San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gold miners invade Corcovado

By Lindsay Fendt and Ashley Harrell | Tico Times Staff

CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK, Puntarenas – Flying low above Corcovado National Park in a six-seat plane, pilot Álvaro Ramírez is shaking his fist and yelling. “See there!” he says. “There!”

He points to a small, black tent ensconced within the dense tropical rain forest on the side of a small mountain. This, he says, is a champa. The temporary home of a gold miner. Not far from the champa, two barren pathways of rocky soil run down the mountain.

As the only pilot with permission to land at Corcovado National Park’s Sirena Ranger Station runway, Ramírez has been monitoring activity in the park from the air for more than 27 years. Eight months ago, he began noticing these strange, treeless shoots he believes to be the result of a mining operation – an activity that’s been illegal in Corcovado since it was declared a national park in 1975.

Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) officials have said the damage is from naturally occurring landslides, but Ramírez says he knows a landslide when he sees one. “That’s not natural,” he said. “They are working inside the park.”

Regardless of what caused the slides, gold miners have been operating illegally within Costa Rica’s most renowned and biologically diverse national park for years, engaging rangers in an ongoing game of cat and mouse. The game becomes particularly arduous when tourism is low and the price of gold is high. (A gram of gold currently fetches about $50.) According to one park ranger, a team of three miners can extract up to 20 grams daily from certain areas of Corcovado – about $1,000 for a day’s work. 

Corcovado 2

Osa pilot Álvaro Ramírez sits with his airplane following a recent flight over Corcovado National Park. He has been monitoring the park for nearly three decades.

Lindsay Fendt

Representatives of MINAE and other organizations tasked with protecting the park tend to highlight the social aspect of the problem, noting the lack of other jobs on the Osa Peninsula and the need of down-and-out oreros (gold miners) to feed themselves and their families. But local conservationists and activists such as Ramírez and Álvaro Ugalde, who served as the director of Costa Rica’s national park system twice, say those responsible for the park’s protection need to enforce the law. What’s clear is that donations to the park and government funding for Corcovado have diminished, and as a result, the park has become increasingly vulnerable.

Before Corcovado was a national park, it was the stomping ground of several hundred oreros, and its rivers were subject to large-scale mining operations that extracted untold quantities of some of the world’s purest gold. When President Daniel Oduber created the park in 1975, the mining areas were not included. But a 10,000-hectare expansion of the park in in the mid-1980s led to the eviction of hundreds of gold miners.

“That’s when all hell broke loose in Costa Rica,” remembers Ugalde, who is often called the father of Costa Rica’s national park system. Ugalde served as its director from 1974-1986 and again from 1991-1993. Over that time, he witnessed numerous encroachments on the park, which he refers to as “human tsunamis.”

The human tsunami of the mid-80s, when “all hell broke loose,” was the result of a confluence of factors, Ugalde said. The Costa Rican economy had been crippled by a devaluation of its currency, unemployment was rising and so was the price of gold. United Fruit Company was preparing to leave the country, and many of its displaced employees were headed south to try their luck at panning, along with many other people hoping to strike it rich. “How do you get rid of 1,500 gold miners?” Ugalde remembers wondering.

The answer, he says, involved placing more rangers in the park and working closely with the judiciary system to enforce environmental law. But in subsequent years, when ranger presence and enforcement dropped off due to scarce resources, the problems returned.  

In 2004, Ugalde came out of retirement to become the director of Osa Conservation Area (ACOSA) and combat the widespread poaching of white-lipped peccaries, which are similar to wild boars. From 2000-2004, the peccary population dropped from 2,000 to between 300 and 400, and jaguars, which feed on peccaries, decreased from 100 to between 40 and 50 (TT, Sept. 9, 2005). 

The answer came by way of a multi-million-dollar donation from the U.S.-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The money paid for MINAE to hire 67 new officials, including 54 park rangers and a support staff of 13 (TT, Nov. 12, 2004). 

With that money long gone, though, the park has once again been left unprotected. 

When park rangers stumble upon champas in Corcovado National Park, which is all too frequently these days, they don’t hesitate. “We burn everything in the area,” said ranger Gregen Mesén. 

Losing Corcovado 

– Rangers logged 7,137 fewer hours inside the park in 2012 than in 2011. The difference is nearly equal to the total number of hours spent in the park in 2010.

– SINAC’s budget dropped 16.4 percent between 2011 and 2012 according to its 2012 budget.

– MINAE had the second largest budget cut of any ministry in the country for 2013 with a 15 percent decline

– 86 percent of ACOSA’s staff is over the age of 41. Most are too old to participate in extended or multi-day hiking patrols.

– Peccary numbers are the lowest they have been since 2005.

Mesén gave an interview at the La Sirena Ranger Station, where he’s been in charge for the past four years. Before that, he worked for five years in MINAE’s control and protection department, which is responsible for keeping miners out of the park. Its hiking crews seek out miners, poachers and loggers residing illegally inside the park, and apprehended trespassers face between three months and five years in prison.

