The Chief Prosecutor’s Office has opened a criminal investigation targeting President Oscar Arias and his environment minister after they issued a decree declaring a controversial open-pit gold mine “of public interest and national convenience.”
The decree, published Oct. 17 and suspended by a Supreme Court order Monday, allowed Vannessa Ventures, a Canadian gold mining company, to get around national laws prohibiting the logging of forested areas.
“The company … may proceed with the cutting of trees (including those that are prohibited) and with the development of infrastructure works in protected areas,” the decree says.
According to Costa Rican law, land classified as forest is protected, and cannot be developed, nor its trees cut. Only when a project is declared “of national convenience” can builders apply to change the land-use status to log it.
According to press and eyewitness accounts from the region, hundreds of trees were felled before the decree was suspended.
Prosecutors believe that the decree – which authorized the logging of 191 hectares of forest, including endangered species – may have violated a Supreme Court decision in September that prohibited any cutting or extraction of the mountain almond.
Most of the forest authorized for logging, a swath larger than 250 soccer fields, is old growth and includes nearly 200 mountain almonds. 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.
“This tree has such an important role in the great green macaw’s life. That why the Supreme Court ruled to protect it,” said Henry Kantrowitz, the former curator of
, a center that breed endangered bird species. “If it were one of several other species they could do without, it wouldn’t be as big a problem. But they are at a critical juncture to save (the great green macaw) and part of that is to save as much of the habitat as they can.”
In April, Vannessa 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 northwestern border with Nicaragua.
The mining company had been battling environmentalist attempts to block the project since 2001.
After the decree was published, on a Friday, Edgardo Araya, an environmentalist with the organization UNOVIDA, filed an injunction with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) on Sunday to block it.
In September, Sala IV had ordered MINAET to stop permitting any type of extraction of the mountain almond, including fallen ones, until both the tree and the great green macaw are off the endangered list.
“MINAET does not have the authority to annul a Sala IV ruling,” Araya said.
On Monday, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office announced it was opening an investigation into Arias and Environment Minister Roberto Dobles for a crime called prevaricato, defined as when a judicial or public official “dictates resolutions contrary to the law, or when they are based on false facts.” Prevaricato is punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
However, for the president to be charged, the Legislative Assembly, where his National Liberation Party (PLN) holds a majority, would have to vote to strip him of his judicial immunity.
A prosecutor with the regional office in San Carlos, which has jurisdiction in the area of the mine, has also opened a separate investigation into possible environmental crimes committed by the mining company.
Andrés Soto, a spokesman for Vannessa Ventures’ Costa Rican subsidiary, Industria Infinito, said the logging it carried out was authorized by the decree.
“We consider this decree to be contrary to the Constitution and an illegal document, and nobody can use it as a (legal) basis,” said Alba Campos, the San Carlos prosecutor leading the investigation.
On Wednesday, Arias 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.
Looking weary and annoyed, Arias told journalists this week that the jobs and tax revenue the mine promises would outweigh any environmental impacts, and he compared the injunction against the decree to one recently filed to halt the construction of a new national stadium on the capital’s La Sabana Park.
“When we are going to kick the ball and (score) and begin the work, a new injunction is presented before the Constitutional Chamber,” he said.
The mine, expected to begin operation next September, would operate for five years before beginning to shut down, a process that lasts another year and a half. An estimated 76,000 ounces of gold would be drawn from the mine each year, for a total of 380,000 ounces over five years (TT, May 9). At gold’s price Thursday afternoon, that would yield about $271 million.
The government expects to receive more than $70 million in taxes over the life of the mine, while the local government would receive another $11.5 million.
But it is unclear how the government assessed the economic benefits against the environmental damage, a process required to declare a project “of national convenience.”
MINAET Vice Minister Jorge Rodríguez told The Tico Times his office was obligated to do so by a chapter of a national mining law that declares the industry “of national utility,” and because the environment ministry had approved its environmental permits.
Rodríguez and Dobles insisted that Vannessa Ventures’ commitment to plant 100 mountain almonds for every one it cuts is sufficient.
Guisselle Monge, a biologist with the Tropical Science Center, who researches the great green macaw, disagreed.
“Those almond trees take between 80 and 100 years to be considered adult. … When they get to be that age, all the species that use the almond are going to be extinct.”