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Is a Coastal Canton Separate from Nicoya Possible?
•Nosara, Samara and Cuajiniquil Meet to Organize Efforts

By Arianna McKinney

Photo by Arianna McKinney

“The fight for the coast’s canton has started and we need the support of everyone. Only united can we achieve it!!!”

This declaration on the Nosara Integral Development Association (ADIN) Facebook page embodies a movement that is now gathering momentum, with both ADIN and the Nosara Civic Association (NCA) putting aside historical differences and joining forces to push for an independent government. In addition, they are gathering support from community organizations in Samara, Garza, Ostional and other coastal communities.   

Several meetings were held during the month of March to organize the effort. The first, on March 1, was attended by about 25 people, including representatives of ADIN, NCA as well as the syndic of Samara, Bonifacio Diaz. Another meeting on March 10 included representatives from Garza and Ostional as well, and on March 13 an action plan was defined and a tentative date in early April was set for an assembly to officially form a Pro-Canton board and present a draft of the project. 

For years, there has been periodic talk in Nosara about wanting to form a separate canton, or at least adistrict municipal council.  In January of 2011, when he was elected syndic of Nosara, Marcos Avila, told VON, “I want to meet with the Nosara Civic Association and with the Esperanza Development Association to realize the Municipal District project. We are going to join with everyone, with Samara, with Barco Quebrado. We are going to go over Marcos (Jimenez, mayor of Nicoya) because he already committed. Nosara is neglected.”

In November of 2010, when running for mayor, Marco Antonio Jimenez Muñoz appeared to be in agreement with the possible independence of the district, affirming that “We accept the thesis that the towns should self-govern. Nosara has been a district that has generated a lot for the canton and it’s been repaid very little.”

On July 25, during the annual visit of the president of Costa Rica to Nicoya, a group of Nosarans displayed a banner announcing the intention to seek a separate canton. Now, as community organizations begin to pledge their support, the bid for an independent coastal canton is quickly taking tangible shape.

Wilmar Matarrita Matarrita is a lawyer from Nicoya who is working with the group to draft the coastal canton law project. He is the same lawyer who is working on the Coastal Communities Territory law project (TECOCOS) and is a member of the Frente Amplio political party. The goal, according to Matarrita, is to obtain the minimum of 10 signatures from legislators required to submit the project to the Legislative Assembly by May 1st.

Avila, who is also president of ADIN, stated: “The project is difficult but what else is there, stay as we are?”

Why a Separate Canton?

The main reason given by representatives for wanting to break away from the Canton of Nicoya is a general feeling of abandonment and a belief that, although Nosara generates a lot of income for the canton from property taxes and other taxes, they receive little back in the form of infrastructure or services.

According to Avila, Nosara generates the second largest income in the canton of Nicoya, after Nicoya and before Samara, although it is difficult to obtain exact figures from the Municipality as to the income generated by each district. So one important task to justify the need to form a separate canton is to get proof of neglect together to present to the Legislative Assembly.

Nosara is 60 kilometers (approximately 37 miles) away from Nicoya (out of which 30 kilometers must be traveled over a gravel road). The bad road conditions are often cited as an excuse for not providing services to Nosara such as garbage collection, an obligation that has not been carried out by the municipality in Nosara. A 2007 study by engineer Natalia Vega Araya of EARTH University demonstrated that the municipality of Nicoya has never collected garbage in Nosara nor does it have immediate plans or a budget to do so. 

Although the current mayor has shown a desire to help these districts, many problems remain unaddressed such as neglect of the streets within the community. Also no records exist of municipal support to non-profit foundations that look after security, health, flora and fauna, reinforce tourism in the area or help the local schools, among other things that are lacking. Issues cited by Avila are the roads, health, security and infrastructure. “It’s a ton of things, a ton of elements that justify in this situation, being one of the districts that most contributes,” he affirmed.

Samara is connected to Nicoya by a paved road, but the Index of Social Development produced in 2007 by the Ministry of National and Political Economic Planning (see full report in Spanish) places Samara last on the index of all the districts of Nicoya, ranking it 369th nationally out of 469 with a score of 43.4. Factors examined to determine the score include economics, health, education and social participation although there is no specific explanation on why Samara has such a low social development score. According to the report, a score of 45.5 or less is considered “very low”. The districts of Nosara, Nicoya and Cuajiniquil were categorized as “low” (scores between 54.1 and 45.6). See box below

Samara Syndic Bonifacio Diaz affirmed that since 2007 nothing has improved in Samara, noting that the district does not have the presence of the Red Cross or fire fighters and the town of Samara has no cemetery and doesn’t have a nice park or soccer field.

Marco Campos Campos, project coordinator for the Samara Chamber of Tourism (CASATUR), affirmed that Samara doesn’t get any support from Nicoya, pointing out that garbage is only collected once a week, which he views as insufficient, stating that it should be at least twice a week. He also said the neighborhoods of Matapalo and Cangrejal are completely abandoned and that the few sidewalks that exist in the district have been made by private people.

Illustration by Jose Antonio Villalobos Vargas

Obstacles to Overcome

The creation of a new canton falls under the jurisdiction of the Legislative Assembly and must be approved by at least two thirds of its members, according to Article 168 of the Costa Rican Constitution. The Assembly is composed of 57 members, so that means at least 38 legislators would have to vote in favor of creating the new canton. 

Law 4366 regarding Administrative Territorial Division specifies that normally a canton should have a minimum of at least 1% of the nation’s population. Currently that would be about 45,000 inhabitants. Both the new canton being formed and the canton that is losing population should be able to meet that 1% requirement.

