Levin College of Law

Caimans, Culture & Caño Negro II: Indigenous Use of Wetland Resources at a Ramsar Site

Raquel Salazar Bejarano, Ian Boisvert & María Fernanda Esquivel
(June-July, 2004)

The stereotypical environmental protection conflict pits a corporate industry’s bottom line against a local community’s desire for unspoiled natural resources. In the protected Caño Negro wetland of northern Costa Rica the conflict is between two local communities’ desires to protect their way of life. The Maleku community of Guatuso, Costa Rica have not had access to these wetlands to practice their cultural activities for twenty years – ever since the wetland was listed under the Ramsar Convention.

The Maleku recently asked the Costa Rica Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE ) to advise them on the rights they have to restart their cultural practice of hunting freshwater turtles. The local mestizo community of Caño Negro vehemently opposes the renewal of the Maleku cultural practice because the residents rely on the protection of the wetlands for tourism, as well as a for-profit turtle hatchery for the pet trade. This conflict represents one community fighting to maintain protection for financial resources against another’s desire to access these natural resources for cultural enrichment.

Continuing work begun in Caño Negro in 2003, A team of three law students in the UF/UCR Joint Program in Environmental Law & Consultorio Juridico Ambiental (Raquel Salazar and Maria Fernanda Esquival from the University of Costa Rica) and and Ian Boisvert from Lewis & Clark law school in Portland Oregon) investigated and analyzed national and international documents and treaties applicable to the Caño Negro situation.

The Costa Rican Constitution establishes that any international treaty or document signed and ratified by the government as legally binding on the government and its ministries, and superior to nationally created laws. Because of this legal hierarchy the Maleku have a strong argument that MINAE should provide limited access to continue their traditional practices in the wetlands. The continuation of their activities should follow notions of sustainability, and the Maleku should become active partners in management of the wetlands.

We believe, at the very least, the Maleku will be incorporated into the management structure. Nevertheless, the process of investigating Maleku members, residents of Caño Negro and the MINAE rangers made the project worthwhile. To get out of the stilted air of a law classroom and into the realm where the work matters because it has a direct impact on people made the project worthwhile. We were not asked to protect the bottom line of Caño Negro nor to find a way to provide unfettered access for the Maleku, but to objectively analyze the situation. Hopefully the three stakeholders will come together to use our analysis and recommendations to create a fair and balanced resolution.


Raquel Salazar Bejarano, Ian Boisvert & María Fernanda Esquivel, Acceso de los Indígenas Malekus sobre los Recursos naturales, participación en el Refugio de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro, July 2004 (PDF, Spanish)

Raquel Salazar Bejarano, Ian Boisvert & María Fernanda Esquivel Comunidad Indígena Malecu: acceso a los recursos naturales y participación en Caño Negro, July, 2004 (Powerpoint, Spanish)

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Published: June 5th, 2011

Category: Academics

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