Stanford study raises questions on proposed airport

The Térraba-Sierpe humedal or wetlands is just four kilometers from the proposed airport site, and that raises concern about possible flooding. Sistema National de Áreas de Conservación

A new 62-page report raises major questions about the viability, planning and impact of a $42 million international airport in southwestern Costa Rica.

The document, issued through an arm of California’s Stanford University, says that the impact may be a negative one for operators of small hotels and residents. At worst, the government would waste money building the airport if it did not generate the positive economic results officials hope.

The author is Katiana Murillo Aguilar, a Costa Rican identified online as the communications officer at the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development. The supporting organization is the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Said the institute: The Osa & Golfito Initiative is designed to build on the many previous efforts in the region, working hand in hand with Costa Ricans in local communities, in the public and private sector, and with non-profits to create a shared vision and long-term strategic plan for a sustainable future for the Osa and Golfito region. The project integrates the sociocultural dimensions of the Osa and Golfito region with both its marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Six cantons make up the Brunca region that are
presumed to benefit from the proposed airport.

The lengthy study came from site visits, available documents and interviews with 19 key public officials, hotel operators, airline managers, academics, organization representatives and real estate brokers.

The Stanford institute also is studying the impact of the Diquis Dam on the Terraba Sierpe Wetlands and the marine life of the region.

The airport study stops short of saying whether the project would be good or bad for the region. However, it warns against the kind of unbridled growth that has been seen in Guanacaste as a result of a major increase in tourism and investments.

A massive arrival of tourists via an international airport and the expansion of infrastructure and services will change forever the model of tourism that characterizes the region without necessarily translating into major benefits for the population, said the report.

The regional airport has been promoted by two administrations as a way to bring development to the southwestern part of the country. The transport ministry is awaiting an environmental impact study of the project. The proposal calls for a 2.2 kilometer (1.3-mile)  runway. There are a handful of smaller airports in the area, but none able to handle big passenger jets.

The site is just four kilometers from the sensitive

Térraba-Sierpe mangrove. One conclusion of the study is that the airport master plan minimizes the risk of flooding by depending on the Diquis Dam that has not yet been built.

The study also concludes that there is not an integrated vision of the project and, like a puzzle, there are incomplete pieces in different hands and there is a lack of fundamental information of the opportunities and the risks that would allow governments to make an informed decision.

If an airport is constructed, it ought to be one piece within a process of integrated regional planning and not the axis around which development is awaited with the risks, in case of a growth of demand, of repeating the experience of Guanacaste, which should be avoided, it said.

The study said that there is a risk that nature lovers visitors who come to the area now will be displaced by what the report called natrualeza light, that is those who prefer all-inclusive resorts which represent less income for the communities. This change of profile would attract big hotel investments that would compete with many of the small establishments that exist today, it said. There also would be an increase in the demand for utilities of public institutions, it added.

A major problem with development in Guanacaste has been the availability of water for new condos. That issue still has not been resolved.

The study also noted the unique archaeology of the Palmar area. This is the home of the stone spheres that are being considered as an artifact of world heritage by the United Nations. The impact on the archaeology of the area must be determined, said the report.

The question if an international airport is a necessary investment should be analyzed with care to determine if the project responds to the needs of the residents. The study urged that a consensus be reached among the different sectors of the region.

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