Wetlands are part of the national heritage whether the individual tracts have been declared as such or not, according to the Sala IV constitutional court.
In a far-reaching decision announced Thursday, the court said that even if the wetlands are on private property, the owners have a legal obligation to preserve and maintain the land in a way that is consistent with international treaties and national laws.
The court also ordered the central government to identify and classify the wetlands so that they can be protected and managed scientifically.
Wetlands, called humedales in Spanish, generally are mangroves between higher dry land and a river or ocean. They are a vital ecosystem but many have been compromised by construction or invasion of land by squatters.
The court rejected a directive by the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones that sought to provide protection only to wetlands that were officially designated as such. The implications of the court decision
are vast. In Costa Rica there are 350 such wetlands that cover about 7 percent of the country, according to a 2001 estimate.
Even wetlands that already have been declared as protected frequently are in the news because agricultural operators and developers invade the area either to grow crops or to provide landscaping for housing projects.
About 60 percent of the existing wetlands are now listed as protected, according to estimates by environmentalists.
The Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo frequently inspects coastal areas and nearly always finds some intrusion into sensitive wetlands and mangroves. Or inspectors might find that the wetland has been drained to create agricultural land.
Even municipal and national government entities have been accused of destroying wetlands.
The destruction of wetlands has a role in the Costa Rican case against the government of Nicaragua that will be argued in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Nicaraguan workers and soldiers sought to construct a new mouth for the Río San Juan through Costa Rican territory, but the area was mostly wetlands. The environmental damage is a large part of the Costa Rican case.