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Rainforest at risk.

In energy-hungry Costa Rica, a series of new dams means power, but at enormous cost to the land and some of its people.

The luxurious forest that cradles Costa Rica's Pacuare River grows on slopes so steep and sweeping that squatters, loggers, and banana, cattle, and coffee kings have until recently stayed away. So the Pacuare, which plunges unhindered for 56 miles from eastern Costa Rica's Talamanca Mountains to the Caribbean, has remained clear and pesticide-free. The river's Class 3 and 4 rapids are rated by many rafters as being among the world's 10 best whitewater runs.

The surrounding 32,000 acres of mid-elevation forest, one of the few forests of this type remaining on Costa Rica's Caribbean slope, harbors a diverse array of tropical wildlife, including endangered species like tapirs, jaguars, and ocelots. Like all rainforests, this watershed in incredibly rich in plant and animal life--for example, researchers estimate that about 350 tree species grow on 3,500 acres in a nearby forest preserve.

But now the Pacuare and 3,000 acres of surrounding primary forest have been condemned to obliteration by the same precipitous banks that once deterred encroachment. At Dos Montanos canyon, the Pacuare narrows to tumble and crash through massive boulders. Dos Montanos, once the highlight of the river run for thousands of whitewater enthusiasts, is the proposed site of a $700-million, 600-foot-high dam, which the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) hopes to have on-line by 2005.

A local group called Pro Rios is fighting the dam's construction, and although it succeeded with its demand that ICE prepare an environmental impact and economic feasibility study, members don't hold out much hope that they can save the Pacuare. For one thing, the stats are stacked solidly against them.

More than 90 percent of Costa Rica's energy comes from hydroelectric dams. There are no nuclear power plants, coal mines, or oil wells.

The country's population grows at a rate of 2.5 percent a year, which means the population will double in about 20 years. According to Javier Orozco, the ICE engineer in charge of the dam, demand for electricity doubles every 12 years. "Today," he says, "demand is 700 megawatts; by the year 2000 it will be 1,400 megawatts, and by 2010 it will be 3,000 megawatts. Where are our children to get their electricity?"

A dammed Pacuare will produce more than 400 megawatts of juice to help meet the developing country's needs.

"We're not against dams or development," emphasized Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Pro Rios's attorney. "But we think ICE should build much smaller dams and promote energy conservation. When ICE's engineers see that more energy is needed, they respond by building more dams. The engineers are brilliant at building dams. Now they need to learn about alternatives."

Rodriguez believes that regardless of the results of the environmental impact study, ICE will proceed with the dam's construction as soon as Costa Rica gets the necessary loans from the Inter-Development Bank. He adds that the loans required to build the four dams that ICE has planned for the Pacuare and the nearby Reventazon River, also a favorite among rafters, will equal 55 percent of the country's current external debt. "We're still paying off the debt from the last dam ICE built," he says.

Construction of the Pacuare dam will force the relocation of a small group of Cabecar Indians. Costa Rican indigenous rights groups complain that ICE never bothered to inform or meet with the Cabecar tribe, which lives deep within the protected zone. The Cabecar are firmly against the dam.

Before any construction begins, ICE plans to log the 3,000 acres of virgin rainforest on the land to be flooded. The remaining 29,000 acres, about 85 percent of which is primary forest, were designated as the Pacuare Protected Zone, a label that has little meaning under Costa Rican law. The government can impose virtually no limitations on how a private owner can use his property, even if the land lies within boundaries of a park or protected area.

Landowners must, however, submit a management plan to the General Forestry Directorate before toppling even one tree. But such plans are usually quickly approved if you know the right people, and easily fudged and then ignored if you don't.

Certainly the "protected zone" designation has done little to daunt either landowners or would-be landowners in the Pacuare's forest. Logging by property owners has already begun to denude the river's banks, while people from surrounding communities have converged on the forest to stake out a property claim.

"About two years ago, when people heard that ICE wanted to build this dam, a small migration began," explains Rodriguez. "People didn't actually move into the forest, but they cut and burned down trees, built a small shack, planted some rice and beans. Under Costa Rican law, these 'acts of possession' show they own the land, so now ICE will have to buy it from them at a higher price."

In Costa Rica, cleared land is worth more than forested land.

Rodriguez feels that ICE should buy the Pacuare Protected Zone immediately, or the proposed dam will face serious siltation problems as the watershed is destroyed and Costa Rica's seasonal rains hose down bare hillsides.

He points out that the watershed will be under siege once ICE builds access roads in order to log the area before dam construction. "You know what roads in a rainforest lead to," he says. "More squatters, more deforestation, more erosion."

Diane Jukofsky is a journalist and the co-director of Informacion Tropical, a conservation newsbureau based in Costa Rica.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Jukofsky, Diane
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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