Open-pit gold mining
In 2002, the Government of Costa Rica under President Abel Pacheco declared a ban on new concessions for open-pit mining. But in 2005 the Canadian company Central Sun Mining, Inc, holder of an existing concession for the Bellavista gold mine near Miramar, approx. 100 km NW of San José, began operations of this mine. Local and international environmental groups had fiercely protested against the destruction of the landscape and the great risks of landslides due to the intensive rains in the area.
In July 2007, in heavy rains the company suspended its operations and started removing cyanide used to extract gold. The company dismissed its 350 employees in view of imminent danger of collapse of the mine. The predictions of the environmentalists became true when in October 2007 a huge landslide crushed the processing plant and destroyed the mine forever, leaving the surrounding environment and the Ciruelas river with potential chemical leakage. See fotos below.
In 2008 the Government of Oscar Arias lifted the ban on open-pit mining and awarded a concession for the Las Crucitas gold mine near the border with Nicaragua to Industrias Infinito, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company Vanessa Ventures Ltd. In 2006, after years of court battles, the Supreme Court had annulled the company's concession but the Arias Government then accepted a revised proposal saying it complied with environmental standards. This proposal meant a 65 meter deep mine targeting hard rock with explosives, a 74 km power line and the usual cyanide for separating the gold from the rock. Over a 7 year period the mine would yield US $ 335 million.
In October 2008, the Minister of Environment Roberto Dobles declared the project of "national interest" and gave permission to cut all trees of 191 hectares of forest including 80 year old almond trees, habitat of the rare green macaw, a bird species threatened with extinction, only 35 mating pairs are left in Costa Rica. Although the company immediately started felling the trees, environmentalists succesfully obtained a suspension order by the Constitutional Court (Sala IV) preserving some 100 hectares.
In the subsequent legal proces and after an inspection visit to the mining area in April 2010 the Constitutional Court rejected the arguments of the environmentalists and gave the project the green light. Nevertheless, a week later, at the request of NGO Apreflofas, another court, the Tribunal Contencioso Administrativo, imposed an embargo on the mining activities so that the project remained paralysed until this Tribunal would decide definitely. In November 2010, the Tribunal declared the concession null and void and ordered a criminal investigation of government members concerned incl. President Arias.
The mining company Infinito kept protesting about the loss of its concession and presented in October 2013 a claim for damages of $ 1 billion with the Government of Costa Rica. The Company has subsequently reduced its monetary claim to approx. $ 1 million.
The environmental (and social) impact of open-pit gold mining in Costa Rica is tremendous:
- large areas are deforested and clear-cut to start digging and remove the rock containing the gold;
- any promises by a mining company to reforest clear-cut areas have little meaning as many native species cannot be replanted or will take some 80 years to be fully grown, the mining company will have no control over reforested areas, and the original fauna is unlikely to return to artificially planted areas;
- the use of explosives will affect the nearby communities and disturb wildife;
- millions of liter of water are used mixed with cyanide to wash out the microscopic gold particles;
- large artificial lakes with cyanide-contaminated water will poison birds and animals drinking it;
- rains may wash away contaminated water which can seep into the ground and pollute nearby rivers;
- due to seismic activity or heavy rains the cyanide lakes may burst or leak causing toxic pollution of rivers and groundwater and hence drinking water;
- digging up rock from deep pits will bring heavy metals to the surface;
- the local population will get very little revenues from the project and be unemployed again after 5 years;
- mainly heavy machinery and equipment and a relatively small labor force is employed;
- mining companies often ignore or circumvent environmental rules;
- upon completion of the project, a large area with bare rock, cut roads and deep craters will forever leave large, ugly scars in the landscape.