Peace and Conflict Monitor

Crucitas gold mine controversy: a lopsided roundtable
Jessica Barran
December 02, 2008
Jessica Barran reports on the Crucitas gold mine roundtable, recently held on UPEACE campus. Representatives from Industrias Infinito, the Costa Rican government, two environmental NGOs (FECON and AIDA), and the University of Costa Rica, were all given a chance to clarify their positions and field questions on this controversial issue.

The University for Peace department of Environment, Peace and Security organized a unique roundtable discussion for November 13, 2008.  Entitled Crucitas gold mine: environmental, social, and legal aspects of the current controversy the roundtable addressed an ongoing saga of a Canadian mining company that is developing two pit mines in northern Costa Rica.  There has been much resistance against this project; however the current Costa Rican government appears to fully support it, bending environmental laws in order to let the mining development continue.  Invited to speak were John Thomas and Miguel Arriaza, both of Industrias Infinito mining company; José Francisco Castro, minister of  Environment and Energy (MINAE) and Director of Geology and Mines; Heidy Murillo Quesada, representing Northern Front in opposition to mining and Conservation Federation of Costa Rica (FECON); Gladys Martínez, representing Interamerican Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA); and Nicolás Boeglin, a Professor of International Public Law, University of Costa Rica.  With the breadth of roundtable participants, this promised to be a provocative, informed, interactive debate on the issues. And as the current government is under investigation due to the policy decisions allowing this mine to continue, this has become an international story, and UPEACE was fortunate to have all of these players speaking to the issue. Unfortunately, things were a bit rushed, and the juicy discussion that should have occurred never came into fruition. 

The controversial Crucitas gold mine has managed, after several stumbles, to gain approval to continue with their development plans, bypassing the environmental concerns and international laws to boot.  Though two Industrias Infinito company representatives were invited, Miguel Arriaza and John Thomas, only Thomas spoke.  The presentation by Thomas was clean, informative and thorough, providing little wiggle room for criticism.  All environmental concerns were addressed, and Thomas insisted that the protected tree, the almendro, and the endangered bird, the green macaw, would be minimally affected by the mining development.  Beyond this, the social programs, employment, infrastructure and boost to the economy created through this project more than outweigh any negative aspects of the mine.

The mine project has been in progress since 1993.  The first five years or so consisted of exploration of the site, and in 2000 the actually property was acquired by the company. Shortly after this the mining concession was granted by the Costa Rican government and the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was presented.  In 2004 there was a public meeting held by Infinito, which 1300 locals attended, and astounding turnout.  Though there was clearly much local concern over the project the EIS was approved in 2005, with modifications approved in 2008, and the concession was ratified, permits were obtained and construction was started. 

The area in question is an International Biosphere Reserve.  The Costa Rican government has actually broken environmental law by allowing the mine to proceed and a criminal investigation of President Oscar Arias and environment minister Roberto Dobles has been started by the Chief Prosecutor's Office. None of this was truly touched on.

The planned mine, an open pit mine, was described as “small” by Thomas. The processing plant is promised to be state of the art, though this is a bit of a stretch considering they plan on using cyanide for processing, a process that has proven to be environmentally costly, and is illegal in some areas of the United States. Thomas insists that this cyanide process has only received bad press, and when cyanide is broken down into its’ two elements, Carbon and Nitrogen, it is completely harmless.  As it is an unstable molecule, it can easily be broken down by oxidation through sodium biphosphate, creating only water and ground rock output.

After proclaiming the process clean, Thomas went into how the mine would help the local social conditions.  He cited that there is a 38% poverty rate, with 43% of these people in extreme poverty.  Thomas insisted that area “needs development” and “these people have had a very hard life”.  Thomas talked about the economic benefit to the community, and the infrastructure that will be provided by the company, including new roads, housing and internet. He also discussed the skills training programs that have already begun, as well as the hundreds of jobs that will be created by the mine. He pointed to the millions of dollars given to the local communities through the 2% royalties, taxes and employment. He did not discuss what will happen to the communities once the mine is closed.

Lastly, Thomas discussed the limited effect the mine will have on the environment.  According to a cost-benefit analysis of potential industries, Thomas argued that mining is “by far the greatest benefit to society” in this location.  He insisted that the rainforest that will be clear cut is not primary rainforest, and they will not, as reported by media, be cutting down the last of the almendro trees.  In fact, there will be one thousand left untouched.  Also, he insisted that the endangered green macaw does not nest in this area, and though it feeds from the almendro, there will be plenty of these trees left to feed from.

José Francisco Castro of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), and Director of Geology and Mines was the next to speak to the issue.  Though the intention was clearly for Castro to provide a neutral view, one must remember that the current Costa Rican government is under investigation around this issue. 