Currently Nicoya has a population of 50,823. Nosara has 4,912 and Samara has 3,512.  The district of Cuajiniquil, which belongs to the canton of Santa Cruz and includes communities such as Ostional, San Juanillo, Lagarto and Marbella, has a population of 1,789. If those three districts joined to form a new canton, it would only have a population of 10,213 and it would leave Nicoya with slightly less than 1% at 42,399 inhabitants. 

However, Matarrita explained that the law allows for exceptions in places that are very remote where communication with the administrative center is difficult. In 1972, in part thanks to the effort of the local Catholic priest and strong support from the community, Hojancha succeeded in breaking away from Nicoya to form a separate canton even though they don’t meet the 1% population requirement. Currently the Canton of Hojancha only has 7,179 inhabitants.

Matarrita affirmed that there are sufficient reasons to make the coastal canton project viable but stressed that “unity is fundamental” in order to achieve the goal. He cited the case in the southern part of Nicoya peninsula where the districts of Lepanto (Jicaral), Cóbano, Paquera and the islands of the Gulf of Nicoya are trying to form a canton; however disagreement as to whether the canton should belong to the province of Puntarenas or Guanacaste stalled progress.

If the creation a Coastal Canton is not possible, there is a second door to open.

On March 20, the Legislative Assembly approved in the first debate a reform to article 172 of the political constitution, which gives political, administrative and financial autonomy to municipal district councils (concejos municipales de distrito), allowing such councils to administer local services and interests and administer taxes and income originated within the district. This legislation provides clearer autonomy to these councils, of which there are currently eight in Costa Rica. 

Syndic Avila reasons that this new legislation gives more opportunities to districts that are neglected and makes it easier to achieve the goal of a canton because it can be used in negotiating with the municipal council. However, he stressed the importance of focusing strongly on forming a canton, reaching for the highest goal. 

What Community Leaders Say

Prior to election in November of 2010, Marco Jimenez, mayor of the canton of Nicoya, stated that he “accepts the thesis that the towns should self-govern.” Consulted again now, Jimenez stated, “We are respectful of freedom of expression and we respect the initiative of the neighbors of Nosara with respect to wanting to achieve this objective. The procedures to achieve this project for which they are fighting are known to be complex.”

“In Nosara, Marcos Avila has promoted the idea of seeking autonomy since he was appointed as the district’s syndic, either as a canton or as a municipal district council. 

Avila also expressed that he is pleased that the NCA is supporting the project.He explained that in late February, Alvin Rosenbaum, the new president of the NCA, approached the development association to offer support and presented a plan that they found very interesting. “This is huge,” Avila said, recognizing that Rosenbaum is an expert in strategic planning who is familiar with local problems and noted that the presentation took time to put together. “He talked about how Nosara is one. This makes the difference.”

Likewise, Juan Manuel Alvarado Vieuvez, known as “Chapa,” a resident of Nosara, at the end of the meeting held on March 1st, expressed, “This is the first time that I feel human warmth in the foreigners,” noting that a large disunion has existed with the perception that Guiones belongs to the foreigners and Nosara town to the ticos. 

Rosenbaum attended all three meetings in March to show NCA’s support. “One of the attractive parts of Costa Rica for [my wife] Linda and me was that there is no military here. But one of the unattractive parts about this community is that people are powerless and to me that’s a contradiction. Now here we have a country whose leaders talk about being peace-loving but for a variety of reasons people feel powerless, and I think that there is an opportunity to bring self government to a local place like Nosara, Esperanza, Garza, Ostional, to our communities here. There’s a real opportunity, and we should seize that opportunity in every possible way,” said Rosenbaum.

Assessing the current progress, Rosenbaum commented that “the lawyer (Matarrita) and Marcos [Avila] seem to be moving this forward in a fairly serious way and are pretty well organized and the lawyer doesn’t seem to be charging too much. I mean, you know, it seems to be all the right things.” On the other hand he also expressed some concern that efforts might be moving too fast in order to allow everyone to have their say and build permanent relationships.

As for Samara, Marco Campos Campos, representing CASATUR, said that he has taken a census in Samara and found that most people were in support of the idea.  

Miguel Gomez, president of the ASADA of Cangrejal of Samara, offered a dissenting viewpoint, indicating that forming a coastal canton would be politically complicated and that it would be more difficult for people from Samara to travel to Nosara than to Nicoya.

Syndic Bonifacio Diaz recognized that forming a coastal canton will be difficult to achieve but even if they don’t achieve it, Samara’s participation will allow them to put more pressure on the Municipality of Nicoya. “They see that we’re ready to show our claws now,” he said, and hoped this fight will at least result in getting the representation of a council member from the coast or forming a municipal district council.

He also commented, “I am longing for us to fight for what corresponds to us. Forming a union is worth it.”

Representing Ostional, Rodrigo Morera Avila, regent of conservation projects and management of the turtles, said he totally supports the project and has also noted interest from the community of San Juanillo. “New ideas that touch political and economic interests always have opposition, but it is viable because the constitution permits it, and the area fulfills all of what the articles of the constitution say, such as the abandonment and the low social indexes,” he said.

Taking a more cautious position, Magdalena Vega, president of the Ostional Integral Development Association (AIDO), said she thinks the project should be matured and developed a little more slowly to better analyze the pros and cons.

2007 Índice de Desarrollo Social/
Index of Social Development

Distrito/                 Índice/              Posición Nacional/
District                 Score              National Ranking

Nosara                   54,1                 243
Nicoya                   53,2                 253
Cuajiniquil                 53,1                 257
Sámara                  43,4                 369


* Información de Ministerio de Planificación Nacional y Política Económica/  
Information from: Ministry of National and Political Economic Planning



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