Gold Panners Demand Compensation
PUERTO JIMÉNEZ, Osa Peninsula – Tired ofwaiting for payments they say are nearly 20 years overdue,hundreds of former gold miners from this SouthernZone town are threatening to invade CorcovadoNational Park.Evicted, some forcibly and others voluntarily, in 1986from the lush jungle park on the remote Osa Peninsula onthe country’s southern Pacific coast, to preserve the area’senvironmental sanctity, some were paid reparations, otherssay they were not.Last month, four groups totaling more than 1,000 formeroreros, as the gold miners and panners are called,entered what they and government officials hope will be thefinal series of negotiations for indemnification payments.Not everyone agrees they should be paid.“There were six miners when they opened the park, sowhat the hell are they talking about?” said Alvaro Ugalde,director of the Osa Conservation Area, which oversees theextensive park. “I mean, forget it.”Government records state the panners were evictedbecause they were “destroying aquatic ecosystems and, inconsequence, the rest of the ecosystems in the zone.”A large group of area residents feel they have beenpromised and are owed reparations for the eviction andsubsequent economic loss.Addressing a group of more than 100 former orerosgathered in late May in the community hall of PuertoJiménez, on the tip of the peninsula, Arnoldo Badilla rekindled memories of their treatment at thehands of police officers.They burned homes, shot holes throughgold panning pans, hacked water pipes topieces with machetes, and walked peopleout of the forest in handcuffs, he said.Those in attendance were members ofa group of nearly 400, from one-streettowns and farms in the rain-forested hillsaround the peninsula. They formed anassociation to further their cause andelected Badilla to lead it.People stood during the speech, shoutingtheir opposition to the delay of governmentreparations checks.“IF they don’t pay us now, we’ll bedying of hunger,” a woman yelled, drowningout Badilla’s voice for a moment.Some members of the crowd called fora halt to tourism in the park, which spansmore than 54,000 hectares and welcomesas many as 24,000 visitors per year.Some threatened to enter en masse,taking ranger stations and blocking trailsuntil they are paid.Many of those in the room were seniorswaiting for their checks, trying to stretchpensions and living with their children tocut corners. According to Badilla’s records,27 from that group died in the last fewyears without payment.IN a nearby neighborhood buttedagainst the jungle where similar storieswere worn with use, Elías Villalobos spokeof his wife’s mistreatment at the hands ofpolice officers during the eviction.“Human beings need work,” he concluded.“Hunger is what makes a manangry.”Confusion exists, however, about whoshould be paid.Officials from the Environment andEnergy Ministry (MINAE) took two censuses,one in 1987 of those who lived andworked within the park and another in1992 of those who claimed the right toreparations.Of the 1,158 people included in thecensuses, the government compensatednearly 900, some with checks and somewith parcels of land, most in 1987, 54 in1992, according to MINAE’s press officein San José.MINAE’s records state the governmenthas invested a total of ¢628.8 million(roughly $4.6 million by a 1992 exchangerate) in the payoffs.THE problem, former panners andgovernment officials agree, is that the census-takers overlooked some people.Panners often worked along creek bedsaccessible only by steep footpaths, tootreacherous even for horses, places thecensus takers did not reach.Randall Quirós, vice-minister of thepresidency, who is involved in negotiationswith the oreros, said, “There were familiesthat, when the census takers arrived,became nervous; there were some who hid,who didn’t want to come out.”Some are seeking payment for the lossof lands they owned within the parkboundaries. Not all ownership rights weredocumented in that homesteader era, so toprove their claims the owners have had tocontract surveyors and undergo a lengthy,costly legal process.IN the 18 years since their eviction,separate groups of miners have stageddemonstrations to pressure officials to cutchecks. The last occurred three years agowhen a group of 55 men, women and childrentraveled to San José to camp out onthe steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral todemand their money (TT, Aug. 31, 2001).Their most recent demand in Mayresulted in a meeting in San José June 11between leaders of four associations oforeros, two of which hired lawyers, andVice-Minister Quirós, among others.At that meeting, Quirós said “about1,030 people, total, will be paid.”TO avoid paying those who havealready been paid or who were not in thepark at the time, Quirós said the governmentis not relying only on witnesses, butalso on other documentation “that cannotbe altered easily,” such as court recordsfrom the evictions.The complete list of those who will bepaid, expected by the end of the month,will become part of a bill submitted to theLegislative Assembly, which must approvethe order to allocate the funds.Though Quirós said work on the billhas begun, such processes in the past havetaken years.DESPITE the government’s agreementto pay, Ugalde, who works forMINAE, told The Tico Times that very fewof the displaced miners are still owed reparations.Ugalde said only six miners were insidethe park when it opened in October 1975,and that the others came later and workedthere illegally. Also, he said, some of the minerswho continue to request the paymentshave already been paid in past reparations.Ugalde, known as the “father” of CostaRica’s national park system for the leadingrole he played in designing it, disagrees withthe way the evictions were carried out.“All hell broke loose,” he said. “Themedia and everybody was blasting thegovernment for arresting people. The governmentended up paying millions ofcolones to get the miners out of the park.”If the miners enter the park again,Ugalde said, he will do everything in hispower to get them out.Though he said he supports justice forthose who deserve it, Ugalde is not convincedso many people should be paid –especially those requesting money now.At least a few former oreros interviewedby The Tico Times agree withUgalde.Abraham Gallo, for example, said hehad been mining in Corcovado since the late1970s, and he remembers the census. He hasyet to be paid. Gallo said a few hundred people– at most – are still owed payment.“There’s no way it could be that many,”Gallo said. “You would have seen them all.”BEYOND financial reparations, JuanBlanco, a former panner, hopes the governmentwill help provide solutions to sweepaway the stagnant economy of the area.“We know the park animals areimportant, but what the governmentneeds to do is give people a hand,” hesaid. “It needs to sit down with the communityand listen to recommendations. Itneeds to give options. When the governmentand the people are friends, we willhave a park that’s well cared for.”Badilla agreed.“We ourselves will become like thepark guards, enforcing the protection of theenvironment, once we’re paid,” he said.A Brief HistoryCOSTA Rica passed a mining law in1992 that prohibits prospecting in nationalparks without a permit.The following year, the governmentstopped issuing permits for CorcovadoNational Park, claiming there was no wayto adequately monitor gold panning withinthe Southern Zone protected area (TT,Nov. 11, 1983).Panners continued to mine in andaround the park, eking out a harsh livingand damaging a delicate ecosystem. Thenumbers of panners swelled from a fewdozen in the mid-1970s when the parkwas created to an estimated 2,000 by late1985.The reason for the explosion was acombination of rising gold prices andunemployment among banana workersafter the closure of the vast Golfito-basedUnited Banana Company in 1985. Manyof the laid-off workers decided to try theirhand at panning.The presence of gold panners in thepark was the subject of a wave of publicresentment, culminating in late 1985with a letter-writing campaign aimed atthen-President Luis Alberto Monge andorganized by the privately fundedNational Parks Foundation. According tothe foundation, the President receivedmore than 8,000 letters requesting thepanners’ eviction from CorcovadoNational Park.A court order for the eviction wasissued Jan. 10, 1986.After their eviction from the park, hundredsof panners languished in makeshiftshelters in Golfito, across the gulf fromthe Osa Peninsula where the extensivepark is located, for nearly a year. Many ofthem marched 226 kilometers to SanJosé in mid-1987 and camped downtown,awaiting a decision about the indemnitiesthe government had promised them (TT,May 1, 1987).Since that first march on San José,other groups of panners numbering from50 to several hundred at a time marchedon the capital and camped in front of theCasa Presidencial and in front of the SanJosé Metropolitan Cathedral and theadjacent Central Park. Some reachedagreements with authorities, others didnot (TT, Oct. 9, 1987).Other protests occurred in the 1990swhen government officials took furtheraction to evict delinquent oreros from thepark (TT, Feb. 25, 1994).Park officials went so far as to closethe park to tourism in March 1994 to flushout illegal prospectors after panners andminers using hydraulic equipment werediscovered in the Los Patos area, themountains on the park’s eastern edge(TT, March 18, 1994).Weeks later, a group of 50 pannersset up tents in front of the CasaPresidencial in San José for three daysprotesting the delay in the checks governmentofficials had promised them the yearbefore (TT, April 8, 1994).
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