“If the concessions to take gravel from our river are granted, more than 80 percent of the families in this town will have absolutely no income,” said Sandra Campos, as she gestures to the Río Tigre, where gold panners can be seen working in the hot sun.
Campos owns and operates the local pulpería in Dos Brazos, a small community of about 50 families on the eastern side of the Osa Península, in southern Costa Rica. The village is located only two kilometers from CorcovadoNational Park, and boasts one of four entrances to one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.
Campos knows every community member by name, and is somewhat of a mother hen in a town where everyone comes to exchange their day’s gold for money or food at her store.
“It’s usually food,” said Campos, “most people around here don’t have much use for money; they’re trying every day to feed their families.”
Other than what they earn gold panning in the Río Tigre, a river that runs through the town, the only employment options in the area revolve around the sparse but slowly developing tourism offerings in the vicinity.
If the five pending mining concessions are granted, the locals whose only source of income is mining will not be allowed to pan gold in those areas.
Back-to-Back Mining Concessions
In December 2008 a sand and gravel mining concession was granted about 11 kilometers downstream from Dos Brazos, and it is already active. The concessionaire, Materiales del Occidente S.A., received the right to remove 1200, cubic meters of material per day, 600 for rebuilding the road that connects the town of Puerto Jiménez with the mainland and 600 for commercial resale.
Once the road is completed, the company will be allowed to remove 700 cubic meters of sand and gravel per day to sell on the open market.
The potential for profit from this concession has attracted others. Five companies are now seeking similar concessions, enough to divide the entire river valley from the current concession up to where the Río Tigre enters CorcovadoNational Park.
This past Sunday, two representatives from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) visited the community to relay some information about the concessions to the people it they will directly affect.
According one account of the meeting, the officials said that five mining concession applications are pending, and are close to approval. The Puerto Jiménez Integral Development Association is the only local company applying. Other applicants are Palma Tica S.A., Dos Iguanas Verde S.A., Constructora Hermanos Brenes S.A. and Agroindustrial La Unión S.A.
All of these companies have prepared proposals for the concessions, which must include a preliminary assessment of the environmental impacts. The National Technical Secretariat of the Environment (SETENA) then reviews the company’s assessment, and based on their estimate of environmental impacts, decides if further studies of impacts are needed.
According to files in MINAET, the environmental impacts reported by all five of the potential concessionaires are low enough to not require a full environmental impact study. SETENA has already reviewed Palma Tica’s proposal and approved their preliminary environmental assessment.
Two of the companies, when contacted by the The Tico Times, would not discuss the issue of environmental impacts. The others could not be reached by press time.
Rosa Ovares, a MINAET lawyer specializing in mining, said the possibility of having several concessions on a single river is legal.
“The law says no single company can have more than two concessions,” said Ovares, “but nothing about numerous companies on one river.”
Wilbert Obando, who has been gold panning in the Río Tigre for 35 years, hopes that “there’s no way they can give these big companies mining concessions.”
Three other gold panners were working about fifty meters upstream from Obando.
Alfredo Ortiz is 32 years old and has been mining for 15 years. He said that there’s no other work in Dos Brazos, and that mining is “the best money you can make, and pretty much the only way to make money.”
Ortiz said that some members of the community have been trying hard to create tourism options in the village over the past ten years, given its ideal location at an entrance to one of Costa Rica’s most impressive parks. If these efforts are successful, tourism might provide an employment alternative for those ready to make the change.
“The problem with the tourist businesses is that they normally bring their own workers with them,” said Ortiz. “I worked at a tourist place for a while, and tried my best to catch on and learn some English. Then a group of educated guys from San José showed up and I was the first to go.”
While some in the area are working to prepare locals to work with tourists, since his experience Ortiz hasn’t looked further than the river for income.
“Sometimes there’s gold, and sometimes there’s none…but there’s always work,” said Ortiz. “That’s a lot more than most people can say about their jobs.”
Campos’s husband is one miner who jumped ship. He went from gold panner to park guard at the first opportunity, and, according to Campos, has never looked back.
“Most anyone who pans gold does it because there’s nothing else,” said Campos. “No one grows up dreaming of being a gold panner.”
Obando is one of few miners who wouldn’t relish a job change. He began mining at age eight, and at 42 has no desire to answer to any employer other than the river. This only makes him more determined to stop the mining concessions.
“They’ll have to get through us first,” he said. “And that can’t happen. If they take over this river, we won’t be able to eat – that’s a fact.”Campos knows all of these miners personally, to the point where if they are having a tough week, she’ll provide them food on ‘gold’ credit. She said the repercussions of allowing mining concessions in her small community would be disastrous.
“I don’t want to believe that the people who approve these concessions just don’t care – either about the people or the environment,” said Campos. “If they were to realize the vulnerability of the community and the river, they wouldn’t do it.”
Campos’s plea appears to have gone unnoticed by the companies seeking the concessions.
Jorge Brenes, a part owner of Constructora Hermanos Brenes, said their application process is already 70 percent approved. He hasn’t heard any mention of the communities being against the concessions, and says “it’s perfectly fine to work alongside the communities; we won’t be damaging or disturbing anyone or anything, it’s fine.”
Representatives from the Palma Tica, S.A. when reached by the Tico Times, refused to discuss their concession application on the Río Tigre.
Dos Brazos Fights Back
In an attempt to preserve their livelihood and the community’s slow but sure path towards becoming a rural tourism destination, the Conservation Association of Dos Brazos is trying its best to stop the concessions.
The group organized the meeting with Environment Ministry officials on Sunday, and also petitioned to be a party to the concession process, meaning they would be notified of every request and resolution. The Environment Ministry must respond to the Association’s petition within 15 days.
“It’s not even a request to stop the concessions, just to have the information,” said Elizabeth Jones, an association member and a Dos Brazos resident whose tourism business stands to be adversely affected by the concessions. “How can we fight something if we don’t have the information?”
She says that tourism in the area has been progressing, but believes that the concessions could halt it altogether.
“This place would be like a constant industrial zone,” she said. “It would destroy tourism, destroy the value of property up here, destroy the lives of the people living here and destroy their health from the noise and air pollution.”
Another member of the Conservation Association, Zepherin Taffin, has done research on the ecological impacts the mining commissions would have. He moved here from Paris, France three years ago and has been working to promote tourism in the area.
“Tourism is small, but as the Osa is developing we expect to have more tourism coming,” he said. “But if they do this, forget about Dos Brazos del Río Tigre, you may as well take it off the map.”