Costa Rica is a country with an abundant flow of water that brings scenic beauty and biodiversity and satisfies human needs. Despite their undeniable value, the rivers, streams, or natural reservoirs that run through private property sometimes pose heavy burdens to landowners due to the legal limitations that bodies of water present to the use of the property.
For decades, article 33 of the Forestry Law has established that the owners of land crossed by running water must keep a strip of 15 meters in rural areas and 10 meters in urban areas on each side of the rivers and streams if the land is flat and 50 meters if broken. This article has implied an almost absolute prohibition of any work in the protected areas of water bodies. The Constitutional Chamber (by a vote of 4205-96) and the Administrative Environmental Court (resolution 1275-17-TAA) have ruled that protection is a limitation intrinsic to the social function of private property and, therefore, does not permit the State to expropriate such land portions.
This absolute burden on protected areas of private land was modified with the last reform to the Forestry Law of May 5, 2022. Through articles 33 bis and 33 ter, the reform relaxes certain restrictions on the protected areas, expressly clarifying the types of civil works that must necessarily be located within said areas, such as bridges, dams, walls, sewers, aqueducts, meshes for waste collection, drinking water intakes, and treated wastewater discharge.
Additionally, the new article 33 bis of the Forestry Law allows a non-exhaustive list of works that can be developed in the protected areas, provided that they meet the following characteristics:
- Their purpose is the development of tourist activities.
- They have a low environmental impact.
- They enable safe access, observation, and enjoyment of natural areas with the least possible impact.
Besides these three requirements is the duty to comply with the approval procedures before the Water Directorate, whose regulations are pending.
Thus, the current Administration must define the technical standards to exploit these areas, whose great potential until now has been unrealized due to the restrictive legal scheme.
The reform opens the possibility of using private land to develop the ecotourism activity that has brought so much value to Costa Rica. Article 33 ter signals a paradigm shift in legislative recognition of the tourism industry’s capacity to help conserve the ecosystems that the Law intends to protect. By generating productive relationships that allocate real and usable economic value to the country’s natural capital, water areas nurture spaces for recreation, enjoyment, and protection of natural resources.