San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Environment minister defends concession as legit

On the eve of his departure, Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Minister Roberto Dobles defended his administration amid accusations of nepotism, fraud and corruption to the Legislative Assembly on Monday.

An investigation by Channel 7 TV News revealed last week that Dobles had awarded a mining concession in 2006 to a corporation owned by family members. On Friday, President Oscar Arias issued a statement saying he had accepted Dobles´ resignation and that his actions “were in total compliance with the law and existing procedures.”

Dobles said that, while he had done nothing wrong, he was resigning to avoid “hindering” the president´s agenda, which includes getting a series of laws passed in the Legislative Assembly, where opposition lawmakers were clamoring for Dobles´ head.

At the start of more than three hours of often aggressive questioning from lawmakers, Dobles detailed the bureaucratic process the mining concession followed since the request was submitted in 2001, five years before President Arias assumed power and named Dobles to head the Environment, Energy and Telecommunication Ministry (MINAET), the ministry that oversees and approves all mining concessions in Costa Rica.

“I have not broken any law, as these documents show,” Dobles said, referring to an internal audit and legal study by MINAET that concluded he did not intervene in any way in the application and approval process, and that it was proper and legal for Dobles to sign the concession.

Dobles also cited Costa Rica´s mining code, which prohibits the president or ministers from awarding concessions to “relatives in the first degree of blood relation.”

The controversial concession authorized a corporation called Agricultura Mecanizada Chapernal S.A. to draw gravel and sand from the Aranjuez River, near the central Pacific coast. Dobles´ uncle – who is also President Arias´ cousin – is listed as the vice president of the corporation. In his defense, Dobles pointed out that an uncle is not a first-degree relation.

However, according to the report by Channel 7 and information released by the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), another corporation called Azucarera El Palmar S.A. holds 100 percent of the shares in Agricultura Mecanizada Chapernal and has closer family ties to the outgoing minister.

Azucarera El Palmar is in turn owned by a four other corporations headed by a series of immediate family members, including Dobles´ wife, two brothers and his mother.

According to a statement released by PAC, the five-year concession allows the corporation to extract 96,000 cubic meters of sand and rock which, when sold at today´s market price, equals a total of $10 million over the length of the concession.

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