By Jill Powis, member of the Environmental Network for Central America. July 2023
Key words: Costa Rica; illegal fishing; agro-chemical contamination of water sources; ‘land trafficking’; deforestation; loss of biological corridors; animal trafficking; illegal gold mining;
To mark World Environment Day on June 5, Luis Diego Hernández Araya, coordinator of the Deputy Prosecutor’s Office for the Environment (Fiscalía Adjunta Ambiental), gave a radio interview on the current state of the environment in Costa Rica and the threats posed by environmental crime. The topics included the situation for the country’s forests and coastal waters, and the trafficking of land, animals and plants.
On the seas, the prosecutor said that they were seriously polluted, with declining biodiversity and die-off of coral reefs, despite the fact that large parts of Costa Rica’s coastal waters were marine reserves. A major contribution to the degradation of these marine eco-systems was illegal fishing. When this was mentioned, people tended to think of individual artisanal fisherman straying into protected areas, whereas most of the damage was literally on an industrial scale, through the highly destructive practices of fleets of unlicensed factory ships. It was estimated that between 2010 and 2015, $84 million of yellowfin tuna was caught in this way. He stressed that there were complex structures and a high level of organisation around this – a theme that would recur throughout the interview.
The state of the nation’s freshwater also gave the prosecutor cause for concern. Between 1997 and 2015, 3,000 people were admitted to hospital due to poisoning by agrochemicals – fungicides and pesticides contaminating drinking water.
Moving on to Costa Rica’s forests, Hernández claimed that they would be deserts by 2050 according to current projections. Costa Rica is hailed as an environmental success story for doubling its forest cover over the past 30 years through government policies to reverse rampant deforestation. However, Hernández had grave concerns about continued deforestation both within and outside protected areas, driven by illegal changes in land use as well as “land trafficking” – the usurpation of land through fraudulent means, and its resale or rent for profit. “Behind this there are structures, organisations whose aim is to identify large tracts of land for pineapple or banana monocultures, or for real estate, and turn them into a business,” said the prosecutor. Land-trafficking is not currently a specific offence under Costa Rican law, although it is in other countries such as Ecuador. 
Currently, 60,000 hectares of Costa Rica’s land area is planted with pineapples, of which 4,000 are in protected nature areas, with a further 16,000 in environmentally important wetlands. The prosecutor added that, between 2007 and 2018, 25 per cent of the marijuana grown in Costa Rica was in protected wilderness areas, including national parks and wildlife refuges. In that period, marijuana cultivation reached 400,000 square meters; that is, about 87 soccer fields.
The disappearance of forest areas was resulting in fragmentation, desertification and loss of biological corridors, with a consequent loss of biodiversity. Costa Rica represents only 0.03 per cent of the world’s landmass, but Hernández said that it held 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, an estimated 500,000 species, of which only 18 per cent, or 90,000, had been discovered. He was concerned that this deforestation and other types of environmental degradation over the next few decades could result in the extinction of species that had not yet even been studied.
Costa Rica’s status as a global biodiversity hotspot also unfortunately attracted international traffickers who could trade species for thousands of dollars. It also meant that there were many people within Costa Rica who had the scientific expertise to be able to identify species with value to this trade. Rare animals were regularly found at airports in luggage, ready to be smuggled out of the country, and there was a lucrative trade in cocobolo wood, which the prosecutor said was hugely valuable – a container full could be worth $40,000. International trade in this wood – highly prized in Asia – is banned but continues through organised crime.
The smuggling of resources out of the country extended to precious metals – 33 raids had recently uncovered gold worth $60 million for illegal export (which would also have been mined illegally, with consequential environmental impacts).
Costa Rica currently had 12 laws related to the environment with 80 associated offences. However, Hernández believed more needed to be done to combat environmental crimes, including:
- An increase in the penalties for environmental crimes. Some were already high – for example, violations of the Mining Code could carry a prison sentence of 4 years; and failure to respect the law on the disposal of toxic waste 10 years. However, some sentences were still far too lenient and there were a number of loopholes. This was an issue that was already being looked into by the authorities.
- Declaring certain offences as organised crime, which is behind most environmental crimes in Costa Rica. Classifying them as such would allow for investigation techniques such as phone-tapping and access to bank accounts.
- Combatting corruption, because organised crime could not flourish without the acquiescence and/or collusion of state officials responsible for managing natural resources – for example, those issuing operating licences.
- Training more prosecutors and judges to have specialist knowledge of environmental crimes.
- Reporting by ordinary citizens of any suspected environmental crimes to the authorities.
The prosecutor concluded by saying that the environment belongs to all of us, and so it is the responsibility of all citizens to protect it.
– Fabiola Pomareda García, 12 Junio 2023, ‘Fiscal Ambiental: “La proyección es que en el 2050 nuestros bosques serán desiertos”’, Semanario Universidad.
– Website of Frecuencia MP, the radio programme of the Costa Rica Public Ministry 05.06.2023 Sitio Web del Ministerio Público – Día Mundial del Medio Ambiente: la realidad de Costa Rica (poder-judicial.go.cr)
 The government’s claim about forest cover needs to be set against doubts from some quarters that the government exaggerates its forest cover by including numerous areas of plantation trees (such as palm oil). See for instance the discussion of deforestation and reforestation rates in Costa Rica in Mowforth (2014) The Violence of Development, Pluto Press, pp. 121-2.
 For more information on the role land-trafficking plays in environmental degradation in Latin America see https://qcostarica.com/how-corruption-feeds-land-trafficking-in-latin-america/
 For more information on the land used for pineapple production see https://slothconservation.org/real-cost-of-pineapples-from-costa-rica/ as well as numerous previous issues of the Newsletter of the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA). .