At the center of the growing conflict over a planned open-pit gold mine on Costa Rica’s northern border is the great green macaw.
This emerald parrot is an endangered species on the rebound and depends on the mountain almond, a towering endangered hardwood, for its habitat and nearly all its food.
Researchers who have studied the bird say the Las Crucitas mine could strike a serious blow to the survival of this and other bird species in the northern Caribbean plains.
“Today, our great green macaw population is in a very precarious and fragile state, in which the smallest modification of its life conditions could carry it to extinction,” according to a 2002 report summarizing eight years of research by the Tropical Science Center (CCT).
Guiselle Monge, one of the two authors of the report and the country’s leading expert on the great green macaw, said there has not been an estimate of the bird’s population since 2002, when Costa Rica was believed then to have 210 individuals, but only 35 mating pairs.
The controversial gold mine is in the middle of some of the last great green macaw habitat in Costa Rica. To build it, the developers say, they must level almost two square kilometers of forest.
Two weeks ago, President Oscar Arias and Environment Minister Roberto Dobles issued a decree declaring the Las Crucitas mine, now in the construction phase, “of national interest,” a classification that would exempt it from laws prohibiting logging.
Arias said he has supported the mine since “long ago,” trusting that the jobs and tax income created will outweigh any environmental costs.
The decree gave permission to Industrias Infinito – the Costa Rican subsidiary of the Canadian mining firm Vannessa Ventures – to log 191 hectares of forest, totaling 11,000 trees and including nearly 200 mountain almond trees, which are also an endangered species.
Issued on Friday, Oct. 17, the decree was suspended the following Monday by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), which ruled last month to halt any and all permits for logging the mountain almond until both it and the green macaw are off the endangered species lists.
The mining company felled 90 hectares, mostly forest but also former pastureland and plantations, before ordered to stop, according to the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).
It is unclear how many of the those were mountain almonds.
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office last week opened a criminal investigation of the president and the environment minister to determine whether the decree violated national laws (TT, Oct. 24).
Brushing off the legal concerns, Dobles – called before the Legislative Assembly this week to explain his reasoning – said the great green macaw is in no danger because the mining company would plant 100 newmountain almonds for every one it cut.
The mine site, he said, is “only occasionally passed through” by the green macaw and not used for nesting, according to the environmental study submitted by the mining company.
“As the green macaw does not nest in the area, there are no problems if the trees that are cut are substituted with the planting of new ones,” he said.
Costa Rica’s macaw experts, however, disagree.
Julio Sánchez, the founder of the Union of Ornithologists, an association of the country’s top bird researchers, said the macaw migrates across the humid Caribbean lowlands, following the maturation of the fruit of the yellow almond and other trees.
“It’s like they have an internal clock that tells them that at this time of year, the fruit is mature here,” he said. “What happens when they arrive and there are no trees?”
It’s like going on a long car trip and stopping at a gas station that has little or no gasoline, Sánchez said.
“If it doesn’t find food, the macaw has to travel farther and will be weak. When it’s weak it gets sick more easily and has a harder time reproducing.”
According to Monge, the biologist, the range of the macaw has already been reduced by 90 percent since the beginning of the 20th century as a result of deforestation from cattle ranching, banana plantations and, more recently, pineapple plantations.
Together with the 25 nongovernmental organizations and MINAET, Monge and other researchers hatched a conservation plan in the mid-1990s centering on the preservation of habitat through the creation of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor.
The Las Crucitas mine site is in the middle of that corridor.
The mine also falls within an “important bird area” (IBA), a zone designated by the international bird conservation organization BirdLife International as critical to bird conservation.
“This IBA is based on the protection of the great green macaw,” said Luis Sandoval, a Union of Ornithologists researcher.
“But the problem is more than just the macaw,” he added. “It is estimated that between 3 billion and 5 billion migratory birds come through the Central American isthmus, and the majority of those pass through the Caribbean, and thus pass through Crucitas. ”
The 2002 report on macaw research found protecting the macaw has “an umbrella effect” because its habitat benefits “a multitude” of other species.
The conservation efforts of researchers and MINAET have had some success in bringing back the macaw, the Arias administration noted. Dobles said that the 2002 estimate of 35 mating pairs was an important increase over an estimate of 20 about 15 years ago.
Monge said the minimum number of mating pairs needed for a “genetically viable” population is 50. Sánchez and Monge, meanwhile, said a healthy population should have about 500 mating pairs.
“They are using the increase of 50 individuals to justify the destruction of their habitat,” Sánchez said. “It’s absurd.”