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Miners, drug traffickers and loggers: Is Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park on the verge of collapse?

  • Extreme polarization about what’s going on in Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park has led to accusations of corruption, negligence, media manipulation, fights for control of the area’s management, and who does and doesn’t receive funds from international donors.
  • The park suffers from artisanal gold mining, hunting, logging and drug trafficking, but officials, scientists and NGOs have very different views on how badly these things are impacting the health of the park.
  • Some researchers say the populations of species like the jaguar and white-lipped peccary are on the decline, while others are optimistic about population trends and believe the park is healthy.
  • Dwindling staff and budget for basic resources like food and gasoline have made it difficult to adhere to the park’s protection plan, and there’s little consensus, even on very basic things, about what the future holds for the park.

News articles and opinion pieces have popped up in the pages of different Costa Rican newspapers over the past several years, warning of the imminent collapse of Corcovado National Park, one of the country’s most treasured protected areas. The park is in “agonizing” condition and “on a downward spiral,” some of the opinion pieces said. It’s “slowly dying.”

“In the case of Corcovado, if we don’t act quickly, the deterioration of wildlife populations could be irreversible in the medium term,” Eduardo Carrillo, a biologist at the National University of Costa Rica, wrote last year in the newspaper Semanario Universidad.

But other biologists, conservationists and park officials have scratched their heads at these kinds of comments, saying they’re not just overblown but completely outside reality. The park, in their eyes, is doing well. There are certainly issues that need to be addressed, but there’s nothing so grave as to warrant predictions of total collapse.

The extreme polarization over what’s going on in Corcovado National Park has led to accusations of corruption, negligence, media manipulation, fights for control of the area’s management, and who does and doesn’t receive funds from international donors. There’s little consensus, even on very basic things, about what the future holds for the park.

That could be a problem in the long run. The stakes are high in Corcovado. The park is believed to house approximately 2.5% of the entire world’s biodiversity — some 2,000 plant, 375 bird and 124 mammal species — all contained within around 45,000 hectares (113,000 acres) of primary forest and Pacific coastline.

 

The most concerned individuals point to the artisanal gold mining going on deep in Corcovado, the numerous arrests of international drug traffickers, and the dwindling budgets for park rangers struggling to carry out the most basic patrols. They cite declining population rates for jaguars (Panthera onca) and white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari) as indicators of the poor ecological health of the park.

More optimistic parties, meanwhile, quote different studies that suggest steady, even growing, population rates for many species. And they say the gold mining and drug trafficking are more nuanced issues than they might seem on the surface. It’s easy to predict doomsday, they say, when you don’t have to dig into the details.

“Corcovado is one of the most important parks in the world,” Marco Hidalgo-Chaverri, the community relations manager for Osa Conservation, a nonprofit working on conservation issues in the region, told Mongabay. “That means people are looking at it really closely. The expectations are higher. So when someone says the park isn’t being patrolled at all or that it’s being ‘invaded’ by gold miners, that’s obviously not completely true.”

In hopes of getting a clearer understanding of what’s happening in Corcovado National Park, Mongabay traveled to Costa Rica this past April to interview residents, officials and miners on the Osa Peninsula, where the park is located.

Scientific disputes

Both sides of the Corcovado debate ultimately come down to one thing: biodiversity. It’s a barometer for the health of the park, and helps guide policymaking and patrol routes. But different approaches to studying population trends for flora and fauna have led to two drastically opposed views about the park.

One set of biodiversity data comes from the local government’s primary animal monitoring program, called the JaguarOsa Project, which was started in 2015 with the goal of observing the populations of species that were good indicators of the health of the park, such as jaguar, white-lipped peccary and Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii).

The program, carried out by park officials in partnership with researchers at Northland College in Wisconsin, has captured photos of dozens of species throughout Corcovado, including many unidentified birds, rodents and lizards. Officials say they’re seeing positive results for most animal populations, and that they’re extremely proud of the work they’ve done.

“With this research program, it fills us with satisfaction to know that we’re contributing something and that 10 years ago, despite that there were so many researchers back then, we didn’t have the data we do now,” said Alejandro Azofeifa, head of the park’s monitoring program.

A camera trap photo of the jaguar, “El Hijo.” (Courtesy of Erik Olson, JaguarOsa Project)

In 2020, five jaguars were identified at nearly half of the project camera trap sites. One of the jaguars had never been seen before, bringing the park’s minimum jaguar count to 11. Additionally, a number of jaguars have been observed around the periphery of the park by other researchers. These findings reinforced their belief that jaguar populations may have started increasing around 2013.

The camera traps also observed a jaguar that researchers called “Macho Uno,” believed to be at least 16 years old — one of the oldest jaguars ever documented in the wild — demonstrating that Corcovado has a habitat healthy enough to support individual animals for long periods of time.

