Can "EcoTourism Development" Be A Good Thing For a National Park? The Case Of Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica

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A few years ago I got involved in a project in building a biological corridor (planting indigenous tree species for local wildlife habitat) for the Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.  Manuel Antonio is home to many natural wonders, unique ecosystems, and endangered species of wildlife, as well as being the most popular tourist destination in the country of Costa Rica.  This fact has been the cause of much ongoing debate and tension between environmentalists, developers, and politicians in this country.  

Because Manuel Antonio is the most popular tourist destination in the country of Costa Rica, it obviously then is at the forefront for potential revenue generating businesses and community developments that can provide steady employment for the local population as well as create more tax dollars (or colones in this case) for governmental municipalities.  So the question becomes- is it possible to develop within the boundaries of the Costa Rican environmental laws within the Manuel Antonio National Park in order to generate these revenues; and if so, how much development is too much?  This has been an ongoing debate since the inception of this National Park several decades ago.

The project of building the aforementioned biological corridor for Manuel Antonio and MINAE (the environmental branch of the Costa Rican government) is predominantly for the benefit of the endangered Mono Titi monkey.  This is one of the most endangered monkey species on the planet and Manuel Antonio National Park is one of, if not the only place on the planet that this species resides.  This fact is largely due to the clear-cutting of the rainforest outside of Manuel Antonio National Park, which is why Manuel Antonio was originally designated as a national park. 

Outside of the Southern boundary of the park is a palm oil plantation.  Originally this rainforest habitat was cleared by the United Fruit Company to be made into a banana plantation, but after a series of revolts and skirmishes between the local population and wealthy executives and plantation owners, the land was again cleared by the local Costa Rican population and replanted with oil palm trees.  The oil that these palm trees provide is used in everything from makeup to cookies, and is an important and profitable commercial resource that employs much of the local population of this region of Costa Rica.  The problem that is attempting to be addressed by building a biological corridor through this palm oil plantation, though, is the fact that the endangered mono titi monkey is being cut off from it's traditional water source, the Sevegre River, by these oil palm trees.  This is because these monkeys cannot travel through the palm trees like they would in their natural habitat, and so cannot travel to their traditional water source- the Savegre River.  This restriction from their traditional watering source and lack of natural habitat is the main cause of this specie's endangered classification.  By building this biological corridor, it would then allow the monkeys to get away from the tourists, into their natural habitat, closer to their traditional water source, and would also then help them to repopulate.

But is the building of this biological corridor a part of a larger regional development plan?  The answer is yes.  Basically, the building of this biological corridor was originally a deal that was made between MINAE and an Israeli development conglomorate.  The agreement was that if these developers would fund the building of this biological corridor, that they would then be allowed to build a "luxury eco tourism resort and condominium" featuring the latest in "green building" techniques within the boundaries of the National Park.  The idea is that the developers would be purchasing "carbon credits," or "offsetting the carbon footprint" and/or destruction of habitat by the clearing of any rainforest necessary in order to build this resort/condominium within the national park (and this is actually the most recent in a long series of attempts and battles to develop on this site).

Theoretically, if this proposed development did generate revenue through "ecotourism" (the educating of tourists about the local environment), then much of that revenue could be put to good use by investing in conservation and preservation initiatives around the country and be a win/win situation for all involved including the wildlife and the planet.  However, many environmentalists disagree with the whole proposal, as they always have.  Here we have a case where the environmentalist stance is that critical habitat in a national park should never be destroyed for development vs. the developer's stance that ecotourism development could be a good thing for the environment.  

In the reality of working with this project, though, It is my opinion that perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome here is the class differences between the developers/proposed residents of this luxury ecotourism resort/condominium, and the local indigenous population.  There has been a long-standing feud in this general region between the haves and the have-nots going back to the times of the United Fruit Company's posession of this land that does not appear to be going away any time soon.  Not surprisingly, the project currently appears to be stalled.  It is all a very complicated matter and at the very least an interesting case study in regional and climate change planning that can be applied to other countries around the world, especially the United States.

Check out some videos I took in and around Manuel Antonio ational Park.....

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