Washed Out: Costa Ricans notice less water, more pollution

A man cleans a fish.

Fisherman Moises Landeza cleans a robalo fish Tuesday afternoon off the Gulf of Nicoya. Landeza has fished since he was 8 years old. Photo by Jack Suntrup

By Jack Suntrup

PUNTA MORALES, Costa Rica — Fisherman Moises Landeza tossed the guts of the day’s catch into the Gulf of Nicoya, where they floated for only seconds before frigatebirds swooped down one-by-one for their share of the prize.

Landeza set aside a bonus find for his group of fishing tourists: a few freshly swallowed shrimp he had cut from the stomach of a huge robalo fish.

Nothing seemed to go to waste.

The same resourcefulness doesn’t appear to be followed by everyone here. Big agricultural companies are sucking up water from nearby rivers and springs, using it on their crops. Harsh pesticides and sediment are flowing through the watershed and into the gulf, precisely where Landeza and others aim to make a living.

“It’s starting to become really difficult,” said Landeza, 51, who has fished since he was a boy.

He said he has to motor out farther and farther to haul back full coolers of fish.

Activists and scientists point to the upstream pollutants, overfishing and the clearing of native mangroves, which act as nurseries for fish, to build hotels and farm shrimp.

Landeza blamed the large pineapple operations just up the road for his hardships.

In Cairo and Milano Siquirres on the eastern side of Costa Rica, 6,000 people have been warned about being exposed to bromacil, an herbicide used in pineapple farming that has been linked to cancer, since 2007, according to The Costa Rica News.

A steady spray of water streamed onto acres of identical green spikes of pineapples as the sun set on Punta Morales on Tuesday.

“There is all of the Guacimal River’s water,” Evelyn Casares Cespedes joked.

Casares is the president of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation, which has a goal of converting as much land as possible to forest from Monteverde to the Nicoya coast.

Agriculture in the area isn’t new, but growing pineapple is, Casares said. Pineapples are particularly harmful to the water supply, sucking up more water than other crops do and leaving less usable soil after every harvest.

While 42 percent of the land in Casares’s focus area, the Bellbird Biological Corridor, is forest, about 10 percent of the land is dedicated to three crops: sugar cane, teak trees and pineapple.

The remaining land is used for other crops, livestock, infrastructure, salt mines and shrimp farms. A small percentage of land is unusable, Casares said.

Taking action

The Guacimal River drains into the gulf, but miles upstream and up the corridor in the town of Guacimal, Veronica Sheehan is leading efforts against what she and others argue are unfair water practices.

Upstream in the Veracruz River, a tributary of the Guacimal, Sheehan and others are observing a proposed $2 million irrigation project that she said would suck 13 million liters of water per day from the river.

Two local citizen groups have filed a petition with the Sala Constitucional, Costa Rica’s equivalent to the Supreme Court, arguing that their rights to the water and a healthy ecosystem are being violated.

One of the three springs that local water authorities had used dried up this summer, and with more demand from nearby communities, a decision on the watershed’s use is even more consequential.

“As you’re going down, look at all the rivers,” Sheehan said as she stood next to the rushing Guacimal. “Those rivers were flowing like this just three years ago. It’s happening really fast, and it’s a really scary thing.”

Originally from Mexico, Sheehan moved to Costa Rica from the United States five years ago.

Sheehan and her husband opened vacation cabins at Rancho el Rio one year ago off a gravel road near Guacimal. Sheehan is hoping to attract a new kind of tourist to the region, an area that hasn’t experienced the tourism boom that Monteverde and Santa Elena have.

The house reserved for tourists has an open-air kitchen and patio. A hen and her chicks clucked around on a nearby lawn. It is hotter here than in the higher altitudes of Monteverde, but visitors are still able to relax in the flowing Guacimal River that runs next to the house.

Sheehan calls this brand of vacationing “rural tourism.” She hopes other people and universities in this area will invest rural tourism and research, moving jobs away from heavy agriculture.

Looking out

At the top of Monteverde, on a lookout between San Luis and Santa Elena, clouds moved swiftly and sprayed a chilly mist sideways. It was greener and cooler than farther down the hill.

The water near the top of Monteverde is clean and plentiful, Casares said. Much of the land here is protected.

But Casares was looking down the mountain at a patchwork of forest and farmland.

There were some windbreaks — rows of trees that block the wind from crops and help reforest the land — but that coverage was negligible compared with the greenery that was once there and what Casares would like to see.

It wasn’t as if the view was a bad one. Clusters of hills with streams, cows and winding rock roads can entertain the eye for whole bumpy drives up the mountain. You can even see the Gulf of Nicoya from the lookout.

“It’s pretty, but we can make it look better,” Casares said.

3 thoughts on “Washed Out: Costa Ricans notice less water, more pollution

  1. Jeanne says:

    Hopefully, fishing and tourism will find an equal balance with industry. Nice article, Jack.

  2. Debbie Allen says:

    Good details, photo and flow.

  3. […] are now aware of field sites where water is simply disappearing. Farmers (and a pineapple plantation) have been extracting an unregulated amount of water for irrigation when the weather is dry. In a […]

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