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Residents Protest Gold Mine

MIRAMAR, Puntarenas – From this townnear the Pacific port city Puntarenas, the Bellavistagold mine looks like a black-tarped water-parkride. An immense expanse of a mountainside thatwas forested not long ago is now covered in plasticsheeting, which some say makes Bellavista a bittermisnomer.Many residents of this rural community areupset about the open-pit mine, in spite of the substantialinvestments the company has made in thetown and the jobs it provides.Debate rages between those who fear the cyanideused to extract gold from ore will pollute the town’swater sources and produce other environmentaldamage, and those who acknowledge the economicboon the mine has been to the community.LAST Saturday, about 60 concerned residents,students from the University of Costa Rica whobused there that day and Fabián Pacheco, son ofCosta Rica’s President Abel Pacheco, marched themuggy streets of this roughly hewn, but picturesque,village of just over 11,000 inhabitants.The mine project, managed by Río MineralesS.A, a subsidiary of Canada-based Glencairn Gold,is one of two – the other located in the country’sNorthern Zone near the border with Nicaragua –declared exempt from a 2002 moratorium on openpitmining signed by President Pacheco as one ofhis first acts in office (TT, June 7, 2002).The reason for their exemption is because themine concessions were approved before Pacheco declared the moratorium. Río Mineralesoriginally obtained a 99-year-concession forthe mine in 1956, according to the company’sGeneral Manager, Franz Ulloa (TT,Jan. 30), although necessary operating permitswere not obtained until recent years.THE ruckus of protestors could beheard blocks away of the procession ofbanner-bearers, bongo-drummers, chanters,children, an electrician on horsebackand a man pushing a cooler of coconutmilk on a two-wheeled cart.Protestors say they are very worriedabout the cyanide that will be used to extractthe gold from the ore. They say they fear thevery real danger of a cyanide spill during anearthquake, such as the one felt Saturdayacross the country (see separate story).The Montes de Oro watershed drainsinto the Gulf of Nicoya, and the contaminationof those waters would be an environmentaldisaster, protestors said, as well as aneconomic disaster for estimated 5,000 fishermenwhose livelihoods would be ruined.Río Minerales spokesman Ulloa, however,assures risk is minimal.“There is absolutely no danger of thecyanide contaminating the environment,”Ulloa told The Tico Times this week,adding that on average the mine will useonly 3 milligrams of cyanide per 6 liters ofsolution, making it extremely diluted.BESIDES environmental concerns,protesters said they are distressed aboutwhat they consider the siphoning off ofCosta Rica’s resources to another country.Others are apprehensive the mining companywill follow all regulations and takenecessary environmental precautions.The company already incurred a fine inJanuary for beginning work before it hadobtained all required permits. It soon filedall the necessary papers, and Ulloa assuredThe Tico Times the company planned tocomply with legal requirements at all levels(TT, Jan. 30).HOWEVER, the Environment andEnergy Ministry (MINAE) this monthapplied a cautionary measure against thecompany, saying it had cut into the 200-meter protected area around the CiruelasRiver.Ulloa told The Tico Times last weekthe company is respecting the measure,which obliges it to withdraw all activityfrom the protected area.The work site is a series of wide pits, amountainside covered with plastic, roadscut into the slope that descends into thethickly forested banks of the Río Ciruelas,and exposed rocks where strong seasonalrains appear to have eroded much of theslope below the roads.The actual mining has not yet begun.According to Ulloa, workers have clearedthe topsoil from the area and stored it so itcan be replaced when the mine closes inabout seven years.“This will be a very responsible minefrom an environmental point of view, asocial point of view, and an economic pointof view. It is going to render benefits toboth those who participate in the actionand the citizens of Miramar,” he said.THE mining company has invested inthe community and has tried to curtail criticismthrough an information campaign,which the Montes de Oro Municipality hasjoined.Montes de Oro Mayor Alvaro Jiménezpublished a pamphlet in response to “an unfounded negative reaction against themunicipality.”According to Jiménez, the miningcompany has paid more than $150,000 fora waterworks system to ensure the safetyof Miramar’s drinking water, and a newgarbage truck for the area.The company also converted the oldMiramar Library into a tourist office andlaid the groundwork for a chamber oftourism, donated a backhoe for repairingroads and repaired 33 kilometers of roadsin the region, set up a scholarship fund of¢3 million ($6,600) per year as long as it isin operation, and promised to hire at least80% of its workforce from the region.NOW, as it prepares to begin miningnext year, the company employs 200 people,85% of whom are from the region, andpays them about $775 each per month –hundreds of dollars above minimum wage.On its grounds of 1,200 hectares, nearly1,100 hectares are destined for environmentalprograms, reforestation, and a treenursery of various native species.It will also pay 2% of its annual earningsin taxes, about ¢100 million($221,240), to the cash-strapped municipalitythat ended the 2004 fiscal year witha deficit of ¢11 million ($24,330), Jiménezsaid.“The ideal would be to not have amine, but because it’s there, we have totake advantage of what it can do for us,”the mayor told The Tico Times.AS if in response, one protestor’shand-written sign read, “The economic aidfrom the mine companies offends CostaRican dignity and intelligence.”Nearly 70 concerned residents formedthe Ecological Association of Montes deOro to organize their opposition to themine. Members are diverse, and includeconstruction workers, physicians, businessexecutives, stay-at-home moms and governmentemployees, headed by the formermayor of Montes de Oro, Roberto Aguilar,whom they appointed president.The association has three lawsuitspending against the mining company in theConstitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV), according to the association’slawyer, Vladimir Zacasa.The most important of these, Zacasatold The Tico Times this week, alleges thecompany never made the necessary environmentalinvestigations into the potentialimpact of the mine.LOCAL government officials say theproject has all the permissions it needs tomove forward.Mayor Jiménez said the mining companyhas already obtained permission fromthe Executive Branch, the TechnicalSecretariat of the Environment Ministry(SETENA), and the Geology and MinesDirectorship of MINAE to begin explorationand mining.Permission was granted before heassumed power as mayor, which left himobligated to grant municipal permissionfor earth removal and construction permits,Jiménez said. Basically, heexplained, the municipality’s power is limitedto policing the company to make sureit meets requirements and pays its taxes.“They have all the permissions theyneed, and not I, not even PresidentPacheco can stop it,” he said. “If they don’tcomply with a law, then we (the municipality),the government and MINAE willcome down on them.”THAT’S not a good enough argumentfor the ecological association.“If this project goes through, it willopen the country to other projects like it,”Aguilar said. President Pacheco’s moratoriumon open-pit mining is not guaranteedafter his administration ends, according toenvironmentalists.During a debate about the mine Tuesdayat the University of Costa Rica, betweengovernment officials and members of theEcological Association of Montes de Oro,Aguilar pointed out that if economic concernsare the main argument for the mine,there are better ways to develop the area,such as eco-tourism which complements thenatural environment.“For us, mining has been an embarrassment.We do not believe in this typeof activity for economic development,”he said.Zenon León, who sits on the association’sboard of directors, agreed.“The environment is not negotiable.You can’t trade it for jobs or money,” hesaid.(Tico Times reporter Kim Beecheno contributedto this report.)


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