Why are we here

Immediate and critical threats Immediate and critical threats

Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper® has been set up to tackle some critical and immediate threats to clean water in the area. These are:

Lack of information, documentation, and studies monitoring the waterways

There is a serious lack of basic data, such as length and flow rates, to more specific data regarding sources of pollution, the state of different habitats and impacts of land use practices within the watersheds. Without knowing what the state of the water is, it is difficult to take action.

There are noticeable environmental problems in the area and not knowing their exact extent and their impact makes it a very big threat to the wellbeing of nature and humans. Under this scenario, it is very difficult to make the correct decisions regarding the sustainable use and conservation of water resources.

Unplanned and unregulated touristic development

The coastal towns of Mal País, Carmen, Santa Teresa, and Hermosa have rapidly grown over the last twenty years due to the rapidly expanding tourism industry. Hotels, restaurants, houses, and other touristic services have been built to respond to the rising demand. Unfortunately, much of this growth has happened without any structure or respect to environmental regulations.

Existing infrastructure, namely roads, health centers, water supply, sanitation, waste collection system, is clearly deficient or non-existent. Every year more and more people choose this place as their home and more tourists come visit. The town’s growth puts pressure on already fragile infrastructure. The maritime area has a zoning plan which regulates its development. Nevertheless, other areas in the District are not yet covered by a zoning plan. The lack of regulations regarding the town’s further development and poor law enforcement capacities are two crucial factors that could negatively affect natural resources.

Unsustainable solid waste and wastewater management

Most of our coastal towns have problems with the management of their solid waste and wastewater. Santa Teresa, Carmen, Mal País and parts of Hermosa now have a garbage collection and waste management service which started on 2011. Nevertheless, often the collection truck has problems which makes trash collection an unreliable service. The other towns have unofficial garbage collection, burn their trash, or dispose of it in the nearest river.

The open-air dump in Cobano was officially closed June 2017. The waste collected has to be transferred to a container that takes it to Miramar, Puntarenas. This means that our waste is very costly.

Coastal waters also suffer from solid waste flowing in by the rivers or washing up from offshore mainly during the rainy season (May-October). It is important to note that in the case of rivers with long extension, not all the solid waste that wash up are produced or discarded by the coastal communities, they come from inland.

Wastewater management is also deficient. There is no governmental sewage system, so water treatment relies solely on personal responsibility. Houses and businesses dumping their grey and black water either directly into the ground or into the waterways is a common practice across town; many businesses and houses lack proper treatment systems or have none at all; many others rely on faulty septic systems creating nasty consequences for the area’s water quality.

We need to pay more attention to where our water comes from, how we use it, and how we return it to nature. People do not seem to understand the extent of the consequences of inadequate wastewater management. Many just do it right because the authorities demand it but, in a place where law enforcement capacity is so low, most of the houses and businesses that are polluting just get away with it. The water we give back to nature must be treated appropriately just because, not to comply with regulations!

Sewage trucks that come clean the town’s septic tanks sometimes dump their loads on empty properties, right into the ocean (late at night), or into rivers. People must pay attention and contract companies with the appropriate permits and legitimate waste disposal facilities.

It is also important to point out that there is an incredibly big dog and cat population in these towns which brings about not only natural life depredation, but also a considerable amount of these animals’ feces which contain dangerous pathogens.

Unsustainable agriculture and cattle farming practices

Agriculture and cattle farming are two of the major altering land uses in the area and, due to unsustainable management practices, have had a negative impact mainly on the Ario watershed. It is a common practice that cattle drink water from the river, their waste pollutes the water with very dangerous pathogens. Moreover, clear signs of erosion are visible along the riverbank where pastures for cattle grazing are present.

Agrochemical use has caused the different ecosystems great losses in biodiversity and abundance of species. Locals of the watershed’s towns confirm this loss, as well as having been affected themselves by these harmful chemicals. Signs of eutrophication show in parts of the river were currents slow down; plant blooms become more evident.

Harmful fishing practices

Fishing has been part of the lifestyle of the area since its settlement, but this practice has changed since its artisanal beginnings. The Ario River has and could still be suffering from incredibly harmful fishing practices such as poisoning of the water and the use of explosives. Locals of the area claim that these practices have ceased or at least decreased dramatically in the past 5 years, but there is no proof of this. The Ario river also suffers from the use of gill nets, especially during the months when sardines are present.

Industrial shrimp trawling is a common problem inside the protected waters of the Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge as well as indiscriminate compression diving for benthic species. In the freshwater systems this is also occurring, especially in the Bongo and Ario river mouth, where gill nets are frequently used in sections included inside the Wildlife Refuge.

