Protecting the Pacuare River.

Costa Rica: Plebiscites & Wetlands

Monday, March 26, 2018

Costa Rica Votes to Protect the Pacuare

Organizing a popular vote on river protection can be a costly and time-intensive way to pass river protection legislation. But it can work.

Costa Rica’s Pacuare River was a long a favorite with whitewater rafters, but it was always beset by threats of damming. In 2005, the Friends of the Pacuare River organized a referendum to protect the river. A whopping 97% of Costa Rican voters  chose to keep the river free from development. Costa Rica’s president vowed to make the river a national park, and the national electric company suspended any dam planning for 20 years.

Unfortunately, the president left office before he could make good on his promise. The river, protected for now, is still in limbo. But the referendum made the will of the people clear, sounding a cautionary note for any politician who might try to defy their wishes. 

Although a powerful tool, referenda are typically not legally binding. Each country is different; activists need to talk to a lawyer in-country about the pros and cons of adopting the referendum approach.

The Country's New Wetlands Protection Act

On March 6, 2017, the Costa Rican government created its first national policy to sustainably manage its rivers, lakes, mangroves and other wetlands.

The Ministry of the Environment, the National System of Conservation Areas, and the United Nations Development Program created the National Wetlands Policy (2017-2030) to preserve and revitalize the nation’s wetlands and their biodiversity, with assistance from AIDA. (Read more about AIDA's involvement here.)

The National Wetlands Policy aligns with Costa Rica’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention. Under the policy, "wetlands includes not just bodies of water like rivers and lakes as well as marshes, mangroves, flood plains, and coral reefs. Wetlands comprise nearly 7% of Costa Rica's territory.

The policy’s action plan includes:

  • Conservation of wetlands and their goods and services.
  • Climate adaptation and rational use.
  • Ecological rehabilitation.
  • Strengthening institutional support for adequate management: Better coordination and communication between the entities in charge of the management and conservation of wetlands.
  • Inclusive participation: Citizens should be involved and participate actively in wetland-conservation processes.
  • Community consultation.