The government has announced it will no longer grant any mining concessions, though it has also reserved the right to change its mind.
“The position of the government at this moment is to not award more open-pit mining concessions,” said Mario Zaragoza, spokesman for the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).
That could change, however. “If an application is presented, it will still be analyzed. It will not be rejected,” Zaragoza said.
As of Wednesday, the new, informal policy had yet to be communicated directly to the agency in charge of processing and approving mining permits.
Marlene Salazar, sub-director of MINAET’s Department of Geology and Mines, said neither she nor the agency’s lawyer had been told anything directly about the freeze on permits or seen any official documents.
Late last month, Pedro León, coordinator of President Oscar Arias’ environmental advisory board called Peace with Nature, released a statement recommending a moratorium on open-pit mining in Costa Rica (TT, Nov. 28).
The government’s new informal policy stops short of that.
“It is not a moratorium,” Zaragoza said, adding that MINAET plans to review and revise the mining code and the country’s laws addressing mining before authorizing more concessions.
Salazar said that only one mining company – Industrias Infinito, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining firm Infinito Gold (formerly Vannessa Ventures) – has a valid mining concession, for a mine called Las Crucitas near the Nicaraguan border, and no other applications are in place.
She added that the agency is, however, currently processing “some” applications for mining exploration, but she did not know exactly how many.
The Arias administration has found itself under heavy fire from environmentalists and academics. It is also the subject of a criminal investigation for its approval of Las Crucitas, located three kilometers from the Rio San Juan, which serves as a border with Nicaragua.
In April, MINAET announced Arias was repealing a six-year moratorium on openpit mining put in place by former president Abel Pacheco. The same day, MINAET gave Las Crucitas mine a green light to start digging, after it had been tied up in the application process and fighting environmental appeals for years.
Arias and MINAET Minister Roberto Dobles then signed a presidential decree declaring Las Crucitas “of public interest and national convenience,” exempting it from some environmental regulations and expressly authorizing Industrias Infinito to clear-cut nearly 200 hectares of forest, including endangered species (TT, Oct 24).
Administration officials insist the economic benefits for the local community and the national treasury outweigh any potential environmental risks.
Protests were immediate and grew in intensity as environmentalists began listing the dangers that the mining operation, which uses tanks of cyanide to separate gold from ore, posed to area ecosystems and animals, including the critically endangered great green macaw (TT, Oct. 31).
The decree was suspended within days after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) took up an injunction against it. The court later also suspended operations of the mine while it reviews an injunction against Industrias Infinito.
Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese then announced he had opened an investigation into the president and environment minister for potentially issuing a decree that may violate the law.
Weeks after The Tico Times contacted Peace with Nature asking for a comment, León issued the statement defining the program’s position on mining but declining to comment directly on the Las Crucitas case because it was in court.
León, however, did note that “Costa Ricans reject logging” and the protests following the decree demonstrated a concern for the environment “like never before in our history.”
León said his office had put together an “Environmental Safeguard Policy for Mining in Costa Rica,” a document that was provided to the president in May.
The document noted that “few experiences with metallic mining in the tropics have been positive,” and “it is widely recognized that we have an obsolete mining code,” León said.
MINAET said in a statement released shortly lifting the mining ban that “a meticulous procedure … of environmental and mining safeguards and verifications” would “guarantee sustainable development and environmental protection.”
Late last week, a newly formed organization called Un Llamado Urgente por el País (An Urgent Call for the Country) issued a series of documents analyzing the decree, the Las Crucitas project and mining in general, concluding the project represents dire threats to the environment and calling for a moratorium on the industry.
“It does not appear that at this moment, this country is prepared to confront mining,” said Allan Astorga, a renowned geologist at the University of Costa Rica and member of Un Llamado.
He noted that any chemical spill at the mining site would make its way to the San Juan River within 90 minutes.
“That’s what it says in their own environmental impact study,” said Astorga, a former director of MINAET’s Technical Secretariat, the office in charge of reviewing and approving all environmental impact studies nationwide. Any pollution of the river, Astorga said, would create the possibility of a cross-border conflict.
The San Juan River is Nicaraguan territory, and Nicaragua has protested the mine’s approval.