By Thomas Friestad
GUACIMAL, Costa Rica — It is difficult to say which was planted more firmly: a pipeline recently buried near the Veracruz River or the local protesters who want it removed.
Sony Sánchez Scárez, a 27-year-old taxi driver, was born and raised in the Guacimal district. Starting at 4 a.m. Thursday, he gathered with dozens of neighbors for a protest that ultimately lasted about seven hours and reached a peak of 70 to 80 people.
Sánchez hung out along a dirt path to the river in the district’s San Antonio portion. He wore a red FIFA World Cup t-shirt and chatted with other locals to pass the time. His ultimate target? SENARA, the state irrigation entity whose workers began installing a pipe Wednesday afternoon without the community’s knowledge.
The pipe is part of a project that has been in the works since 2008, intended to deliver irrigation water south to farms between Costa Rica’s Guacimal and Los Angeles regions. But Sánchez and other citizens are concerned about the state of the Veracruz, as well as the Guacimal River into which it flows via tributary. Both are rich in biodiversity, and are already drying up from hot weather.
“The pipe was installed here unjustly,” Sánchez said. “You can go onto YouTube and see other projects like this one, where there weren’t any environmental studies done. You can see the rivers dry, the shrimp die and the fish die, and the environment suffers so that a few people can benefit.”
Sánchez said Thursday’s was the first protest against the project, but that the project has been a political controversy over the past three or four years.
Shirley Murillo Ulate, who works in management of natural resources with the Bellbird Biological Corridor, a conservation group, described water management negotiations as difficult. She said this is because different ministries of environment and water are involved, which tangles the progress in a web of red tape.
“It is easy for anyone to deny responsibility,” said Murillo, who observed the protest on its periphery with a group of journalism students. “It’s like a game of chess or hot potato because there are so many signatures and papers that require months to process. Citizens have done so many letters and petitions, and have felt that they have not been heard. No one person has all that much power.”
The protesters hoped to prove otherwise by gathering many individuals together to form an influential group.
Protester Danny Villalobos said his passion to defend the Veracruz stems in part from the damage the Acapulco River suffered from irrigation development in 2015. According to Murillo, citizens did not really pay attention to this development, and the river simply dried out over time.
Villalobos is intent on making sure citizens do not make the same mistake twice.
“Protection has been limited so far, and other rivers have dried as a result,” Villalobos said. “I want to protect the environment around Guacimal and elsewhere. They’re really important to our local communities for recreational and drinking purposes.”
Sánchez agrees that the Veracruz is a valuable resource for locals and wants the pipe gone because he wishes to preserve the river for future generations.
“If we take much more on top of the drying that’s already happening from the warmer air, people won’t be able to enjoy the river in 20 or 30 years,” Sánchez said. “The river will be fine for right now, but a negative impact is close if anything changes. We all need the water; no doubt we do, because we are 75 percent water after all.”
Sánchez said it would be a shame for the river to dry up completely because not only would local humans and animals lose access to it, but the world as well.
“The river is like a community where all the animals can take water, and we can drink it, clean things with it and swim in it,” Sánchez said. “We must defend it because this is about all of us in Costa Rica. Our environment can function as a lung within the world, with our many mountains and our diversity, but if we exploit it like what happens with trees, we will lose it all.”
“It won’t just be a part of Guacimal that dies, but a part of the world.”
Murillo said she aims to be open on the matter and to advocate cooperation between the disparate groups.
“I try to get both sides to come together and talk; that’s my line,” Murillo said. “If we can’t do that, everything else becomes paralyzed.”
Later Thursday, a Costa Rican government representative announced that, in response the protests, the Ministry of the Presidency mandated that SENARA put the project on hold for two weeks while the parties involved discuss its ramifications.
Villalobos said he will get involved in any future demonstrations in support of the Vera Cruz and Guacimal rivers or any others nearby that are “in danger.”
“If there are bad laws that allow damage to happen, we must change those laws,” he said.