Another protected area that suffers from illegal fishing is Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve, situated on the south-western tip of the Peninsula. The local fishermen state that they protect the “island” as they call the marine section of the reserve in reference to the small island that sits offshore. They admit that during high tourism season they might take fishing tours into the protected waters if the fishing is bad elsewhere. They consider this practice to be sustainable as they only do it for an average of 4 -5 months of the year.

Fortunately, a group of concerned fishermen from Cabuya got together and started working with the SINAC, National Parks System, and other neighboring fishermen to create a marine managed area that extends from Tambor through the Caletas Ario Wildlife Refuge where fishing practices are regulated.

Draining of rivers for domestic and tourism use

During the dry season (December through April), which coincides with the high season of tourism, the public supply of water is not enough and many of the local business, hotels and houses are forced to either use private (sometimes illegal) wells or buy water. The origin of this water is not confirmed, but local neighbors state they have seen many of water-selling-trucks filling water from the streams and rivers of the area. If the demand keeps growing and there is no regulation or enforcement of the law, the small creeks that are struggling to stay alive will be completely drained.

Fortunately, an aqueduct feeding from the Ario aquifer has been built and started providing water to the coastal touristic communities (Ario-Mal País) as of March 2018 solving their serious water shortages.

Low level of environmental awareness form the community

The community’s generalized environmental awareness is very low. Local sanitation infrastructure is deficient, so this responsibility relies significantly on individuals who might not necessarily be savvy or aware of the consequences of humane pollution on coastal marine environments.

Outdated water law and weak law enforcement capacities

The Costarican water law dates from 1942 and has been recognized as weak and outgrown by social, economic and cultural national development. Regulation By-laws have been adopted throughout the years trying to bridge the water law’s gaps.

Moreover, there is a generalized weak law enforcement capability. Even if the regulation by-laws addressing a determined subject exist, when it comes to law enforcement, everything tends to remain in paper. Courts of law and state institutions are rather inoperative regarding environmental claims in general, let alone those regarding water issues specifically.

Our Watershed

The Southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula is comprised of 3 districts, Lepanto, Paquera and Cóbano, part of the Province of Puntarenas. The district of Cóbano, where most of our actions are implemented, has an extension of 316.61 km2 with a total population of 7.494 inhabitants. Cóbano is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the south, east and west, its northern border is the Bongo and Juan de Leon Rivers, separating it from the Districts of Lepanto and Paquera. In the inland mountains of this area lie most of the Peninsula de Nicoya’s most important headwaters that are linked by many rivers all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Nicoya Peninsula map

Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper®’s area of jurisdiction extends from the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve covering all the coastal streams and marine waters up to the Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge.


Traditionally, this area had been characterized by an agrarian lifestyle, secluded and relatively isolated from the rest of the Peninsula. The Bongo and the Ario rivers were the main transportation routes for people and goods, coming down in small boats traditionally known as “bongos” down the rivers and by small ferry boats from the coast to the port of Puntarenas. The Pacific side of the Nicoya Peninsula was colonized in the 1940’s by subsistence slash and burn agriculture primarily of beans and corn and extraction of lumber which prompted a strong deforestation process of the land. Due to limited resources, difficult access to the area and “middle men” which controlled the market for goods, many farmers began to lose their lands due to accumulated debts and by the late 1960’s there was an outmigration by small subsistence farmers to farming areas on the gulf side of the Peninsula with easier access to Puntarenas. Gradually, these middle men amassed larger farms and shifted land uses to cattle ranching farms which spread based on national bank system incentives and credits. This continued a strong deforestation process inland on steeper slopes and provided limited employment opportunities for locals who were forced to migrate out or dedicate themselves to new activities such as artisanal fishing and offering of daily work.

In the mid-1970s, a Government agrarian development expropriated a large cattle ranch and redistributed it to low income families which prompted recolonization of the coastal area from Manzanillo to Mal País. Unfortunately, this area had limited water supply and poor soils which led to a new shift in the direction of the region.

Starting in the late 1990s, a new wave of migration has hit the area, this time driven by the tourism industry. Land owners lured by booming land prices offered by foreigners began to sell off their lands mostly to foreigners who developed tourism-based businesses.

This migration has had significant impact in the towns of Manzanillo, Hermosa, Santa Teresa, Carmen and Mal País, where sun, sand, waves and nature have been the magnet for tourists from all over the world. The growth of touristic activity has been uncontrolled as has been the management and use of water. Some restaurants, hotels and houses along these touristic towns recurrently discharge their grey and black waters directly in the small streams along the coastline.

