FARMERS FIGHT COSTA RICAN GOVERNMENT OVER A RARE FOREST
By Gilda Aburto

Provided by the Rainforest Alliance's Tropical Conservation Newsbureau-Apdo. 138-2150, Moravia, San Jose, Costa Ricac phone 506-240-9383; fax 506-240-2543; e-mail: infotrop@sol.racsa.co.cr

BAGATZI, Costa Rica, April 25, 1994 -- Despite the protests of local residents and conservationists, the government of Costa Rica, often lauded for its environmental image, has condemned an important area of dry tropical forest, perhaps the most endangered eco-system in Central America. Villagers and biologists hope that the newly elected administration of Jose Maria Figueres will rescue the forest, an 850-acre strip called "La Mula," before it's too late.



The contested forest forms a greenway between a national park and a biological reserve in Costa Rica's arid northwest. Residents of Bagatzi, a small town next to La Mula, argue that the forest protects their water supply, many wildlife species and precious hardwood trees.

The land belongs to a government agricultural development agency that last year divided it among 33 small-plot rice farmers. The government also plans to build a costly irrigation project on the land with funds from the Inter-American Development Bank.

The case has attracted widespread attention because the farming families of Bagatzi are standing up to powerful government officials, making the case that La Mula is a valuable community resource that should be conserved to benefit everyone. They also worry that agrochemicals used in rice cultivation will poison their drinking water.

"They will have to cut off our heads before they cut the trees,"  vows Julio Duarte, president of the Voice of the Pueblo Association, a local conservation group. Michael McCoy, a U.S. biologist who has worked in the area for 20 years, says that farmers in the region have been planting the same variety of rice for many years, rendering the crop vulnerable to a deadly virus. "The pesticide used to eliminate this disease is quite toxic and slow to degrade," he explains.

The La Mula forest protects the village of Bagatzi from the driving winds of the dry season. McCoy, a professor at Costa Rica's National University, warns that once the trees are gone, "the town will be inundated with pesticides each time a plane fumigating rice fields passes."

La Mula is widely recognized for its rich biodiversity. It is one of only two forests in the country that protects significant number of rare, 200-year-old pochote trees (Bombacopsis quinata).

Biologists have counted 35 species of migratory birds that use the forest as resting and feeding grounds during flights to and from the United States. Mammals found in the forest include pacas, peccaries, armadillos, deer, giant anteaters, and 55 species of bats.

"This is the principal remnant of dry tropical forest in Latin America," affirms Esau Chaves, the director of the northwest conservation region. "Formerly, dry forest extended from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, but most of it has been deforested for cattle." Chaves opposes the destruction of La Mula.

Dr. Gordon Frankie, an entomologist and president of Friends of Lomas Barbudal, an international conservation group, explains that La Mula serves as an "important biological corridor, permitting the free migration of species between Palo Verde National Park and the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve." If the forest is destroyed, he says, "certain plant and animal species in Palo Verde will disappear, because by itself the park is too small to allow for sufficient genetic interchange."

La Mula recently took on heightened biological importance after a raging fire that burned for several days destroyed some 90 percent of the Lomas Barbudal Reserve.

In addition to the forest's biological value, La Mula's hardwood trees are estimated to be worth some $2 million. Frankie and McCoy suspect this may be the main reason lame-duck government officials are pushing for La Mula's immediate demise. "Do you want us to have pochote trees, or do you want us to eat?" minister of agriculture Juan Rafael Lizano said at a press conference when questioned about the La Mula controversy.

Last November, one of the farmers who had been granted a piece of La Mula arrived with a tractor, but local residents blocked his path. According to Angel Lara, secretary of Voice of the Pueblo, the "farmer" was actually a well-known logger.

Joaquin Aragon was also granted land in La Mula. He says he and other landowners are aware of the damage they would cause by clearing trees in La Mula and are willing to exchange their parcels for land elsewhere. But Lizano and natural resources minister Orlando Morales have refused to save La Mula. "Foreigners can not come here to tell us where we must have biological corridors, where to plant our trees and crops," Morales recently snapped at a reporter.

Morales and Lizano will be replaced in May by President Figueres, who was elected in February. Conservationists hope the new administration will rescue La Mula. But a reprieve may come too late. La Mula's trees can legally be cut at any time.