Dis­ap­pear­ing beaches

Costa Rica’s “Lit­tle Ja­maica” coast strug­gles to ride out cli­mate storm

Global Times - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

As tow­er­ing waves smashed onto Costa Rica’s Co­cles beach, suck­ing away much of its sand, surf in­struc­tor Leo Downer was scared the coastal road, along with his Toy­ota car, would be washed into the Caribbean by the fe­ro­cious Fe­bru­ary storm.

Low boul­ders now sit in place to help shel­ter Co­cles, with its reg­gae bar and cafes serv­ing rice and beans, where tourists cy­cle past fruit stalls selling ly­chees and sour­sop and signs warn of sloths cross­ing the beach road.

But as ris­ing seas threaten parts of the trop­i­cal east­ern coast, dubbed “Lit­tle Ja­maica,” many worry that the visi­tors who gen­er­ate nu­mer­ous jobs in the area – known for its palm-fringed beaches and ex­otic wildlife – could go else­where.

“This year was the cra­zi­est I’ve ever seen... we lost ev­ery­thing – there was no sand, there was noth­ing, the wa­ter was hit­ting right here, all those trees fell down,” said Downer, point­ing to the nearby road amid a tor­ren­tial down­pour.

“I saw the wa­ter come un­der my car, whoosh – it didn’t take it, but... I’ve never seen that be­fore. I think ev­ery­thing is chang­ing, it’s a lit­tle warn­ing,” he said, his fam­ily shel­ter­ing from the rain un­der their beach shack sur­rounded by surf­boards.

Global warm­ing could cause sea lev­els around the world to rise be­tween 70 cen­time­ters and 1.2 me­ters in the next two cen­turies, ramp­ing up pres­sure on the roughly half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion who live near the coast, said a Ger­man-led team of re­searchers in a study pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary.

Sci­en­tists say parts of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast have lost at least 20 me­ters of beach in the past 15 years, as creep­ing sea lev­els and chang­ing wave pat­terns cause coastal ero­sion, of­ten ex­ac­er­bated by co­ral reef degra­da­tion.

They warn that higher seas and in­creas­ingly un­pre­dictable con­di­tions could start to dam­age in­fra­struc­ture and take a heavy eco­nomic and so­cial toll. In ad­di­tion to the creep­ing ef­fects of cli­mate change, ex­treme events like hur­ri­canes are likely to worsen the im­pact on many coastal com­mu­ni­ties, said Borja Reguero, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Cruz.

Trees are be­ing re­planted on parts of Costa Rica’s coast to halt ero­sion and pro­tect liveli­hoods.

But more ex­treme con­di­tions demand hefty spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture such as wave breaks and sea walls to de­lay mass re­lo­ca­tions, some ex­perts say.

“In 100 years, all of the vil­lages in Costa Rica’s Caribbean and Pa­cific coasts will in­evitably be flooded,” said Omar Lizano Ro­driguez, a Univer­sity of Costa Rica oceanog­ra­pher.

“There’s not the re­sources or po­lit­i­cal will to solve the prob­lem. Costa Rica deals with emer­gen­cies but not pre­ven­tion.”

Fright­ened tourists

Tourism is a main­stay on the trop­i­cal coast, some 200 kilo­me­ters east of San Jose, where many are de­scended from the Ja­maicans who orig­i­nally came to work on a jun­gle rail­way, and English mixes with Span­ish and Pa­tois.

In Cahuita, where the coastal na­tional park draws tourists look­ing for sloths snooz­ing in the tree­tops and howler mon­keys leap­ing through the for­est, the sea has al­ready con­sumed slabs of beach and is start­ing to men­ace the sleepy town.

On the wooden ve­randa of Spencer Sea­side Lodg­ing where she works, Araceli Huer­tas ex­plained storm waves are now much higher than in pre­vi­ous years and some­times crash over the re­in­forced sea wall in front, soak­ing the ho­tel’s rooms.

“The tourists are fright­ened it’s a tidal wave or a tsunami or some­thing, as they don’t see this very of­ten,” said Huer­tas, who has lived in the beach town for 15 years. “Now the sea is calm but when the sea looks very high, they want to leave.”

Wild con­di­tions are caus­ing trou­ble for fish­er­men who can­not go out in rough seas and are land­ing smaller catches, said Jose Ash, as two men dragged a boat out of reach of the high tide.

“Peo­ple who live from the ocean can’t go any­where – it’s too dan­ger­ous,” said the fish­er­man and tour guide, whose own boat was moored off­shore.

“What I hear is they’re go­ing to build a dock right here for the fish­er­men, they’re go­ing to put some big stones and jacks out there by the big break­ers, but that’s just like blah, blah, blah for the past 10 years.”

Cahuita’s na­tional park reg­u­larly has to re­draw its coastal paths but an el­e­vated wooden walk­way built af­ter parts of the ac­cess road were washed away now al­lows it to stay open even when the sea washes ashore, helping keep lo­cal guides in work.

As ris­ing wa­ters push back the park’s shore­lines and re­duce its trees, the an­i­mals that tempt visi­tors to the area are also com­ing un­der pres­sure, said park guard Mirna Cortes Obando.

“All the coast­line in­side the park has been af­fected – for ex­am­ple, we’ve lost nearly 50 me­tres of beach over the last 10 years,” said Cortes, on the ve­randa of the park’s head­quar­ters, which was sur­rounded by wa­ter dur­ing re­cent storms.

“We’re los­ing much of the trees here, the al­monds, the sea grapes, the co­conuts that the an­i­mals use for food.”

To­gether with the non-profit Tala­manca-Caribbean Bi­o­log­i­cal Cor­ri­dor As­so­ci­a­tion, the park is now plant­ing more trees along the coast to limit ero­sion, while a team mon­i­tors the co­ral reef that helps pro­tect parts of the shore.

Branch­ing out

Some of the young trees such as co­conut palms have been wiped out by storms, but they should even­tu­ally cre­ate a bar­rier to pro­tect against ris­ing wa­ters, said Julio Bar­quero El­i­zondo, ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist at the as­so­ci­a­tion.

Ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams are also cru­cial to bet­ter pre­pare for cli­mate change, said Bar­quero in Hone Creek vil­lage, where hun­dreds of saplings grow in the non-profit’s plant nurs­ery.

“We have to have al­ter­na­tives and not just think about the beach and the sea – the guides should also know about for­est tourism and in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, to have a broader of­fer­ing so that cli­mate change won’t be so dam­ag­ing,” he said.

park, Back wildlife in Cahuita’s guide Richard na­tional Hills-Wil­son pointed to the tan­gle of sun-bleached trunks that was once a broad stretch of sand he played on as child.

He is brac­ing for the next storms, as he marks 33 years of work­ing in the area next month.

“The beach is go­ing to go,” he said. “If there’s no beach, then no­body comes.”

A sail­boat trav­els on the sea in Costa Rica.

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