CIVICUS speaks to Vanessa Dubois, Project Officer at ARCA (Central American Regional Association for Water and the Environment), a Costa Rican environmental CSO established to promote the protection, conservation and sustainable use of the environment and hydric resources, and to promote processes of integrated management of natural resources and the recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation.
1. Costa Rica is usually among the best-placed Latin American countries in rankings and evaluations of the quality of civic space, institutional development and respect for human rights. Is the country living up to its reputation?
In fact, there are no serious obstacles for the exercise of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly of civil society in Costa Rica. But there is indeed a less visible problem regarding the protection afforded to social and environmental leaders. True, murders of HRDs or civil society activists are not an everyday occurrence in Costa Rica; however, since the early nineties there have been approximately ten murders and fifteen attempts against the physical integrity of environmental activists -who, along with indigenous activists, are in fact the main targets of aggressions. The most recent case, in 2013, was the murder of our environmentalist colleague Jairo Mora. It was as a result of this regrettable event that we have been able to more successfully bring up the issue at the national level, in order to counterweigh the erroneous image that here nothing bad ever happens. In 2014 or 2015, especially in the context of land struggles on indigenous territories, community leaders have been criminalised.
And more recently, just a few weeks ago, a park ranger at Corcovado National Park – a wild area set up to protect endangered species such as pumas, ocelots and jaguarsb- lost his appeal and had his conviction to 12 years in prison for attempted murder confirmed. The park ranger had been patrolling the beach in the national park during sea turtle nesting season and found people stealing the eggs; he was attacked and he fired against his aggressors in self-defence. The Alliance of Environmental Networks (ARA), of which ARCA is a founding member, is submitting a pardoning petition to the President on behalf of the park ranger.
2. What triggered the foundation of ARCA? What are its aims?
ARCA was founded in the early 1990s. It started as the Foundation for Urban Development’s area of hydric resources and later, in 2010, it became an independent organisation. We work on issues related to community management of territories, joint management of protected areas (so that communities get involved in the process of natural resource conservation and protection and can also get some benefits out of it), urban environment, community management of water, the defence of the human right to water against extractive industries (hydroelectric projects, opencast metallic mining, single crop plantations, etc.). ARCA also carries out work at a regional Central American level through local partners.
3. Which are the main challenges that environmental activists and organisations face in Costa Rica?
There are big interests in conflict. In the case of indigenous communities in the south of the country, land struggles have dragged on for decades and no government has wanted to provide a sustainable solution. In Costa Rica we have “indigenous reserves” and the state has generally demarcated their territories, within which the indigenous communities have autonomy to form their own local governments. In the south, where demarcation was never completed, it is not uncommon for non-indigenous populations to occupy these lands, and when indigenous groups demand that their territories be respected violent situations typically ensue, as a result either of the actions of the invaders or of police intervention. Arbitrary detentions and judicial processes take place, typically resulting in preventive imprisonment being imposed upon indigenous leaders, unlike non-indigenous ones. We at the social movements think that this is a deliberate tactic meant to weaken indigenous organisations.
Similarly, in the cases in which the defence of the environment leads social organisations to clash with big corporations, as in the pineapple industry, activists are usually criminalised as a result of slander and libel claims submitted by the private companies. Those of our fellow activists who are sued in court face judicial proceedings that consume lots of time, energy and financial resources. When they face powerful interests, such as mining companies, environmental activists are also threatened. Around 1990 the Costa Rican government started issuing mining permits in the north of the country. For more than twenty years we (the Costa Rican environmental movement) sustained an intense advocacy campaign on this issue, and many colleagues who fought to stop these projects, including some at ARCA, have been threatened. The tasks of denouncing, disseminating and supporting our colleagues under threat has become quite easier since the rise of the social networks.
