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Costa Rica’s Open-Pit Gold Mine

Opponents of open-pit mining in Costa Rica have been delivered yet another blow. After their hopes had risen that recently elected President Laura Chinchilla would strike down any attempt to dig here, the Chinchilla administration refused to repeal an executive decree issued by her predecessor, Óscar Arias, green-lighting a gold mine project near the border with Nicaragua.

The Crucitas gold mine has caused contention for years. Environmentalists claim that the mine would cause serious harm to the land and to families in surrounding villages if it goes forward. Nicaraguan authorities are also up in arms over the possible danger an open-pit mine near its Rio San Juan could cause. Concerns focus not only on clearing forest but also on the use of cyanide in open-pit mining. Environmentalists have said that a cyanide spill would cause irreversible harm.

But then President Arias surprised the country’s fervent environmental community and neighbors by decreeing in October 2008 that the Crucitas mine is of national interest.

The project went forward, chopping down trees that conservationists note are vital to endangered species such as the great green macaw. Then a high court halted the project while it mulled over complaints. The project remains at a standstill, tied up in courts amid a pile of environmentalists’ legal action.

Crucitas’ managers, meanwhile, have said no harm will be done at Crucitas—estimated to produce 85,000 ounces of gold annually. In a statement issued in April, the company said, “we wish to tell the Costa Rican people and especially our neighboring communities that Crucitas will be a mine that is economically beneficial, socially responsible and environmentally secure.”

Repealing Arias’ decree, the Chinchilla administration says, would mean shelling over $1.7 billion compensation to Industrias Infinito, the Costa Rican affiliate of Canadian mining company Infinito Gold Ltd.

Media reports indicate the government may not be fans of the mine project, however. According to The Tico Times, Vice President Alfio Piva told reporters he would pay the fee himself if it meant closing the chapter on Crucitas.

Chinchilla had won environmentalist friends when she signed a moratorium on new metal mining projects on the day of her May 8 inauguration. However, with Crucitas on standby, the new President seemed to be avoiding direct contact with the issue that many say had tainted her predecessor’s green legacy.

Environmentalists refuse to let up on their pressure. In mid-July activists led a one week march from the capital city of San José to Crucitas in a push for a mine-free Costa Rica. Chinchilla said she would assess the situation more closely.

But for now, the decision remains in the courts’ hands.

*Alex Leff is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org based in San José, Costa Rica, and is the online editor for The Tico Times, Central America's leading English-language newspaper.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Oscar Arias, Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla

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