San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

C.R. court: ‘No’ to gold mine

A Costa Rican appeals court handed environmentalists a resounding victory Wednesday by ruling that a concession for a controversial open-pit gold mine at Las Crucitas, a small town in the country’s Northern Zone and near the border with Nicaragua, is invalid.

The court annulled the government mining concession previously granted to Industrias Infinito, S.A., a Costa Rican subsidiary of Infinito Gold, a Calgary, Canada-based mining exploration and development company.

The day after the ruling, Infinito Gold stock lost half its value, according to Nasdaq News.

The court ruled that environmental studies required to grant the mining concession were incomplete, and the mining contract was therefore illegal.

The court also annulled the public interest decree signed in 2008 by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that authorized the removal of 50 hectares of forest, including yellow almond trees, in order to build the mine. Cutting down yellow almond trees is prohibited in Costa Rica because they provide food for the endangered green macaw.

The current ruling stems from an appeal filed with the court by the environmental group The Wild Flora and Fauna Preservation Association. In July, the Costa Rican government announced it would not repeal the mining concession it had previously granted Industrias Infinito (TT, July 30).

The court also ordered the Public Ministry to undertake a criminal investigation of Arias and former Environment Minister Roberto Dobles for prevarication and for having signed off on a decree stating that the open-pit gold mine was in the public’s interest. The court found that since environmental studies were incomplete, Arias’ signing of the decree was illegal.

Officials from the Ministry of the Environ-ment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) issued a statement on Thursday saying they would wait for an official notification of the verdict in order to “study it” before commenting. Judges are expected to issue the text of the ruling on Dec. 14.

The investigation also will include Sonia Espinoza, former director of the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA). The court found evidence of official misconduct on the part of Espinoza, who allegedly signed the permits that allowed the company to deforest a large area where the mine was to be built.

Espinoza was subpoenaed to testify during the trial. Initially she failed to appear, and it took an escort from Judicial Investigation Police to bring her into the courtroom.

Judges also ordered investigations into several officials from MINAET and SETENA’s Geology and Mining department, who allegedly participated in the decision to officially declare the mine within the public interest.

In a further ruling, the court also ordered Industrias Infinito to pay environmental damages for destruction caused during years of sporadic construction at the site. According to the court ruling, mine workers removed 2,391 trees and cleared a total of 121 hectares of land. The  company  also  took  over  76  additional hectares  of  land  that  had  previously been used by farmers to grow crops and raise livestock.

Finally, judges ordered the National System of Conservation Areas to earmark funds to “restore the environmental balance” of Las Crucitas. Funds for the recovery project will come from the Finance Ministry.

Apreflofas attorney Alvaro Sagót promised to “squeeze them for every last penny to pay for the environmental damages.”

Industrias Infinito’s representative, Juan Carlos Obando, left the courtroom without commenting. A vocal crowd of protestors awaited him outside the court building, and Obando needed a police escort to reach his car. The Tico Times attempted to call him on his cell phone, but Obando hung up on a Tico Times reporter and then did not answer his phone.

For nearly two decades, the Crucitas gold mine has been a thorny issue for Costa Rica, a country that prides itself on its record of environmental protection. Environmentalists say the massive gold mining project – already partially built – would destroy thousands of trees. Chemicals from the project, including cyanide, could also pollute the region’s groundwater supply, opponents say.

Edgardo Araya, attorney for the environmental groups, became choked up upon hearing the verdict.

“We have proven that we are right,” he said. “The state showed absolute rashness (and) a complete lack of care.”

In a statement, Carlos Coverdale, of the environmental group Preserve Planet, called the day “one of the happiest days of my professional life.”

“We’ve clearly demonstrated that the Crucitas Project is not viable. The whole country should be celebrating,” he said.

Indeed, after the verdict was made public at about 5 p.m. local time, cars honking their horns could be heard throughout downtown San José.

Industrias Infinito representatives had claimed the mine would create jobs in area where people are struggling. They also said it would generate $330 million in revenue for Costa Rica, and even claimed it was “an environmentally friendly project.”

The company claims it already invested $127 million in the project, Reuters reported. Lawyers for the company said they would appeal the ruling.

John Morgan, the company president, said in September the company had not ruled out seeking international arbitration, a move that in the past has had limited success for other companies in Costa Rica.

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