Costa Rica: From ‘Green’ to Gold?

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

A proposed gold mining project in northern Costa Rica has stirred grassroots opposition in this country, which has long prided itself as a world leader in "green" environmental policies. The Crucitas mine threatens two species facing extinction, and the government’s approval of the project has led to a criminal investigation into whether Costa Rica’s president knowingly violated local and international environmental laws.

Las Crucitas de Cutris sits near the Río San Juan in northern Costa Rica. Far from the bustle of the capital, San José, and the tourist-filled Pacific Coast, this hamlet has long stayed out of the public spotlight—until the first tree fell on October 17. Today, Cutris is at the epicenter of the controversial Crucitas gold mining project, which has rocked the country from the grassroots up to the nation’s highest office.

Costa Rica has long prided itself as an environmentally conscious nation, but the proposed gold mine threatens to blemish its image as a "green" eco-tourism haven. But far more is at stake than the country’s image. Critics say the mine project poses a serious threat to public health and the environment, including two species facing extinction and the area’s pristine waterways.

Great greens drinking from water cavity in almendro tree. (By Mark L. Stafford)

The controversy began when Empresa Industrias Infinito, a local subsidiary of Infinito Gold, a Canadian company, expressed interest in developing a $66 million open-pit gold mine in the fragile ecosystem of the Cerro Crucitas. The government took great interest in the development and awarded Infinito a permit to clear nearly 500 acres of old-growth rainforest for the project. Infinito estimates that approximately 700,000 ounces of gold lies buried in the mountain. Crucitas is also home to two endangered species: the almendro amarillo tree and the great green macaw.

Now, President Oscar Arias and his Environment and Energy Minister, Roberto Dobles, are under criminal investigation for issuing the permit, which violates Costa Rican environmental laws and international agreements. They could be charged for knowingly approving the clear-cutting of the almendro trees (Dipteryx panamensis), and, in doing so, destroying the habitat of the green macaw (Ara ambigua). Industrias Inifinito is also under investigation for illegally cutting trees and invading protected areas.

The endangered great green macaw nests almost exclusively in the almendro trees’ trunks and its fruits are a staple of the parrot’s diet. The loss of this habitat would spell extinction for the bird, of which only around 2,000 remain. Costa Rica is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which lists both the almendro and green macaw. National laws also prohibit the cutting of almendro trees and trafficking the green macaw.

According to an Infinito press release, the Arias administration issued a decree on October 13 that ratified a locally issued permit, which changed Crucitas’ land-use designation, allowing the company to begin clearing the trees for the construction of the mine’s infrastructure. Four days later, the first trees began to fall.

Infinito, formerly Vanessa Ventures, is the first company to attempt an open-pit mine since the Arias administration repealed Costa Rica’s 2002 ban on open-pit mining in April 2008.

"For our sovereignty: No to the mine. Yes to life. Northern Union for Life." (By Jaguar del Platanar)

Kevin Casas Zamora, who served as Arias’ vice president from 2006 to 2007, argues the mine project is only the latest instance of the government’s disregard for the environment. "This administration has shown a pattern of systematically favoring developers in ecologically sensitive areas," says Casas Zamora. He cites residential real-estate developments in environmentally sensitive areas along the Pacific Coast as other examples of irresponsible projects promoted by the Arias administration.

Local environmental group Northern Union for Life filed an appeal against the executive decree and the Constitutional Court ordered a halt to all development on October 20. Attorney General Francisco Dall’Anese Ruíz then opened a criminal investigation against President Arias and Minister Dobles to find out if they knowingly broke the law. The investigation will examine if Arias and Dobles knowingly broke Costa Rican laws and international agreements in issuing the executive decree to clear the site. If convicted, the crime carries a sentence of two to six years.

Dobles defended his decision to approve the land-use permit in testimony before Costa Rica’s congress on October 27 claiming the macaws were not nesting in the proposed site and that the concentration of almendro trees was not significant. In comments made to Inter-Press Service, environmental lawyer Mario Peña predicts the lawsuit against the government will not get far. "Everyone is claiming ignorance," complains Peña. "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."

Another concern for environmental critics and some locals is the health and ecological effects of cyanide’s use in the industrial gold mining process. Heidy Muñoz, president of Costa Rica’s Federation of Conservation Ecologists, says the Crucitas project is modeled after the controversial Bellavista open-pit gold mine in Miramar.

