By Jane Monahan
in Santa Elena, Costa Rica
Concern is mounting over the future of a pioneering eco-tourism development in Costa Rica - the Monteverde rainforest reserve in the country's north-western highlands.
Teeming with wildlife, Monteverde is one of a handful of primary forests
Founded by North American Quakers, Monteverde is considered one of the world's most important nature reserves for its variety of plant and animal species.
In one sense, the reserve could become a victim of Costa Rica's success. It is considered only a matter of time before the last segment of a journey from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to the resort town Santa Elena - just four miles from the Monteverde reserve - is paved.
Once the road is paved, the journey from San Jose will be cut from four or five hours to about two hours and the total number of tourists to the area could double from the current 250,000 to 500,000.
Not all of the tourists will be heading for the nature reserve.
There has been an increased demand for adventure tourism in Santa Elena, where the only tourist options up to now have had an educational purpose and caused little disturbance.
Visitors on the Canopy Tour, for example, use a zip line and travel at high speeds between tree tops - albeit outside the protected park - and then abseil down to the ground.
MONTEVERDE FLORA AND FAUNA
500 species of butterflies
120 kinds of reptiles and frogs
500 types of tree
2,500 kinds of plants
100 species of mammal
400 kinds of birds
Source: Tropical Science Centre
A dense population of tourists, some environmentalists warn, risks upsetting a climatic and geographical balance that now makes Monteverde - which is called a cloud forest because of the mists that roll in at any time, shrouding the trees - so unique.
The forest teems with life.
The Tilaran highland, where the forest is situated, is a Continental Divide. As a result, rainfall is constant, which keeps the forest moist and lush.
It's no accident that it is named Monteverde - Green Mountain.
Finally, it is one of just 12 rainforests left in the world where there is still primary forest: trees that have never been cut.
Danilo Zamora, president of the association for development in Monteverde, admits the large increase in visitors that will result from paving the road will put strains on local infrastructure and services, especially as Santa Elena now has no treatment plant or police force.
A fragile ecological balance could be disrupted, advocates say
"But," Mr Zamora says, "I am a representative of the town, not of the tourists. For Santa Elena, having a dirt road means everything costs more: construction materials, food supplies, car and bus maintenance.
"And it now takes a long time to drive a sick person or a pregnant woman to hospital, which is dangerous."
Nevertheless, hotel owners, who fear a loss of business, and some environmental advocates, like Friends of the Earth in Costa Rica, believe that with a paved road, there will be a change in the quality of tourists.
Edward Thompson, owner of Al Tardecer Hotel in Santa Elena, warns: "With a paved road, a lot of tourists will make day trips. They will come to have lunch and trample down our woods.
"Then they will leave, leaving nothing. We can't let Monteverde become another Cancun" - the beach resort in Mexico that has become synonymous with mass tourism.
"We are at a critical point," Mr Thompson adds. "Overall, the government needs to do much more to protect the environment. Otherwise, we are going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg."
But Mr Zamora and Ricardo Rodriguez, manager of the Monteverde reserve - which is now owned and managed by the Centro Cientifico Tropical (CCT) or Tropical Science Centre, a Costa Rican non-governmental organisation - are both confident that paving the road will not harm the Monteverde reserve.
They say this is because:
Access to the reserve is strictly controlled
No hotels have been built near the entrance to the park There are rules which limit the number of visitors to 160 people at any one time There are no plans (as yet) to add more trails and lodges in the park, which now represent less than 5% of the park's total land.
- The reserve is privately owned
Nevertheless, Gabriel Rivas of Friends of the Earth says: "With more tourists, the temptation to make more money will be very strong."
In these circumstances, he says: "The health of the rainforest will depend on whether the park managers remain serious about limiting the number of visitors. And it will also depend on the amount of air pollution caused by much greater numbers of people driving to Santa Elena once the road is paved."