Lately, Mesén said, the number of patrols has greatly diminished due to a lack of funding and staff. “When I started at the park, it was in great shape,” he recalled. “Now there is practically no money for gas. The situation is deteriorating and it is primarily due to a shortage of personnel.”

When the Moore Foundation’s donation ran out in 2007, the salaries of the 67 Corcovado employees were turned over to the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC). Facing budget cuts, SINAC distributed those jobs throughout the national park system, leaving Corcovado with a ranger shortage.

Corcovado now employs 35 park rangers for the monitoring and protection of the 425-square-kilometer park. Among those rangers, only one has training in control and protection, according to a 2010-2012 report from SINAC. The staff reduction has resulted in fewer patrols and fewer hours spent monitoring the park. Between 2011 and 2012, the time spent on patrols dropped by 7,137 hours, the report states. That’s nearly as many hours as rangers spent patrolling in all of 2010.

“The sector of government in charge of Corcovado has been quite careless, to put it mildly, in regard to hunters and miners,” Ugalde said. “The slow deterioration of the park is because the protection mechanisms that they apply on a daily and nightly basis are minimal.”

While activists like Ugalde and Ramírez chalk Corcovado’s woes up to mismanagement, lack of funding has left park administrators with few resources to manage at all.

Both MINAE and SINAC saw cuts in their budgets last year. MINAE’s budget dropped 15 percent between 2012 and 2013, the second highest cut of any ministry in the country.

“We have been left with worn-down vehicles and very few resources,” said Miguel Madrigal, ACOSA’s general manager. “The personnel that were left in Corcovado are older, they can’t spend all day climbing through the woods and living by a river. We need more resources.”

Those resources won’t be coming from donations either, at least not this year. 

Alejandra Monge, executive director of Corcovado Foundation, had grown accustomed to managing around $500,000 each year. That’s approximately the amount that was coming in through donations between 2005 and 2007. “This year, we will be managing nothing,” she said.

Champa at Corcovado

Champa: A gold miner’s tent, known as a champa, spotted during a recent flight over Corcovado National Park.

Lindsay Fendt

Although it’s still early in the year, by this time the foundation has usually secured some financial commitments. At this point, Monge said, the foundation has received just $1,500 that will go toward fixing the bathrooms at the San Pedrillo ranger station.

“We don’t even want to spend it yet,” she said. “We don’t know if it will be enough to even do anything at all.”

It is not just the park that’s plagued by financial woes. Miners, too, have seen their share of hardship.

In 2004, displaced oreros packed up their mining champas and moved them to San José. The black plastic tents littered the front of Casa Presidencial for more than six months, at one point housing as many as 200 people (TT, Mar. 4, 2005).

The tent city’s residents said they were representatives for more than 900 people evicted from their homes during a 1986 land annexation in Corcovado. They demanded indemnities for the loss of their homes, but they never got them (TT, Apr. 1, 2005).

“The problems we have in the park are not as much environmental as they are social,” said Eltima Morales, MINAE’s director of ACOSA. “The people who enter the park and mine illegally know the area very well, even if we patrol the area. When people don’t have jobs they enter the park, you need to attack the social problem.”

Tourism dominates in all of Costa Rica, but in the rural communities of the Osa it is some people’s only option for work. When tourism drops, like it has after the 2008 recession, so do jobs, and people begin to look for other options.

“Gold mining spikes in October,” said Drake Bay hotel owner Mike Michaelsen.  “The hotels close, there are no jobs, but people still have to eat.”

Back on the ground, pilot Álvaro Ramírez is worked up. Eight months ago when he first started noticing activity in the park, he did all he could to bring it to the attention of MINAE and SINAC. He wrote letters. He took photographs and sent them to Teletica Channel 7 and La Nación. For months, nothing came of it, and so Ramírez filed a denuncia, or complaint, against René Castro, the environment minister. Still no response.  

Although a Channel 7 news story eventually came out last week, Ramírez found it thin. “The problem is deeper,” he said. He’s talking about the hydraulic mining, which uses high-powered jets of water to wash away land and flush out gold. He believes water pumps are responsible for the deforestation he has witnessed, even though park officials don’t agree.  

“You don’t see that type of mining that deep in the forest,” explained Morales. “This hydraulic mining can only be done near rivers, and this type of activity primarily takes place outside of the park.”

That is not to say that hydraulic mining is not occurring in the park. On Dec. 22 of last year, the park rangers of ACOSA along with the Public Security Ministry launched a helicopter mission to track down illegal miners. The hiking patrols burned champas, seized weapons and discovered two motorized water pumps worth approximately $2,000 each. 

The heavy-duty pumps were found within the park limits, and authorities suspect they were being used in a nearby gorge. The environmental impact of such mining can widen riverbeds, clog water flow and eventually cause floods. 

It’s this kind of damage that led the National University to recently declare the park in “grave crisis,” and for Madrigal to call for more money and personnel to be allocated to Corcovado. 

Specifically, he wants more helicopter patrols and more missions to eliminate champas on foot. “What needs to be done immediately is to create more jobs and to attract young rangers who can spend all day in the mountains,” he said. “The solution is to get more resources and more staff.”

Tico Times Online Editor L. Arias contributed to this story.

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