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Costa Ricans protest open pit gold mining, 2010
In 2008, former President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias authorized the removal of over 600 acres of yellow almond trees in order to build a gold mine in Las Crucitas, a small town in Northern Costa Rica. Costa Rican law prohibits the cutting down of these trees, as they are the main source of food for the endangered green macaw. However, Arias went ahead with his authorization, making an agreement with Industrias Infinitos, a subsidiary of Infinito Gold Ltd., a Canadian mining company to mine an estimated $1 billion worth of gold.
While the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court stopped Infinito’s mining work in 2009 after hearing 18 appeals filed by environmental organizations, Infinito regained a concession to begin preparing the mine on April 16, 2010. Several hours later, an administrative appeals court once again halted the project, after the Association for the Preservation of the Wild Flora and Fauna filed an appeal questioning the legality of the project’s environmental impact study and the public decree signed by the former president Arias in 2007 which declared the mine to be of public interest.
Immediately, Costa Rican students, environmental activists, and other citizens came together to support the appeal and protest the reopening of the mine. Concerned about the destruction of the macaws’ habitat and the use of cyanide that would occur in the mining process and could have potentially leaked into the San Juan River, protesters demanded that the new President-elect of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, cancel the Costa Rican Environment and Energy Ministry’s executive decree of 2008 which established an environmental safeguard for mining in Costa Rica, and the public decree of 2007. They also asked that she veto the operation of Las Crucitas mine and declare a moratorium on open pit mining for metals. While Laura Chinchilla did not have an explicit position on environmentalism during her presidential campaign, she was clear upon taking office that she would make ecotourism a top priority and that protection of the environment supported this.
The first action took place on April 21. Protesters gathered in front of the San Pedro Mall and dug a hole, educating people walking by about open pit mining and the destruction of hundreds of acres of forest. Some activists dressed up as tractors and construction workers while others danced around the hole and sang songs. The protesters also used the action to highlight the march set for the following day.
On April 22, close to one hundred Costa Ricans gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court building in downtown San Jose. The protest began at 10am and an hour later the mass had grown to include thousands of individuals. At noon they marched down the street towards Central Park, carrying posters and banners, which read, “The earth is not for sale,” and, “Open-pit mining out.” Others carried drums and Costa Rican flags, chanting in Spanish, “Yes to life, no to the mine.”
The following month, on May 8, President Chinchilla entered office and on the same day she signed a decree banning open-pit mining in Costa Rica. The decree suspended “the exploration, extraction and processing of materials extracted through the use of cyanide and mercury.” Additionally, she repealed the 2008 executive order by the former president Arias that had established an environmental safeguard for mining in Costa Rica.
On July 12, protesters marched from San José to Las Crucitas, over 100 miles, to protest the executive order of 2007. Before leaving, the marchers presented Chinchilla with a petition to revoke the executive decree if the court were to respond negatively to the appeal made in April.
On October 8, fourteen activists from the North Front Against Mining and the Not One Mine Coordinating Committee set up an encampment in front of the Presidential Residence in San José where they sat for over two weeks. That same day, these activists began a hunger strike, though only three remained fasting after two weeks. Included among the strikers was Costa Rican actress Rocio Carranza Maxera. While she was not able to fast for the two full weeks, she did bring a great deal of media attention to the action. Like the marchers, the hunger strikers demanded that the President cancel the executive decree of 2007.
On November 9, the Costa Rican congress voted to ban all new open-pit mining projects, though they did not rule to block the development of the Las Crucitas mine.
Nonetheless, on November 25, the appeals court voted to strike down the concession granted to Industrias Infinitos on April 16. Additionally, the court also asked that a prosecutor open a criminal case against Arias and seven other individuals who had been a part of his administration.
According to recent news articles, Infinito plans to appeal the court’s decision and the case may not be fully settled until 2011.