Glencairn, now named Central Sun Mining—another Canadian company—developed and operated the Bellavista mine until its closure in 2007. (Glencairn’s development of Bellavista was grandfathered after the 2002 ban on open-pit mining.) The Bellavista mine was built on an unstable hillside in an area prone to heavy rain and flooding. Similar to the proposed Crucitas project, Bellavista used cyanide to extract gold from the ore through a process known as “cyanide heap leaching.” Cyanide heap leaching involves trickling cyanide-laced water down through piled up ore, extracting the gold in the process as it filters through the heap.

Bellavista’s watershed drains into the nearby Gulf of Nicoya, leading to concern from the beginning that the mine posed a threat to local tourism and fishing industries. For environmentalists, the mine was a ticking time bomb. They feared the cyanide leach pad liner—a protective layer beneath the heap to prevent poisonous materials from seeping into the ground—would leak and contaminate local water sources with heavy metals like mercury and arsenic.

Heap leach pad surface erosion at Bellavista in September 2007. Earth movements caused the leach pad liner to crack earlier in the year. (By CEUS del Golfo)

Those fears were realized in July 2007. Shifting earth caused a crack in the leach pad and hazardous waste may have spilled into the groundwater used by the residents of Miramar. Glencairn maintains its studies detected no cyanide beneath the damaged pad, but the company refuses to release the details of its study and has not allowed an independent investigation into the incident. Regardless of the findings, public outcry caused the mine to close.

The Crucitas project is near the Río San Juan, which is Costa Rica’s natural, northern border with Nicaragua. The shared river has long been a source of tensions between the two nations, and the mining project has angered Nicaraguans who depend on the San Juan for their drinking water and livelihood.

"Sadly, the Arias administration, of which I was a part, has fallen short when it comes to environmental protection. It has not lived up to the country’s tradition of innovative environmental policies that, in some respects, harks back to Arias’ first administration in the 1980s," says Casas Zamora.

The former vice president points out that legislation is not the problem when it comes to sustainable development in Costa Rica, but rather the "need for more robust institutions to enforce the laws to promote sustainable development." Indeed, if the institutions lack the will to enforce the laws already on the books, there is little long-term hope for maintaining Costa Rica’s word-renown environment.

Protecting the country’s biodiversity is also an economic necessity. An estimated 64 percent of the country’s jobs are in the tourism-driven service sector. Gold mining may help diversify the economy, but it also poses a threat to the largest single contributor to Costa Rica’s national economy, tourism. "Quite clearly, there is a contradiction between the active environmental discourse presented abroad and these actions," argues Casas Zamora.

Aerial view of Bellavista. (By CEUS del Golfo)

Some local residents in the area around the site support the Crucitas project in the hopes that the mine will contribute to regional development. Press reports and Infinito claim there is strong support in the area for the mine to move forward. Poverty is high in the area and the 200 jobs, vocational training, educational support, and infrastructure promised by Infinito are enticing. In late October and November, local groups held competing marches for and against the project

As part of a government-required Environmental Impact Study, Infinito proposed a plan in which it promises to plant 50 trees for each removed, and says it will restore surrounding pasture and plantation land with native forest.

Speaking to a local news channel, Quírico Jiménez, a forestry expert, called the plan to replace the old-growth forest "a joke." He explained the new trees could provide food for the birds in "as early as 20 years," but for the trees to reach a size suitable for nesting could take "as long as 100 years."

Criticism of the project has even emerged within the Arias administration. On November 30, Pedro León Azofeifa, who heads the government’s Peace With Nature initiative, called for a moratorium on the issuing of open-pit mining permits. Arias founded the Peace With Nature initiative in July 2007 with the goal of stopping environmental degradation. The statement proposing the moratorium said a freeze on permits "will permit a national dialogue to begin on the suitability of open-pit mining, where points of view on environmental, social and economic aspects will be heard and analyzed to find a balance.” Minister Dobles declined to comment about whether the government would heed the recommendation, but he did say there were no plans for new concession offers beyond Crucitas and Bellavista.

Until the Constitutional Court and the San Carlos county court make their rulings, the Crucitas project remains paralyzed. Attorney General Ruíz’s investigation has begun and the San Carlos prosecutor has until January 21, 2009, to present proof of Infinito’s wrong doing. Meanwhile, Infinito announced that infrastructure work for the mine outside the protected areas will continue.

Zach Dyer is a NACLA Research Associate.