Randall Arauz remembers the moment his passion veered in a new direction. In 1997, shortly after he founded the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma), his friend Roberto Vargas showed him a video clip.
Vargas had just returned from a trip aboard a long-line fishing vessel where he worked undercover as a cook. During his journey, Vargas filmed daily life on the ship with a camera that Arauz had obtained for him.
The scenes that Vargas captured depicted baby leatherback sea turtles and sea lions hooked on the line and pulled helplessly out of the sea. At the end of the clip, fisherman hauled up a blue shark, hacked off the dorsal and pectoral fins and hurled the shark, still alive, back into the deep blue where it sank hopelessly to the bottom of the Pacific. The fins are sold in Asia mainly to make soup.
The clip, which depicts the practice known as shark finning, has become famous and has been used around the world as a catalyst to arouse activists’ interest in the struggle against shark finning (TT News, March 12, 2004). For Arauz, it served as an inspiration that would later define his professional life.
“It clicked immediately,” he said. “I saw that and I thought, ‘What is this?’ And right away I started looking into shark finning.”
Arauz, 49, and his small staff at Pretoma began pushing for regulation of finning around the year 2000. When the group took up the battle, few of the world’s marine conservation organizations or governments had paid much attention to the issue.
“It was really just us, along with Wild Aid, who were fighting shark finning,” he said. “Now, 10 years later, it’s become this global issue and public awareness has increased enormously.”
By 2001, Pretoma had helped Costa Rica establish the world’s first shark finning policy, which requires that all sharks must be landed with their fins attached.
Now, similar policies have been adopted in El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama, and shark protection laws are being discussed in the United States and at the United Nations.
“Marine resources are running out and everybody knows it,” Arauz said.
Still, shark finning fishing fleets circumvent the policy here by docking their boats at private docks that are not subject to the regulation.
In response, Arauz and his team filed a lawsuit which still awaits a Supreme Court ruling. The suit seeks to force international fishing boats to dock at public ports, a requirement that was affirmed by a court resolution the organization supported in 2006.
“If (shark finning crews) only were made to abide by the law, they would leave the country on their own,” said Arauz.
Earlier this year, Pretoma held a rally in San José and presented a blue, shark-shaped cake to the high court’s seven magistrates as a reminder that the lawsuit is still pending.
The group has also been known to clog the fax machine at Casa Presidencial with reams of public petitions that demand better regulation of the illegal marine species trade.
In April, Arauz won the prestigious, international Goldman Environmental Prize for his dedication to combating shark finning.
“It was a nice breath of fresh air,” he said. But Arauz hasn’t always been such an uncomfortable partner to the Costa Rica’s executive and judicial branches.
With his bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Costa Rica in hand, Arauz began his career in conservation in 1991 as a park ranger at Las Baulas National Park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste where he stayed for nine months.
For several years thereafter, he worked as a tour operator, which he “enjoyed,” but ultimately decided to leave because “it’s cool when you’re 28, but who wants a 50-year-old tour guide?”
Feeling like he would be better fulfilled by conducting research, Arauz joined the Turtle Island Restoration Network in 1994 and coordinated turtle projects in Nicaragua.
“Back then, I had the head of a biologist and I wanted to do research and studies,” he said.
But his then-boss, Todd Steiner, saw a fire in Arauz that could be put to better use. Steiner urged Arauz to become an activist, to Infinito Gold Ltd., to open up lands in Crucitas in northern Costa Rica to gold mining has stirred a passionate group of opponents into a fierce whirl.
On April 22, less than a week after a high court ruling gave the constitutional nod to allow the project to continue, thousands of protesters gathered to shout “No to mining!” in the streets of San José and in northern Costa Rica.
Opponents’ arguments against the mine are both legal and scientific. They draw on failed mining experiences from the past, such as the landslide at the Bellavista mine in the hills above the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, which led to major concerns over cyanide leaks and water contamination.
They cite questionable presidential tactics that allowed the project in Crucitas to advance.
But beneath the charges of environmental harm and the debatable legalities that the protesters hurl at the state, many opponents simply don’t see the justifications for Costa Rica’s poor to extract a mineral that the world’s rich demand. That Crucitas has been declared by the country’s government to be in the “public interest” doesn’t pan out.
