San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Former Gold Panners Still Hopeful

THE squat tent village of former gold pannersdemanding payment for leaving their streams in what isnow national park land in the Southern Zone has crouchedin front of the Casa Presidencial in east San José for whatwill soon be six months.The milestone is marked in wearied expressions anddust on the protest banners flapping in front of the blackplastic sheets.The wait for government action has whittled the groupof oreros from as many as 200 to 40-50 who have persevered.Many left in January to tend to their children whenthe school year started in early February.Those who remain say they represent 914 people whowere evicted from Corcovado and Piedras Blancas nationalparks in the southern Pacific zone in 1986 in a policecrackdown on those living and working on protected land.They deserve indemnification, they say, because they hadlived off that land before it was taken into the fold of thestate’s park network.GOVERNMENT officials have taken action, preparinga bill that would compensate some of them for the loss oftheir jobs and land. Still, officials are not so sure all of thepeople claiming to be former gold panners are eligible forpayment (TT, Nov. 5, 2004). Proving residence in the parkin an era of squatters’ rights – laws encouraging people to populate the frontier – and little documentationhas been dubious, and confoundedeven more by the passage of the years, andthe deaths of some of the original panners.The Executive Branch sent a bill to theLegislative Assembly Feb. 7 that calls forthe payment of ¢2 million ($4,450) to eachof 141 miners who were included in twogovernment surveys carried out in 1986 and1992, but not compensated for their eviction.The Environment Ministry’s (MINAE)records show it approved 1,158 people forpayment through the censuses and of those,nearly 900 have been compensated, somewith checks and some with parcels of land(TT, July 16, 2004).THE oreros camping out in front of theCasa Presidencial would like to change thebill.Miguel Hernández, lawyer for the panners,proposes allowances for the othernearly 800 people who claim rights to governmentindemnifications and calls for ahigher payout for each: ¢3.5 million($7,560).Hernández told The Tico Times he hadreceived assurances from some members ofevery political faction in the assembly thatthey would support the changes.More people than those in the censusare due payment, he argues, because manypeople were overlooked by the surveyors.GOVERNMENT officials remainskeptical, however.“The number of people asking formoney is increasing,” Guillermo Arce,legal advisor to MINAE, told The TicoTimes late last year (TT, Nov. 5, 2004).“Obviously we want to pay those whohave the right to it,” but “you can’t give apot of money to every Costa Rican – wedon’t have it in the budget.”Hernández asks that the money comefrom taxes levied on goods sold in the free-tradezone in Golfito, the port town in theSouthern Zone.He also recommended that part of an $8million donation by the Moore Foundationto MINAE to support conservation effortsin Corcovado National Park (TT, Nov. 12,2004) be used to pay the panners.MEANWHILE, the grit – and perhapsdespair – is gaining a foothold in the panners’shanty neighborhood outside the CasaPresidencial in Zapote, in eastern San José.Men, women and one child rotate theirdaily regimen between collecting coinsfrom drivers at nearby stoplights, takingshifts in a shared kitchen where they cookbeans and rice donated by the communityand vegetables donated from a nearbyfarmers’ market.They wash clothes and sheets on acement slab propped up by mold-dustedplanks. The tattered red, white and blue ofCosta Rican flags are a rare dash of color intheir camp of black plastic sheets, whitepatches of tape over holes, and fadingclothes hung on lines strung between cardboardwallpaper tubes.Walter Quiel, 11, made a checkers setthis week from a plastic board; the squaresare hand-markered and the chips are bottlecaps. He attends 5th grade at the nearbyNapoleon Quesada School, and after onlytwo weeks since the year began, he told TheTico Times he has made new friends, whodon’t seem much different from the kids heknew in the Southern Zone.MARITA Gómez, a former panner, hasfound a job at a nearby residence, washingand ironing clothes. In the nearly sixmonths she has camped here, she hasreturned home to Golfito a few times tovisit her five children.Part of the daily rotations includesLegislative Assembly duty, in which groupssit outside the assembly holding handwrittenplacards “to remind them we’re here,”Gómez said.She and the others battle boredom withtheir conviction.“Diay, we console ourselves withknowing that we can’t abandon this,because the government will bury us completelyif we do,” she said.EDGAR Gerardo Jiménez jokes that thesagging plastic sheets are condominiums. Asign in front of his reads “CondominiosPacheco,” in honor of President AbelPacheco across the street, he said.That man and the government he representshave provoked some bitterness.Gómez called the President “false,” andsaid “he doesn’t come to look us in the face,not to talk to us, not to see if one us mighthave died, nothing.”Hernández, her lawyer, however, calledPacheco “a noble man,” who has pushed fora speedy solution to this problem by sendingthe bill quickly to the assembly.The bill must undergo discussion in theassembly, pass two votes and a litmus testfor constitutionality before it could go intoeffect.

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