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 court ruled that environmental studies required to grant the mining concession were incomplete, and the mining contract was therefore illegal.
The current ruling stems from an appeal filed to 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 open a criminal investigation of former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias 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.
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 court officials to bring her into the courtroom.
Judges also ordered investigations into several officials from SETENA’s Geology and Mining department and the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications, who allegedly participated in the decision to officially declare the mine within the public’s 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, including the nationally protected Almond tree, a habitat for the endangered Green Macaw. The project could also potentially pollute the region's groundwater supply.
“Today is one of the happiest days of my professional life,” Carlos Coverdale, of the environmental group Preserve Planet, said in a statement.
“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.
Lawyers representing the company are expected to appeal the ruling. “I believe there is an appeal process, (but) there are other options available to us,” Industrias Infito's president, John Morgan, said in September. Morgan said the company has not ruled out seeking international arbitration, a move that in the past has had limited success for other companies in Costa Rica.