San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Park rangers, environmentalists face increasingly hostile conditions

Park rangers and environmentalists face growing threats to their safety as they work to protect Costa Rica’s national parks and wildlife from poachers, illegal miners and drug traffickers.

The struggles park rangers face fending off illegal gold miners in the secluded Corcovado National Park, published in a Tico Times report last March and in a new story over the weekend by La Nación, are one dimension of a problem that also involves conservationists and a legal system underequipped to prosecute offenders.

Miners damage Corcovado by digging up the earth, destroying riverbeds and littering. The report estimated that there are up to 250 miners responsible for damaging 10 square kilometers of the pristine national park, who remove upwards of $2,000 in gold from the park daily.

But they can also be deadly. One ranger interviewed by the newspaper said a prospector put a gun to his head. Carlos Madriz Vargas, prevention and control program manager for the Osa Conservation Area (ACOSA), told the newspaper it was a matter of time before the conflict escalates.

As The Tico Times reported, economic concerns–for the parks and miners–play a critical role in the mounting tensions between these two groups.

Both the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), and National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), the government departments responsible for national parks in Costa Rica saw their budgets slashed by 15 and 16.4 percent, respectively, in 2012. When the government turned off the flow of money, private funding for the park, especially following the global financial crisis in 2008, also dried up.

Unable to hire new employees, Corcovado is left with a dwindling, ageing force of rangers who are less equipped to make the rounds necessary to deter the illegal mining.

Meanwhile, gold mining in the park is cyclical, driven by seasonal tourism. Faced with a lack of economic options in rural Osa, many residents turn to panning for gold in the park to make ends meet.

Out-gunned and under-staffed, park rangers are forced to take on new responsibilities. “The job of the park ranger has changed from just protecting the environment to acting like police,” SINAC Director Rafael Gutiérrez told The Tico Times this month.

MINAE did not respond to The Tico Times’ requests for comment.

Threats and violence against rangers and environmentalists became national news when the body of 26-year-old turtle conservationist Jairo Mora was found dead with signs of torture in the province of Limón on May 31. While authorities have offered little information about the case, many believe that Mora’s killers were involved in drug trafficking.

Law enforcement said that they had suspects in the case and hinted that there could be arrests as early as this week.

Last week, the Costa Rican Conservation Federation (FECON) called on Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum to create a commission to investigate attacks on conservationists.

Farmer and environmental activist Alcides Parajeles claimed that trespassing hunters shot at him on his property on the Osa Peninsula. The court dismissed his case after he was unable to provide witnesses.

Impunity is one of the biggest hurdles to combating illegal mining, according to La Nación. Since 2011, only one out of 60 formal complaints about illegal mining ever made it to court.

The newspaper pointed out when the Public Security Ministry and ACOSA conducted Operation “Green Gold,” an anti-mining sweep, in April, 16 prospectors captured were released almost immediately because there was no criminal offense for illegal mining.

For the first time this June, four people were sentenced to three months in prison for illegal gold mining in Corcovado, La Nación reported. Two, however, were later released because of a lack of evidence.

A new bill would reorganize the national park system and provide funds to hire more park rangers, arm them, and purchase new equipment. In the meantime, however, rangers and citizens alike face increasingly bold intruders.

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