Castro reiterated much of what Thomas had presented, with a stronger focus on the laws that allowed for this mine to continue development.  He also insisted that the government has taken all necessary steps to ensure that the environmental issues have been addressed, are a continuing concern, and there are safeguards in place to ensure there are no environmental disasters.

Heidi Murillo, representing Northern Front in opposition to mining and Conservation Federation of Costa Rica (FECON), was intended to provide a local perspective.  She focussed on three main issues: the fact that there has not been a successful mining project in Costa Rica to date; the environmental impacts; and the social impacts.  Murillo gave several examples of environmentally disastrous mining projects throughout Latin America, including Bellavista Mine in Puntarenas, where, in 2007, a landslide breached caused damages to the geomembrane of the leachfield and allow for toxins to enter the soil, and groundwater. She informed us that if such an accident were to happen at Crucitas it would take a mere two hours for the toxins to reach the border with Nicaragua.   Other environmental concerns include the usage of explosives, soil degradation, modification of geography, chemical impacts, water pollution and sedimentation.  Murrillo pointed out that though Industrias Infinito insists that the cyanide process is state of the art and extremely safe, it is unreasonable to assume that an area that currently has little infrastructure will be able to drain these chemicals properly.  No matter the facility built. She also touched on the social impacts, including health impacts, migration, and economic impacts.  Murillo went on to accuse Industrias Infinito of corporate blackmail, informing us that only after the company threatened to sue the Costa Rican government in international court was the project accepted.  Though her presentation looks good on paper, Murillo gave a highly emotional, scattered presentation that was not in-depth enough to stand up against the pro-mine argument.

Next to speak was Gladys Martínez, who is an alumnus of UPEACE from the 05/06 Environmental Security and Peace class. Martínez attended representing the Interamerican Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA), a group that works with NGOs in order to protect the Americas from economic development at the cost of the environment, Martínez talked from the standpoint of AIDA, which opposes the mine.  AIDA looked at the environmental impact and the international laws surrounding this conflict, and has deemed the project illegal.  AIDA has requested that the Costa Rican government halt this project, a request which has been ignored.  Martínez also pointed to the Bellavista disaster, which was cause by a lack of precautionary measures, monitoring and regulation enforcement.  She accused the government of ignoring scientific warnings, and insisted that this disaster could be repeated if lessons are not learned.

Martínez highlighted the lack of technical capacity to regulate and enforce mining activities as a major problem. The authorities have limited resources to evaluate and mitigate the environmental impacts of any mining operations in Costa Rica. The risk of San Juan River contamination is high, and this speaks to international obligations as this river is shared between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. There needs to be consultation with Nicaragua in order to assess environmental impacts and avoid international court proceedings.

AIDA made three recommendations for the Crucitas mine: conduct international impact studies; require the usage of objective experts; and adequately consult the local communities. She pointed out that there is no information for the local community online in regards to this project, to which Thomas was quick to point out internet was not available to the local community, so this action would be pointless. Martínez clearly knew much more than she was able to present, and directed people to the AIDA website for more information. She was severely limited by time, which was unfortunate.

The last panellist to present was Nicolás Boeglin, a Professor of International Public Law, University of Costa Rica.  He first spoke to the immense economic development Costa Rica has gone through in that last two years, and stated there is environmental inconsistency between Costa Rica’s “Green Image” and the actualities of development.  Boeglin is concerned with the environmental stresses and impacts of development, and accuses the Costa Rican government of accepting sub-par studies done by international corporations.  He alleged that the Crucitas project violates international law, in which one country cannot pursue a project that will cause damage to another state.  According to Boeglin, Nicaragua has asked for studies to include the environmental impact ad damage possibility for the San Juan River, which is an international river, and this request has not received a response from the Costa Rican government.  By not addressing this issue, Costa Rica is opening itself to international action.

Following the presentations there were several questions from the audience, however no truly provocative questions were asked, and each panel member only received the opportunity to reiterate their positions.

Though it may seem on paper to have been a balanced and informative roundtable, it was a roundtable dominated by Industrias Infinito, and not one of the mine opponents were able to make a solid case against why this mine operation should be halted.  There were not enough proofs provided, too much emotion displayed, and perhaps some things were lost in translation.  An uninformed audience member would walk away wondering what the big deal is.  After all, aren’t the social benefits and millions of dollars worth the inconvenience of a couple holes in the ground? New roads, skills training, employment, increased infrastructure and millions of dollars in royalties and taxes all seem to outweigh the potential risks.

This is a great example of how international corporations are taking advantage of the developing world, and bulldozing through until they get their way.  Once again, Fancy PowerPoint beats won against the emotions of the community.

Jessica Baran is a Master's degree candidate at the University for Peace.