Marine Environments

The ocean bottom in from of this coast is characterized by rocky reefs which serve as home, breeding grounds and/or nurseries for a number of species including conchs, lobster and shrimp. There have not been any major studies of these environments, with the exception of conch studies conducted inside of the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve. Marine environments suffer from inadequate grey and black water management deriving from the tourism and residential sectors, silt from erosion of soil due to unsustainable land management. These environments also suffer from inappropriate fishing and agricultural practices.

Intervention area map

Area description

There is one main river in the area, the Ario, as well as numerous streams and seasonal waterways. The Ario joins the Bongo river approximately 1.2km before flowing into the Pacific Ocean. The Ario River, born inland in the northern most part of the Cóbano District, has been identified by GRUAS II (Proposed Zoning for Biodiversity Conservation in Costa Rica) as one of the major gaps in ecosystem representation and has proposed this watershed as a protected area of 10.023,23 ha.

Higher Ario Watershed

The Higher Ario Watershed is characterized by broken terrain part of the central peninsular mountain chain which currently forms part of an important regional biological corridor. The grazing pastures give way to less altered environments such as gallery forests. A more thorough recognition of this area needs to be done in order to assess its main problems/opportunities comprising the communities that have a strong relation with the river.

The Lower Ario Watershed comprises tributaries (Caño Seco, Ceritral, Negro and Seco rivers) as well as the surrounding land from Cerro Villalta downwards. The lower watershed of the Ario is a mixture of riparian areas, gallery forests, agricultural land, pastures for cattle grazing and small rural towns. Near the coast, approximately 1.2 km inland, Ario joins with the Bongo River forming an estuary of environmental relevance currently protected through the Caletas Ario National Wildlife Refuge. Artisanal fishing and recreational activities such as bathing and camping also occur along this river.

Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge

The Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge is located along the coast of Ario and Caletas, with a total of 9.36km of coast. The Refuge’s total area is 20.179 hectares, of which 332 ha. terrestrial and 19.846 ha. marine. This Refuge includes areas such as mangroves, marshes, rivers, estuaries, marine rocky reefs, and beaches that serve as nesting grounds for 4 different species of marine turtles. The Caletas wetland is an area that has been severely affected by the creation of illegal rice fields, causing great environmental damage. Regrettably, this wetland received the 2010 Grey Globe Award, given by the World Wetland Network for inadequate management of wetlands.

Bajos de Ario

The Bajos de Ario community is located just before the junction of the Ario and Bongo and in the outskirts of the Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge. The people of this community work mainly in the cattle and agricultural sectors with a minority traveling to the neighboring tourism communities to work. The lack of job availability in the community is forcing the locals to move elsewhere. Bajos de Ario relies on private water wells for their water supply.

Bello Horizonte

Bello Horizonte is a small town 2kms inland from Manzanillo. The area is home to many locals whose primary source of employment is tourism and construction in the neighboring towns of Hermosa and Santa Teresa. The majority of the area is owned primarily by local Costarican families in small cattle farms. Many of these farms are slowly being broken down into smaller parcels and sold off to either foreigners or to Costaricans from other areas of the country.

Manzanillo, Hermosa, Santa Teresa, Carmen and Mal País

Manzanillo, Hermosa, Santa Teresa, Carmen and Mal País communities are very renowned touristic destinations in Costa Rica. Having a very distinct high and low tourism seasons, the population of these communities doubles at the peak of the high season (December through April). The majority of the accommodations are small hotels or bed and breakfasts that cater all types of tourism, from adventure, sports, surf and environmental-driven tourism to leisure, relaxation and yoga. There are a few high-end resorts in the area which maintain a small number of rooms.

The maritime-terrestrial zones in these communities are managed as state concessions and are controlled by a land use regulation plan. Land use outside the maritime-terrestrial zones is not yet regulated.

These communities will benefit significantly from an aqueduct project which will be constructed shortly by the AyA (Costarican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage Systems) feeding from the Ario aquifer and solving their serious water shortages.

Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve

The Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve was Costa Rica’s first protected national park and was the first conservation area with a management category and that included a marine component in all of the Central American Region. This Natural Reserve serves as a shelter for marine flora and fauna and its surrounding unprotected waters have seen an increase of biodiversity that has benefitted the marine health as well as the income for small artisanal fishers of Cabuya and Mal País.