could be self funded without the need for added taxes or external funding sources.

But even more serious is the pressure to impose a model of "concession on non-essential services", which in practice is a form of privatization of SINAC. Regardless of whether they are roads, electricity, telecommunications, health services, cleaning, buildings or whatever, concession is the way for the State to delegate private services that qualify as "complementary" and "secondary", but which are in fact essential components of national production or services. In the case of national parks, these types of fallacious solutions reinforce the subsidy that these and other conservation areas make to private businesses, many strategically placed near their borders, such as hotels of all types and sizes, and even Companies operating within national parks using and exploiting natural heritage and public infrastructure. It is not a question of impeding access, but of recognizing that SINAC includes many attractions that are enjoyed by local and foreign tourists. Without protected natural heritage, business would be limited or non-existent and therefore unprofitable. The private tourist offer includes and offers in its packages and services the national parks and other protection areas for which tourists pay and not companies.

Private businesses within national parks, such as those promoted by the tourism industry, municipalities, private groups, non-governmental entities, the State through the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT) and sometimes by MINAE itself, benefit from the use of parks and often promote these public/private investments. Unfortuately, in the eyes of true conservationists, these projects lead to the ruin of the natural environment, simply by putting people in a place they may not normally venture into. Clearly in the case of Costa Rica and tourism there is a need to seek a balance that favours the long term preservation of endemic wildlife over exploitation for the sake of returns on investment or short term economic gains.

Nature must be, by principle and definition, the heritage of all humanity especially so in this country of Costa Rica, and never resort to user and private exploitation. Nothing will improve, including SINAC, if its exploitation is allowed for the direct benefit of private groups regardless of their origin. The essential value of SINAC that is being lost is the one that allows Costa Rican society as a whole to enjoy nature. The pretext of seeking "greater or full exploitation", not only in national parks, but also biological reserves, national monuments, wildlife refuges, wetlands or others should not be the focus of these institutions.

SINAC was created and exists to ensure unique ecosystems within the national territory. Each one, including national parks, is irreplaceable and exclusive and its safeguard requires commitment and direct responsibility of the State and of the citizens. Local governments need to overcome the desire to gain financial benefit from the parks and preserveswithin their regions without seriously considering the impacts they have on the Nation's goals in conserving these areas.

Costa Rica presents itself to the world as a model of conservation, green energy, sustainable development and "ecotourism", when often the facts are often quite different. Overfishing by foreign commercial trawlers are ruining the local fisheries and sport fishing that benefit tourism markets. Clearcutting forests for agricultural expansion of products destined for foreign markets create a strain on water supplies and create imbalances in the marine environments. Overdevelopment in protected zones clearly defeats the purpose of preserving these areas and also does more to damage the reputation and the promotion the country does in promoting itself to the world and its desire to be sustainable. 

Having 26% of the national territory with some form of protected status, including 12.7% in national parks, is certainly an achievement for all Costa Ricans. One can only hope that sense will come to those who represent the citizens of Perez Zeledon and if not, that the President of the Republic and the Minister of Environment and Energy, will stand against the proposal for the benefit of all citizens of the country. Don't leave this for the environmentalists to expose to the world as yet another contradiction in conservation policy. The people of Costa Rica clearly side with conservation over yet another expoitation for the benefit of a few.