Legal Frameworks for Local Development

Tourism and land rights in Costa Rica

Jorge Cole

In Costa Rica, coastal communities in the Gulf of Nicoya, indigenous groups and peasant communities in buffer zones of protected areas have been sharing a common fate. The legal insecurity about their land tenure limits them in their socio-economic activities. They may have high quality standards, but without land titles they cannot be formalized players in tourism. The Actuar network is engaged in political and institutional advocacy to ensure their rights and help them build their own development.

Without land title deeds, communities are not entitled to bank loans. They cannot access housing related aid, so the state of housing is not the best. Even though for example in the Nicoya Gulf Islands there have been several tourist ventures, none of them has been formalized by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT). This denies them the opportunity to be promoted by state agencies as official tourism initiatives, guaranteeing the fulfilment of quality standards.

Nicoya Islands

The coastal communities of the Nicoya Islands have more than 3,000 inhabitants. Most of them are artisanal fishermen with high rates of poverty and extreme poverty. As island communities they live in what is known as the terrestrial maritime zone: the first 200 meters from the high-tide line that are public space. In order for these lands to be made available for use, there must be a regulatory plan, which has not been approved to date, due to the different economic interests involved.

Liliana Martinez, a local leader of Chira Island, the most populated island in Costa Rica, explains why community groups opposed the regulatory plan: “It would lead to a massive development of tourism, with 80 percent of the territory dedicated to tourism. This would bring investors for mass tourism. It can affect the local communities who are the ones who care about their area and want to grow in harmony with the natural resources".

In the Nicoya Islands there are several local organizations working on conservation and sustainable development. The islands are the first areas of responsible fishing in the country. People have actively been participating in conservation initiatives such as reforestation, forest fire control, or environmental education. Chira Island is the area that contains the greatest diversity of tropical dry forest flora. Local organizations, universities, and NGOs have been building a sustainable and communitarian tourism destination. They also improved conservation actions such as mangrove reforestation, and increased the use of line and hook as a sustainable way of fishing.

In joint meetings, the inhabitants of the Nicoya Islands have proposed a strategy and the formulation of a law to provide them with land rights, so that the communities can become formalized players in tourism and enjoy the respective benefits and rights.

Indigenous Communities

While Costa Rica has signed international agreements that strengthen the self-determination of indigenous peoples, under indigenous law, local government needs to be in the form of a development association. Indigenous territories are not allowed to have other structures of governance. The legal framework for enterprises in indigenous territories is not defined. However, it is necessary to have such regulations that take into account the collective status of their land.

Less than the 50 percent of the indigenous territories in Costa Rica have their own tourism enterprises. There is evidence of both good and bad impacts of tourism on local identities. It is important to document those experiences and share with other groups who are thinking of initiating tourism activities. More than five exchanges of experiences were organized in previous years. The agenda included governance, territorial control and policies on cultural aspects. A modification of regulations of Indigenous Law 6172 was submitted to the Legislative Assembly.

Peasant communities in buffer zones

In the peasant communities, the challenge is to build a strategy to transfer land to community companies, so that they can formalise their tourism activities and promote their own development. The communities located in the buffer zone of the biggest protected area in Costa Rica, the Parque Internacional La Amistad in the Pacific and Caribbean side, in Corcovado National Park and in Marino Ballena Buffer Zone have important local organisations that contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of the protected areas. Alliances between local groups and governmental institutions are very important to strengthen conservation and local development.

Actuar helps in making communities’ living space attractive for tourists while controlling the direction and speed of development. Tourism can provide an additional income to existing economic activities such as artisanal fisheries, sustainable agriculture, conservation, and others traditional activities. Responsible tourism can also influence better social realities for vulnerable communities with their own distinct cultures, and for the conservation of nature.

Jorge Cole is executive co-director of Actuar. Established in 2001, Actuar is a Costa Rican network of 36 community associations supporting rural development and promoting members’ tourism programmes through its own tour operator.

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