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ENVIRONMENT: Costa Rica at a Crossroads

Daniel Zueras* - Tierramérica

SAN JOSÉ, Nov 8 2008 (IPS) - The Crucitas open-pit gold mining project in northern Costa Rica could become an environmental cross to bear for the government of Óscar Arias.

The great green macaw (Ara ambigua) faces extinction in Costa Rica.  Credit: Public domain

The great green macaw (Ara ambigua) faces extinction in Costa Rica. Credit: Public domain

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 Industrias Infinito company, a subsidiary of the Canada-based Infinito Gold, has stirred things up 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 of forest in Las Crucitas de Cutris, in the northern province of Alajuela. The area 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), which is 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 to the mine across the border.

In an executive decree, President Arias and Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles declared the mine a project of national interest. In response, the attorney general’s office opened an investigation of both officials for breach of duty.

When “functionaries dictate resolutions contrary to Costa Rican and international law,” they are committing breach of duty, 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 Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This Central American country requested the inclusion of the tree in the Convention’s Appendix III, aimed at protecting the species in at least one country. The Convention then asks the rest of the CITES nations for help in controlling trade. The green macaw is listed on 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 breach of duty to stick, it is necessary to prove that the person who committed the offence was fully aware of what they were doing.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 20, the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber 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 Norte por la Vida (roughly, North for Life).

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 873-square-km rural district of Cutris is home to 8,000 people who live in dire poverty. Most work in Ciudad Quesada, the capital of San Carlos.

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

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

“The infrastructure that the company leaves behind is going to help develop the area. Beyond the 10 years that it is here, the roads, bridges, electricity, telephones – all of that will remain,” he added.

“Whoever says there won’t be environmental problems is lying, but some of the environmentalists are 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 demonised the issues of the green macaw, but I’ve lived here 25 years and I’ve seen thousands of almendros cut down,” he said.

Peña says he understands the people of Las Crucitas, because “the government has forgotten about 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 on Oct. 27 before the legislature 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 it “is a mistaken idea…Probably Mr. 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 lawmakers of the governing National Liberation Party supported Dobles. Legislative deputy Maureen Ballestero, who also heads the permanent special committee on the environment, criticised 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 wildlife and nature.”

Citizen and environmental groups gathered Oct. 27 outside the Environment Ministry and Congress to protest the gold mine project and to demand Dobles’s resignation. But groups in favour of the mine also rallied, which led to some tension on the streets.

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

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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