“We don’t see how this can possibly be a priority,” said 24-year-old Cristina Mora at a recent rally. “Who needs this gold and why? We live fine without it. It’s not the development model we need or want in Costa Rica.”
But in spite of opponents’ doubts surrounding the need for the metal, the demand for gold has risen sharply and its price has soared in the past decade, reaching record highs.
Since 2000, gold prices have rocketed from less than $300 to around $1,200 per ounce. And the price showed little decline during the recent worldwide recession.
The demand comes largely from private investors and central banks around the world, who have flocked to the commodity in the past 10 years as a means to store value. While the days of gold-backed currency are over, governments are increasingly seeing the benefit of using gold as a hedge against economic crises.
“Gold is special,” said Pamela Aden, Costa Rica-based author of a monthly newsletter that forecasts metal prices. “It’s the currency of last resort in the world. During times of economic uncertainty, people run to it.”
In November of last year, India, the world’s leading gold consumer, purchased three tons of gold from the International Monetary Fund. China also helped boost the demand for gold when their central bank expressed more interest in buying gold to hold as reserves.
An ongoing campaign in East Asia that encourages citizens to buy gold has also led to a spike in demand for the metal. In 2007, China became the world’s second largest consumer of gold jewelry.
And lured by the Internet and an increase in the number of coin and bullion trading websites, private investors have found it quicker and easier to buy and sell the mineral online as they please.
“These are the reasons why the price of gold has been going up,” Aden said. “It’s a monetary instrument unlike any other.”
What does it mean for Costa Rica?
The price for gold is still on the rise and Aden predicts that it will continue to climb in the foreseeable future.
Gold’s record prices have led to a 21st century gold rush.
Having struggled to compete with the technology boom in the 1990s, mining companies see more reason than ever now to invest in gold exploration and restart operations that they began abandoning around 15 years ago.
They are looking in new places for deposits and requesting exploration and mining permits at rapid rates.
While gold exploration is expensive – Infinito Gold spent $34 million exploring for gold in northern Costa Rica – its potential rewards are too great to ignore.
“That’s capitalism,” said Bob Zwerneman, investor relations officer for the New Hampshire-based Jaguar Mining Inc. “There is profit to be made and there will be investors to help make it. As long as the price keeps going up, investors and mining companies will spend money to find the stuff and try to generate the most capital they can.”
While mining companies may bring jobs to locals – one of Infinito Gold’s arguments in favor of exploration in Crucitas – the real benefit for the host country comes through fees paid to the government.
In Brazil, where Jaguar Mining has been working, the company pays 34 percent of every dollar that it makes to the local, state or federal government through a stream of royalty, corporate and other state taxes.
“Gold mining is no different than any other operation,” Zwerneman said. “It’s a major source of revenue for the government, and that’s hard to ignore.”
The Costa Rican association of geologists estimates that there are 20 million ounces of gold buried under the nation’s territory.
As of last Wednesday’s closing price, that equals more than $23 billion worth of the resource.
Much of the country’s gold is locked away in the Talamanca range, a remote and mountainous region in southern Costa Rica that is largely protected as indigenous territory and as part of the La Amistad International Park. The Spanish daily La Nación reported that during the past 40 years Costa Rica has received 20 requests to explore and mine this region for various metals, including gold.
The Legislative Assembly ultimately denied these requests.
Set to assume presidential powers on Saturday, Laura Chinchilla said in a press conference in April that she will “take all measures necessary that assure that (openpit metal mining) disappears from our legal framework.”
She promised that she will sign a decree that places a moratorium on all pending metal exploration and extraction permits, and will submit mining law reforms to the assembly to prohibit future open-pit mining in Costa Rica.
But the pressures that Chinchilla and future governments will face are large.
The demand for the world’s most desirable metal has never been greater and its value has never been higher. A mineral that was once deemed the “barbaric relic,” will likely continue to tempt Costa Rica and its future governments.
“The pressure to mine for gold will continue all over the world, and Costa Rica is going to feel that pressure,” Aden said. “Mining companies will continue to see if they can do it. They will ask and see what they can get. It’s a good investment that has an open life ahead and as long as that’s the case, there will be interest in exploring anywhere gold can be found.”