Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Costa Rica at an Environmental Crossroads

SAN JOSÉ, Nov 3 2008 (IPS) - The Costa Rican government of Óscar Arias faces a charge of breach of legal duty for giving the go-ahead to a gold mining operation in the north of the country.

Great green macaw (Ara ambigua) faces extinction in Costa Rica. - Public domain

Great green macaw (Ara ambigua) faces extinction in Costa Rica. - Public domain

The Crucitas open-pit gold mining project in northern Costa Rica could become an environmental cross to bear for the Óscar Arias government.

For more than two decades Costa Rica has cast itself as a pioneer when it comes to environmental matters.

But the concession for a gold mine granted to the company Industrias Infinito, an affiliate of the Canada-based Infinito Gold, has stirred up the dust between environmentalists who are opposed to the project and the government they accuse of double dealing.

Infinito obtained a government permit to cut down 191 hectares in Las Crucitas de Cutris, a district of the San Carlos canton in the northern province of Alajuela. The zone is habitat to the almendro tree (Dipteryx panamensis), highly prized for its hardwood and for its role in the feeding and nesting of the great green macaw (Ara ambigua), a bird facing extinction in Costa Rica.

In northern Costa Rica deforestation in recent decades has left less than 30 percent of the original forest standing.

Furthermore, the possible use of toxic substances like cyanide to extract gold from the ore, and the proximity of the mine to the San Juan River, which Costa Rica shares with Nicaragua, have awakened opposition in the neighboring country about the gold extraction project.

In an executive decree, President Arias and Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles declared the mining plan one of national interest. In response, the Public Ministry (Attorney General) opened an investigation into both for breach of legal duty.

“Prevaricato” (in Spanish legal terminology) is committed when “functionaries dictate resolutions contrary to Costa Rican and international law,” and these accusations are “very strong”, attorney and environmental consultant Mario Peña told Tierramérica.

Costa Rica, which has protected the almendro tree by law, is party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

This Central American country requested the inclusion of the tree in Appendix III of the Convention, aimed it protecting the species in at least one country, which has asked the rest of the CITES nations for help in controlling trade. The green macaw is listed in Appendix I — species that face extinction and the trade of which can occur legally only in exceptional circumstances.

But Peña does not believe the lawsuit will go anywhere because “everyone is claiming ignorance. The president says he trusted the opinion of the minister, and the minister trusted his legal department. I don't think the criminal case is going to succeed,” he said, because for charges of “prevaricato” to stick, it is necessary to prove knowledge by the one committing the crime.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 20, the constitutional tribunal of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered a halt to the logging in response to an appeal for protection against the Executive decree filed by citizen Edgardo Araya and the local association North for Life (Norte por la Vida).

The Infinito company estimates that it will extract 700,000 ounces of gold from the mine over the next decade, with an investment of 66 million dollars.

The rural district of Cutris, 873 square kilometers, is home to 8,000 people who live deep in poverty. Most work in Ciudad Quesada, capital of San Carlos.

A large portion of the population is in favor of the gold mine because it would create jobs. Also, the company has promised to improve local health centers and schools.

“It's not that I'm in favor of the mine, but I am in favor of development opportunities, and that's what it represents for us,” Luis Guillermo Álvarez, resident of Coopevega, one of the communities near the mining site.

“The infrastructure that the company leaves are going to serve to develop the zone. Beyond the 10 years that it is here, the roads, bridges, electricity, telephone — all of that will remain,” he added.

“Whoever says there won't be environmental problems is lying, but the environmentalists are some extremists. It is a modern mine and will be regulated by the government. We have to sacrifice a little environment in order to survive. They should monitor the mitigation policies,” said Álvarez.

“The environmentalists have demonized the issues of the green macaw, but I've lived here 25 years and I've seen thousands of almendros cut down,” he said.

Attorney Peña says he understands the people of Las Crucitas, because “the government has forgotten certain areas, facilitating projects like this that distribute crumbs to the community. They are projects that should take time to carry out, and they prefer to risk their health and their future for those crumbs.”

Minister Dobles denied Oct. 27 before the Legislative Assembly that the green macaw nests in Las Crucitas, noting that the concentration of the almendro tree is not significant in that area. He also stated that the mining company is required to plant 100 trees for each one cut down.

Peña responded that that “is an mistaken idea… Probably don Roberto Dobles knows a lot about energy and telecommunications (the other branches of his ministry), but not about the environment. A forest takes 40 to 50 years to recover.”

The minister assured that the entire mining project is supported by studies from the national environmental technical secretariat and that if the constitutional court upholds the decree the project will move forward.

But not even the political bloc of the governing National Liberation Party supported Dobles. Legislative deputy Maureen Ballestero, who also heads the permanent special committee on environment, criticized the fissure being created between economic development and the environment.

Much of the country's growth has come from tourism, which “has provided more wealth than exports have,” she said. And Costa Rica's tourism is based on its exuberant natural resources,” Ballestero added.

Citizen and environmental groups gathered Oct. 27 outside the Environment Ministry and the Legislative Assembly to protest the gold mine project and to demand Dobles's resignation. But groups in favor of the mine also rallied, which led to some tensions on the streets.

On Nov. 14, groups opposed to the mine in San Carlos plan to stage a nationwide protest.

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