“The data that we’re seeing suggests that there’s a lot of hope for the wildlife community of Corcovado National Park,” said Erik Olson, associate professor of natural resources at Northland College.

The camera traps also detected between four and seven “mega herds” of white-lipped peccaries, adding up to between 258 and 384 total individuals identified on camera between 2019 and 2020. They also found signs of recent reproduction in all of these mega herds, indicating that the peccary population is doing well inside the park.

But other scientists have taken issue with these findings. They say they might look promising, but they’re actually misleading because the research isn’t based on strong scientific methodology.

“What they do is really important,” Juan Carlos Cruz, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Mongabay. “They have identified 11 or 12 different jaguars — that’s great. But that is not a proxy for density. That is not a proxy for abundance. That is not a proxy for an estimate of the population.”

Rather than trying to count up every individual animal, Cruz said, officials should be analyzing abundance rates, using what is known as an “abundance index,” in this case the number of species recorded on camera traps or footprint tracks, divided by the sampling effort (the time the cameras are actively taking pictures in the field or the length of the trails surveyed).

A camera trap photo of white-lipped peccaries. (Courtesy of Erik Olson, JaguarOsa)

“No one does a general count [of individuals],” Cruz said. “No one would take the number of different jaguars and use it as a proxy for abundance, because that’s merely anecdotal. It’s not based on scientific procedures or any kind of methodology.”

As a concept, the abundance index may be harder to digest for the general public, and even for some officials without a scientific background, but it’s the best way to understand how a species is represented in its ecosystem, Cruz said. It also allows the data to be compared with other ecosystems.

“If I take these indexes and talk to a researcher in Bolivia that does the same thing, we can compare data,” he said, “because they’re using the same methodology. We are both dividing the number of tracks or the number of pictures by the sampling effort. We’re using the same currency.”

Unlike the data from the JaguarOsa Program, indexes compiled by Cruz and researchers at the National University of Costa Rica show that jaguar populations have started to decline since the late 1990s. White-lipped peccary populations, meanwhile, started dropping dramatically in the early 2000s but rose again between 2005 and 2008, the indexes show.

Then, around 2010, the index showed the start of another drop for both species that has yet to recover.

In response to these criticisms, researchers in the JaguarOsa Program said they’ve never claimed their data should be used as a population estimate, but rather as a gauge of how different species are doing in the short term. They also said they’ve used indeces in the past, and are currently working on population estimates of their own.

Olson and other researchers said they feel confident about the data they’ve already presented, whether it be photos of Macho Uno or peccary herd counts.

“Those are irrefutable signs that there is a lot of hope for the wildlife community in Corcovado,” Olson said, “and that Corcovado is not, as some have said, ‘dead.’”

He also expressed interest in seeing Cruz and other researchers’ findings once they’re published, as it’s curious that there are so many discrepancies in the data.

“If they’re not finding jaguars and we are finding jaguars, if they’re not finding white-lipped peccaries and we are finding white-lipped peccaries, I don’t know how you rationalize those two differences,” he said.

Gold mining in the park

For those concerned about the collapse of Corcovado, one of the most emblematic problems is illegal gold mining. Officials haven’t done enough to eradicate it, they say, leading to significant environmental degradation within the park.

How much real harm gold mining is doing, however — and what should be done about it — is another one of the main sources of debate in Corcovado.

Generally, the phrase “illegal gold mining” rings alarm bells for environmentalists in Latin America, where numerous countries have seen pollutants like mercury and the use of heavy machinery, like backhoe diggers and bulldozers, rapidly destroy rainforests and contaminate rivers.

A mining camp set up outside of Corcovado National Park. (Photo by Max Radwin/Mongabay)

Mercury helps clump together small particles of gold that are spread through the soil. But in Corcovado, the gold sits in small flakes and pebbles on top of the riverbed, so miners don’t need toxic chemicals or heavy machines. Yet misinformation about how mining is carried out in the park has been so widespread that environmental agencies this year clarified in a report that the use of mercury “is not a very suitable technique” in Corcovado given its unique “geological circumstances.”

Instead, miners there simply bring shovels, washboards and sifting bowls to do their work. They shovel the riverbed into narrow sections to slow the water, making it easier to sift through the dirt by hand.

Several miners told Mongabay their work is artisanal, and makes little or no environmental impact on forests and local water bodies. The only evidence they leave behind is the occasional trail of rocks and shifted soil in the riverbeds.

“The majority of us watch over the animals,” Roberto Piedra, a miner and resident of the Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre community, just outside of the park limits, told Mongabay. “We take care of them. We’re the ones that make sure no one else comes to hurt them.”

