President investigated for permitting logging of endangered trees

October 17, 2008

The Costa Rica Chief Prosecutor´s Office has opened a criminal investigation targeting President Oscar Arias after he issued decree declaring a controversial open-pit gold mine “of public interest and national convenience,” thereby authorizing the logging of thousands of trees, including endangered species.

The decree, published Oct. 17 and suspended by court order Monday, would allow Vannessa Ventures, a Canadian gold mining company, to get around national laws prohibiting the logging of forested areas.

Only when a project is declared “of national convenience” can developers apply to change the land-use status of forested land in order to log it.

In April, Vanessa Ventures controversially received the go-ahead directly from the president´s office to dig an open-pit gold mine near the town of Las Crucitas, along the northern border with Nicaragua.

On Sunday, an environmentalist with the organization UNOVIDA filed an injunction with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to block Arias´ decree.

The decree authorizes the logging of more than 191 hectares of forest, which is equal to about 250 soccer fields. In the swath of mostly old-growth forest are endangered tree species, including nearly 200 mountain almond trees, called almendro amarillo in Spanish.

The towering hardwood is listed as an endangered species by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), and is a principal food source and habitat for another endangered species, the great green macaw.

In September, the Sala IV ordered MINAET to stop permitting any type extraction of the mountain almond, including fallen ones, until both the tree and the great green macaw are off the endangered list.

President Arias is being investigated for a crime called prevaricato, which in Costa Rica´s Criminal Code is defined as any time a judicial or public official “dictates resolutions contrary to the law or they are based on false facts,” and is punishable by three to 15 years in prison.

Arias yesterday denied any wrongdoing, saying he based his decision on the advice of the country´s top environmental officials and the mine´s approved environmental impact studies.

For the president to face any eventual charges, the Legislative Assembly, where his National Liberation Party (PLN) holds a majority, would have to vote to strip him of his judicial immunity.

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