By Sebastian Rodriguez
PUNTARENAS, Costa Rica, April 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Forty years ago, Cornelio Benavides arrived in Villanueva, a small town on the Costa Rican Pacific coast, with hopes of prosperity.
Instead, he has found himself living in a place where construction has been stunted for decades and locals can only work jobs dictated by the state.
Villanueva is one of the seven Costa Rican communities that Benavides says have been "trapped" inside the Tivives Protected Zone since the zone was created in 1986.
These communities have been struggling to grow – often illegally, according to locals – under the restrictions of the area's protected status.
Now, the government wants to finally free the communities by changing the boundaries of the protected area, environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Being within a protected area, (these communities) are not given full recognition of their property rights, resulting in injustices that have been propagated over many years," Rodriguez said in a phone interview.
According to Benavides, who is a community leader and represents Villanueva at the local municipality, residents cannot get access to housing bonds to help them build new homes.
They also struggle to get construction permits and their economic activity has to be limited to eco-tourism and research, he added.
Those limitations "have strangled us into undevelopment," he said.
'A DELICATE TOPIC'
Stretching over more than 2,000 hectares (about 5,000 acres) in the region around Caldera Port, the Tivives Protected Zone is one of many conservation areas in Costa Rica.
In total, more than a quarter of the country's land is protected and those areas are inhabited by about 4 percent of the world's known species, according to government data.
The Tivives zone is home to one of the last tropical dry forests - which typically get less than 2 metres (80 inches) of rainfall a year - in Costa Rica's Central Pacific region.
It also covers the Tivives and Mata de Limon mangrove swamps, which are "healthy and important" ecosystems, Rodriguez said.
The communities within those areas, however, have "no ecological value" for Tivives, he added, since they are composed mainly of housing projects and small shops, as well as a storage lot for containers coming from Caldera Port.
That could be a strong enough case for reducing a protected area, a "delicate" topic in Costa Rica, Rodriguez said.
But changing the limits of a protected zone can only be done through a bill in Congress, which has not made any significant moves to address the issue in "the last fifteen years", he said.
The minister added that the plan is also getting opposition from several ecological groups, who say reducing a conservation area would set a damaging precedent.
Rodriguez said Villanueva's troubles arise from the way many of Costa Rica's protected areas were created in the 1980s, which was "basically improvised".
During what he called the "artisanal" period of conservation in the country, Villanueva and the seven other communities were circled inside the protected zone without any consultation, the plan being to address any economic consequences later.
Benavides, the community leader in Villanueva, remembered when his town was swallowed by the Tivives zone. He said there were no meetings between the government and the communities that were affected.
"They didn't ask anybody," he said. "They just signed (the order) from their desks."
The haphazard way these conservation areas were created also presented a problem for local government officials, said Esteban Aguilar, coordinator of urban planning at the municipality of Esparza, which oversees permits in and around the Tivives zone.
Aguilar said tensions began to escalate when the locals started wanting to build bigger houses and open shops, neither of which were permitted inside the protected area.
"There was no clarity. There were no technical specifications (of land use). Our hands were tied," he explained.
Despite the restrictions, the community in Villanueva has been slowly expanding. Over the past three decades, the population has more than doubled to about 800 and locals have built homes and opened a school, said Benavides.
However, he added, much of that construction has been illegal due to the difficulty of getting building permits.
"Especially with housing, a lot of people have covered their needs by simply building," he said.
MANAGING LAND USE
As the communities wait to see if the government will move the boundary lines of the Tivives zone, the local municipality has developed a new land-use plan to help give people inside the lines more say in how they live, said Aguilar, one of the plan's creators.
The idea is to designate the inhabited areas as "high intervention zones", which would broaden the types of activities that are permitted.
That would allow residents to construct taller buildings and give them more options to open different kinds of shops.
The proposed change would help because it "clarifies and stimulates land use in these communities," said the geographer.
The first stages of the plan will be implemented later this year, he said.
Both Benavides and Rodriguez agreed that it offers some short-term respite, but stressed that the ideal solution is to move the boundary lines.
"We don't want to nullify the protected area, we just want to change its limits," Benavides said. "We've never opposed the protection of nature, but it needs to go hand-in-hand with the people."
(Reporting by Sebastian Rodriguez, Editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.