Although it is certainly not the main source of danger, the state is not fulfilling its duty to protect the physical integrity and the work we do in the sector. This is apparent in the case of Jairo Mora, who worked in Moín Beach (in the Caribbean region) protecting the sea turtles and their nesting. This was also a beach that drug traffickers used to land their shipments. When he was murdered, Jairo had been requesting patrolling support from the security forces and the Ministry of the Environment for more than a year. Drug traffickers saw the presence of volunteers on that beach as an obstacle. On that night, Jairo was out patrolling with a group of female foreigners: two of the young women were raped and he was murdered. As the environmental movement was very vocal in expressing their outrage, the Ministry of Public Security and the prosecution acted fast and were able to identify and capture the suspects; however, judicial proceedings were complicated and the accused were initially absolved and only later, early this year, they were eventually found guilty.
This raises two issues. First, the dangers of impunity, which leaves the door open for the repetition of crimes such as these. Second, the lack of recognition of these crimes’ political nature. Jairo Mora’s trial was based on the interpretation that a number of crimes had been committed, including homicide, rape, sexual abuse and aggravated abduction, but the activist condition of the victim was ignored.
In some cases, such as communities mobilised for the right to water, the Constitutional Court has indeed held the competent body accountable for the fulfilment of rights. But generally speaking, the state does not frame its actions within a human rights perspective, and instead treats the crimes in the exact way as they are typified in the Criminal Code; no other tool is available.
There are precedents. In the nineties, five environmental activists involved in a struggle with a private company, Ston Forestal, were murdered; they died when their lodgings were set on fire, and the crime went unpunished. The fire report was never made public so nobody ever knew what happened. The government stated that it had been an accident that the activists themselves had caused, while the environmental movement was convinced that this had been a deliberate crime aimed at eliminating them.
4. What concrete actions should the Costa Rican government take?
First of all, it should adopt a human rights perspective to solve conflicts. Violent actions against activists must be recognised as such: that is, as violations of social and environmental leaders’ rights triggered by the work that they do and aimed at obstructing it. It is not enough to have the guilty convicted: they must be convicted for what they have actually done, and not for, say, attempted robbery followed by manslaughter.
Another factor limiting our work is of a financial nature. Costa Rica is considered a middle-income country, and starting in December it will become a member of the OECD. This greatly limits access to international cooperation resources, which is basically the main funding source for social and environmental organisations. At the national level there is no funding mechanism available to overcome this shortage and allow for the preservation of organisational independence and autonomy. This is an issue that we have brought to the table because we think the government must guarantee the existence of a civil society space that is able to act as its counterweight, by demanding transparency, accountability and responses to certain issues. In the case of the environment, for example, those issues are the imposition of limits and controls on the expansion of monocultures such as pineapple, which are deeply affecting water access and quality for local populations, along with other issues such as deforestation and the invasion of protected areas.
5. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support Costa Rican civil society?
Solidarity is key. We have always worked within regional networks, particularly on water issues, that are special in the sense that any activity taking place in a territory affects water. We think that the more numerous we are in propagating information and disseminating experiences, the easier the work gets because we feel accompanied. Dissemination of information about what is happening in our countries, particularly in serious situations such as the assassination of Berta Cáceres, gives visibility to situations that would otherwise remain hidden. In the case of Costa Rica, this is particularly important because our good reputation means that attention is not generally directed our way. At the same time, knowing that in other countries similar things are happening –for example regarding the mining or pineapple industries, knowing that there are communities in Guatemala or Honduras going through the same situations- encourages us to exchange experiences and learned lessons that strengthen the work that we do in our countries.
International support can have important domestic repercussions. For example, we carried out a research project on the labour and environmental impacts of pineapple cultivation along with Oxfam Germany, and then we did a tour in Germany and other European countries to present the conclusions. As a result, the pineapple companies started making moves in Costa Rica: the news came out in the media and the companies threatened to leave the country. Now, if the whole thing had been confined to the domestic scene, we wouldn’t have had all that publicity and those reactions, which are precisely what allows us to bring into the agenda the socio-environmental conflicts that the country is currently going through.