A couple digs a trench to search for gold outside of Corcovado National Park. (Photo by Max Radwin/Mongabay)

But some miners have also been known to cut down trees and hunt threatened animals while camping deep in the park, according to government reports. And even if they aren’t using mercury and bulldozers, officials say, they shouldn’t be mining in a protected area in the first place.

“We try to hold ourselves to the highest standard,” said Max Villalobos, a member of the Mario Boza Front for Protected Areas. “Imagine if Yellowstone National Park, in the United States, had people living in it. Or people mining — even artisanal mining. What would be the reaction?”

Gold mining was widespread long before the park was founded in 1975, and was largely seen as a traditional part of life on the peninsula. Thousands of miners were driven away in the first years after the park’s creation, but gradually returned as the price of gold began to rise. Today, officials estimate there are only a few hundred miners moving in and out of the area.

Many of the miners say they don’t want to continue mining — the work is difficult and dangerous, requiring late-night hikes and constant vigilance for law enforcement patrols. But they’re stuck in the profession because there aren’t other livelihoods available to them on the peninsula.

Tourism accounts for around 70% of the local economy. Miners, often some of the poorest people in the region, aren’t in a position to open stores or hotels.

Sifting through mud and water for flakes of gold. (Photo by Max Radwin/Mongabay)

Efforts to train miners as park guides have mostly failed over the years due to federal regulations that set high standards of education for park officials working inside nationally protected areas, which most miners can’t meet. Despite not having formal educations, they know the forest as well as anyone, they say, but can’t profit from it the way other residents do.

“There’s no support here,” Piedra said. “There’s no support and we don’t have pensions or anything like that. Nothing. No one shows up to help us.”

He added, “There are times when we don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes for one or two days, three days, and we have no choice but to go [into the forest] to see what we can dig up.”

Some miners have managed to become independent guides in other parts of the Osa Peninsula, such as around the Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre community, where the rivers and forests around the park are still intact, drawing many tourists looking for cheaper alternatives to Corcovado.

This year, park rangers have increased their collaboration with the Ministry of Public Security on land and marine patrols in Corcovado and neighboring Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve. They also work together to respond to complaints being filed about illegal activity in the area.

A river passing through the Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre community. (Photo by Max Radwin/Mongabay)

Between January and March, the effort resulted in the capture of 10 miners and the expulsion of 17 others, who managed to flee before being apprehended, according to a report from the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and Ministry of Environment and Energy (Minae). Officials have also compiled a list of organized groups of miners with proper names, such as “Los Jason,” “Los de la Pana” and “Los Wichos.” These groups are believed to receive financial support and resources, possibly from gold buyers, park officials said.

The increased patrols have alienated communities that still rely on mining, yet have also left critics of the park’s management unsatisfied with the results. Officials told Mongabay a new approach that treats mining less as a criminal problem and more as a social one needs to be adopted soon, or else things aren’t going to change.

“The problem we have is not an environmental problem. It’s a social and economic problem,” said Paula Mena Corea, director of the Osa Conservation Area (ACOSA). “Everyone who lives around protected areas here — often they enter the parks because they don’t have money and they’re just hoping to get by.”

Other illicit activities

In 2016, camera traps started capturing men with bags and backpacks moving through the park late at night, often near beaches, rivers and other informal entry points. By the end of the year, officials managed to apprehend a shipment of 700 kilograms (1,540 pounds) of cocaine. And throughout the next year, increased enforcement saw the capture of numerous drug traffickers, some from Colombia, trying to take advantage of the park’s size and lack of human presence to move their product.

In 2018 and 2019, authorities even intercepted submersible boats carrying between 1 and 2 tons of cocaine. Between 2016 and 2019, there were 34 alerts related to drug trafficking in the park, according to a SINAC report, resulting in increased patrols and the construction of additional lookout posts.

Police detain two gold miners working inside a protected area on the Osa Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of SINAC)

Critics point to drug trafficking as additional proof of Corcovado’s imminent collapse. “They are besieged by drug trafficking,” one op-ed in La Nación said last year. But the threat to conservation efforts in the park from trafficking appears to be minimal, at least compared to protected areas in other Central American countries. Drug trafficking can result in deforestation when groups clear land to grow coca or marijuana, or to make room for clandestine airstrips, but neither of those activities appears to be taking place in Corcovado.

“It does do environmental harm,” said park director Carlos Madriz. “First of all, the contamination from the boats’ fuel needs to be cleaned up. Then these people start making trails in the forest where there isn’t public access. They fish illegally and create all sorts of other environmental problems, like the extraction of turtle eggs, hunting small game, littering and cutting down palm trees.”

