Crisis or Opportunity? New Law Brings Changes to Legal Status of Ostional Wildlife Refuge – What Does it Mean?

  • August 12, 2016

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term “refuge” as “a place offering shelter and safety from pursuit, danger or trouble.” Given the eclectic mix of characters that call Nosara home this definition could be as fittingly applied to the human inhabitants as it could the wildlife for whom it was created to protect. Amongst the myriad of non-human animals for whom this unique stretch of Guanacaste coastline offers sanctuary one stands out above the rest – the turtles. Some food for thought the next time you’re enjoying a sunrise stroll down Playa Guiones, or looking at the night stars grateful to be in a place unfettered by the tourism fueled ravages inflicted on Playa Guiones’ coastal cousins: the lack of construction directly on the beach, and within 200 meters of the coastline, did not happen by accident.

Who is responsible for this defining characteristic of the beaches of Nosara? The most obvious entity, as most know, is the The Nosara Civic Association, otherwise known as the NCA. They have contributed much of the conservation work critical in the expansion of the original refuge to include Pelada and Playa Guiones. Additionally,  many independent noble crusaders along the way have fought tooth and nail to retain the magic of the area, but the lion’s share of the gratitude belongs to another group entirely, that may not be so obvious. Yes, you guessed it; the turtles. If it weren’t for these languid, parrot beaked reptiles, the coastal skyline stretching between South Playa Guiones to Punta India may look very, very different. Why? Because in 1981 the Costa Rican government acknowledged that the biological phenomenon that takes place at Ostional required legal safeguards and declared the area a wildlife refuge. Fast forward 34 years later; on March 2nd 2016 a law was passed regarding the Ostional Wildlife Refuge that has the potential to change the face of this area forever, if not managed correctly and given the proper resources and attention it needs.

What is the refuge?

In 1981 The Ostional turtle refuge  was created (Decree 13200-A)  encompassing the land between Nosara River Mouth to Punta India to protect populations of nesting sea turtles. In 1985 the Ministry of Agriculture passed Decree N° 16531- which extended the refuge to include Playa Guiones and Playa Pelada. In 1992 law 7317 confirmed that national refuge status would be given to land within the maritime zone (a strictly government owned area encompassing all land within 200 meters of the high tide line, therefore, not allowing private occupations). This gave refuge status to a total of 461.4 hectares of protected land and 8,089.6 hectares of protected ocean.

Legalities aside, the refuge status is responsible for preserving the characteristics that leave visitors stunned. More importantly, it is the bedrock of the community as we know it, and the only weapon available to those fervently striving to protect the mind-blowingly beautiful wonderland they call home.

What is the new law?

On March 2nd 2016 law 9348 was passed, bringing distinct changes to the legal status of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, changing the status of the refuge from State-Owned to Mixed-Use governed by a management plan yet to be finalized. In effect, this law does three things:

1.  Grants rights for sustainable use of refuge resource. This includes turtle egg harvesting, that has happened for many years in a reasonable and sustainable manner, and sustainable fishing. Additionally, in order to maximize public enjoyment of the beach a public use regulation program is being drafted to delimit beach parameters. What is the biggest consequence of this modification? If the activity remains at responsible and sustainable levels, the way of life and livelihood of these communities that has persisted for decades will continue to the benefit of those who need it most.

2. Those currently living in the refuge will be granted concession rights. Anyone living inside the refuge since or prior to March 2006 is eligible to apply for concessions for the land on which they live. Applications will be investigated and verified in line with a 2008 National Catastro Office which documented land parcels inside the refuge, and those living on them. Each case will be judged individually. Those who receive concessions and proceed with renovations must comply with the specific refuge urbanism regulations currently being drawn up. Renovations must be supervised by refuge administration (MINAE). No construction may be sold, rented and must operate within the approved parameters.   In other words : Ostional was a village before the refuge. The creation of the refuge back in the 80s meant that only those involved in research, ecotourism, or protection could remain, and thus, everyone who lived within the 200m zone was doing so illegally. Naturally, this became a huge source of anxiety for residents who remained in a state of flux, not knowing whether they would be able to remain in their homes. Many argued this law was passed with disregard for local residents, and without considering properties with titles granted prior to its enactment. In response, the residents went to the constitutional court requesting to suspend this motion. The new law states if habitants pose no threat to the turtles, and can provide proof they have been living there for ten years they can stay. In short, this law enshrines the rights of those who have lived on this land for generations. Are there any unintended negative consequences? It is possible, but unclear. They key point is this: Any law implemented to protect the residents of Ostional applies to the entire refuge. In legal terms Playa Guiones and Pelada are joined at the hip to anything that happens in Ostional. The law states that the only people who can stay are those who can prove they have been there for ten years. Authorities (MINAE) assigned to prevent further human encroachment during this period have clearly failed, and in the past 24 years resident numbers have multiplied. The best example of this is Pelada, where the majority of the 200m zone is inhabited, in many cases by people who have arrived within the last ten years. In all likelihood the yet to be resolved dilemma concerning the future of these people can only result in a legal quagmire.

3. People with titled property inside the refuge will be granted the right to build.  Inside the 200 meter zone lie a number of properties inscribed prior to the creation of the maritime zone law in 1977. These property owners will be able to apply for construction permits and must comply with conservation restrictions outlined in the zoning proposals of the management plan. This plan is currently under development. An impact study must be undertaken before any construction permits are granted. People with titles inscribed prior to the implementation of the Maritime law will be granted the right to build and renovate – providing this activity conforms to environmental regulations.Could this have potential negative impacts on the refuge? That depends on perspective, as stated above “People with titles inscribed previous to the implementation of the Maritime law will be granted the right to build.”  Unfortunately, this echoes back to the previous point of Ostional and Playa Guiones being tightly linked. MINAE has stated that up to 60% of land situated in the refuge has titled ownership inscribed prior to refuge status declaration. For now, until the management plan of the refuge is completed, no one can say for sure the risks of construction within the limits of the refuge.


What can you do?

Effectively, at this point, the simple answer is very little other than to be aware of both the circumstances, and the fact that the NCA is doing what it can to monitor the situation. Community awareness is crucial, but community participation even more so at this moment in time.

Nosara Real Estate Report will do its best to update the community on this new law and its implementation as more information is available in the immediate future. If you would like to get involved and help out in this transition phase and be part of something that will shape this community for years to come, we encourage you to support the Nosara Civic Association in their efforts, as they are one of the leading entities helping develop the management plan for the refuge that will ensure fairness and environmental protection that is so crucial to the longevity of this area.  Please visit their website for more information, and to become a new member, please click here.