Gold has enticed the world’s populace for centuries.
From the pharaohs in Egypt to the forty- niners in California, through the gold standard days to today’s dazzling jewels, the precious metal’s shiny, imperishable glisten strikes awe in the human eye.
The coveted mineral’s magical sparkle has costs that some claim go far beyond what it fetches on the market, but few can deny its unparalleled power.
This force has captured Costa Rica. Gold deposits in the developed world have been largely diminished and most of the golf ball-size nuggets have been mined out of the earth. As a result, mining companies have begun to search remote corners of the globe in pursuit of the alluring element.
Companies have shown a clear preference for exploring in the developing world, where gold still exists in profitable quantities and where operations have proven cheaper and regulations more lax. In these countries, companies build quarries and haul out tons of rock and ore in order to sift out the ounces of gold that make the endeavor worthwhile.
But the use of cyanide and mercury to extract the gold from the rock in which it is embedded has inspired protests by citizens over environmental and health concerns about the mining business.
In Africa, mines have come under fire for worker rights and human health violations.
Opposition to gold mining in the developing world has grown strong and Costa Rica is no exception.
A proposal by the Canadian company 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 (open-pit 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.”