According to the local district attorney, logging is a much more prominent illegal activity in and around the park, at least based on the number of cases taken on by the office. But unlike other Latin American countries where logging can clear huge fields in a day, Corcovado is being picked apart one tree at a time.

Infrared cameras allow officials to better spot human activity in protected areas. (Photo courtesy of SINAC)

Loggers are only interested in certain species of trees, such as the nazareno (Peltogyne purpurea) and manglillo (Hedyosmum mexicanum), because they’re good for building cabins and furniture that can be sold in the region. Most trees in Corcovado don’t have the right kind of wood for those purposes.

“We have a problem with the illegal transport of wood, the illegal felling of wood without a permit,” said Luis Fernando Aguilar, the district attorney in Puerto Jiménez, the largest town on the peninsula. He added, “It’s very hard to find who’s cutting them down because they go into the mountains.”

The trees are taken to sawmills in and around the Osa Peninsula and then “laundered” into legal supplies, he said. However, those operations are still relatively small in scale and don’t appear to be contributing to rapid deforestation in the park, several officials said.

Budget, staff and operational problems

The problems in Corcovado, big and small, ultimately fall on the shoulders of the local parks department and ACOSA, the regional office that oversees 11 protected areas in and around the Osa Peninsula. In some cases, officials there have been accused of mismanaging resources and not allocating enough of the budget to conservation efforts. In more extreme cases, they’ve been accused of negligence and corruption.

In 2019, one of the peninsula’s top officials, ACOSA director Paula Mena Corea, was released from her position for allegedly refusing to “diligently carry out the tasks” of her office, according to internal Minae documents reviewed by Mongabay. However, during a defense process, Mena was able to demonstrate that she was let go for declining to sign off on land-use permits that would have allowed construction within Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve and other cultural heritage sites. Corcovado National Park director Carlos Madriz was also released around that time.

Loggers are only interested in certain species of trees for building cabins and furniture. (Photo courtesy of Erik Olson)

“A lot of developers want to build in these areas and that’s not allowed,” Mena said. “There are always the political and economic interests of people who want to build on heritage sites, and that can’t be done. They wanted me to authorize permits, to sign off, and I didn’t agree to that.”

Both Mena and Madriz returned to their positions last year. Now, their biggest challenges involve overcoming the stigma and controversy of their release, as well as finding a way to manage a park that doesn’t have enough resources, budget or manpower.

The 2017 food budget for park rangers was 16 million colones (about $28,300 at the exchange rate at the time). But it only received around 7 million colones ($12,400) that year, according to an ACOSA report. As a result, many rangers complained about not having enough to eat when they went out on long patrols, even forcing them to ask for donations from local organizations, they told Mongabay.

It’s a similar story with the fuel for rangers’ vehicles. Since 2018, a fuel budget of 15 million colones ($26,000 at the time) has since been slashed to around 5 million colones today ($7,300), making it increasingly difficult for personnel to move around the park.

“No one wants to work in Corcovado,” said park ranger Eliécer Villalta. “Corcovado is really hard. They came up with some incentives [such as extra time off] to convince people … because no one wants to go.”

In 2017, ACOSA’s request for 17 million colones ($30,000 at the time) to improve park facilities for the rangers was denied, according to the ACOSA report. Madriz and other officials have made numerous requests to Congress for a review of how resources are distributed to the park. But Madriz said Congress hasn’t reached a decision. This has resulted in a budget shortage of nearly $300,000 over the last five years, he said.

The park is also short-staffed. For the past decade, in an attempt to shrink the size of the civil service, a federal law has prohibited replacing pensioned government employees who leave their positions. Instead, the position disappears, making the office smaller over time.

As a result, many environmental services on the Osa Peninsula are short-staffed by law. According to an ACOSA report, 52 positions have been created in the park but only 15 have been approved, with the other 37 permanently pending with the Ministry of Finance.

On the beaches of Corcovado National Park. (Photo courtesy of Erik Olson)

Two internal studies conducted in 2018 found that Corcovado National Park needs an additional 78 positions for control and protection responsibilities in order to “carry out a job 100% in accordance with the environmental problems” of the park. Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve needs an additional 24 positions, the studies both concluded.

These problems are behind the numerous complaints the government continues to receive regarding its “noncompliance” with the park’s protection plan, Madriz said in an internal report reviewed by Mongabay. But in many ways, there’s little that can be done about it, at least by the people who are working day in and day out in the park, Madriz said.

“We’ve spent the last five years answering questions from Congress about what we do with our resources,” he said, “but we can’t be having this fight every year. [Congress] must establish a forceful ruling on this problem so Corcovado National Park and Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve have the necessary resources.”

Banner image: Sunset on Corcovado National Park. Photo courtesy of Erik Olson

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