Instituto de Oceanología de Costa Rica helps save Isla Plata

Isla Plata is 170 yards from Punta Salinas.  The island is now classified a natural monument

Isla Plata is 170 yards from Punta Salinas. The island is now classified as a natural monument. Photo by Instituto de Oceanología de Costa Rica

PLAYA POTRERO, Costa Rica — When a request was approved to begin development on a small island off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, local organizers with help from the Instituto de Oceanología de Costa Rica took a stand.

Isla Plata, which translates to “silver island,” is about 18 hectares covered in dry tropical forest.  Visitors experience lush foliage, a chorus of colorful birds and, if they are lucky, a glimpse of howler monkeys that swim at least 170 yards to the island.

Developers who wish to build in the “Maritime Zone” (the first 200 meters inland from high tide) must submit a concession to the local municipality. If passed, they are granted use of the area for a pre-determined time.  Once time is up, the concession is automatically eligible for renewal.  According to Rich Coast Reality, once a concession is granted, it is rarely denied renewal.

Even though laws like this are in place, Costa Rica has trouble enforcing such restrictions with large chain hotels.  One owner of a small family-run hotel said, “These rules only apply to the poor people.”

A small island with rich foliage and wildlife makes for an ideal tourist destination. But Marie-Cécile Béal, co-founder and coordinator of the Instituto de Oceanología de Costa Rica, points out the damaging consequences of costal development.

“Tamarindo is lost already,” said Béal. “We want to make a different kind of tourism.”  Tamarindo is the name of an area once known as a quaint surfer town which has since grown to a busy tourism destination.

Tamarido resorts post signs informing tourists of turtle protection, but guards that keep visitors off of the beach at night told reporters that turtles no longer visit these beaches.

Turtles aren’t the only organisms losing habitat when development takes place.  In the report Impact of Tourism Related Development on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, Erick Vargas, consultant from the Center for Responsible Travel, said that when developers dig into the earth, the displaced soil will wash into the ocean.  Muddy water buries sea life and kills coral.

In 2005 the city of Santa Cruz approved the concession. That conflicted with the Maritime Zoning Law, which protects islands.

The Instituto de Oceanología collected over 1,000 signatures to oppose development and worked with biologists to collect data on what plants and animals lived on Isla Plata.  Understanding the natural heritage of Isla Plata could save the island from the same fate as Tamarindo Beach, Béal said.

After news media coverage and help from a few politicians, the concession was cancelled and development was denied.  The group is currently pushing for the island to gain Natural Monument status.

Archeologists have found shards of pottery belonging to indigenous tribes that once resided on the island.  Béal mentioned that folklore of the island included stories of pirates.

By protecting the island from development, the Instituto de Oceanología claimed to not only preserve the dry tropical forest ecosystem, but also open a door for discovery.

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