Environmental campaign at crisis point
By Cam Walker, Green Left Weekly, #293, 15 October 1997
After more than two years of campaigning, one of Costa Rica's largest environmental and social struggles is reaching a crisis point.
Local communities have been resisting efforts by close to 30 transnational mining companies which are attempting to open large-scale, open-cut gold mines which will utilise cyanide heap leaching extraction methods.
These corporations are already affecting and will further affect protected areas of enormous ecological and cultural value, including the basin of the San Juan River, a natural border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and the most extensive watershed in Central America. The companies have sought 250,000 hectares for exploration.
The ecological and cultural richness of this region has resulted in the creation of a network of protected areas (including national parks, national wildlife refuges, biological reserves, forest reserves, biological corridors and wetland areas) on both sides of the border, called the International System of Protected Areas for Peace (SIAPAZ).
The area has been declared by the governments of Costa Rica and Nicaragua to be the most important conservation and sustainable development initiative for these countries.
The SIAPAZ area shelters the main remnant of tropical rainforest on the Caribbean side of Central America and is home to unique species, some of which are in danger of extinction (including the manatee, green macaw and mountain almond).
Placer Dome Inc, infamous for its mining operations on the traditional lands of the Western Shoshone people in North America, is seeking to develop a project to extract a gold deposit of 70.9 tonnes in "Las Crucitas", just seven kilometres from the San Juan River.
In Costa Rica's northern Pacific region, open-pit mines may also be created along the Tilaran Mountain Range. Various companies have applied for concessions of up to 130,000 hectares in the region, which shelters important species of plants and animals protected in reserves, including the biological reserves of Monteverde and Alberto Brenes, and the Arenal National Park.
The possible impact of mining on the region's water sources will threaten aquatic ecosystems, particularly the equilibrium of the Gulf of Nicoya and the estuaries from which thousands of families and small-scale fisher-folk live.
The cultural and natural heritage of the Talamanca Mountain Range on the southern Caribbean side of Costa Rica is in danger as well. This area was declared a Reserve of the Biosphere and Heritage of Humankind by UNESCO in 1982.
The Talamanca range, one of the most important forest areas of Central America, is the territory of the Bribri and Cabecar indigenous peoples. They have organised themselves to defend their natural heritage and cultural identity. Currently, there are concessions for exploration covering 28,000 hectares of their traditional land.
The National Front Against Open Pit Gold Mining (Frente) in Costa Rica is a coalition of environmental, human rights, campesino, indigenous, student and religious and women's organisations, as well as communities that have organised themselves to confront the threats of these projects.
In late September, Frente issued a call for solidarity: "To all organisations and people of the world who are fighting to build socially just and environmentally healthy societies, to all the friends of Costa Rica ... For ethical, environmental and social reasons we ... have decided to dedicate all possible efforts to stop the development of this destructive activity that overshadows our country ... For this reason, we are calling for solidarity at the international level to denounce the support provided by the Costa Rican government for the expansion of this type of mining activity."
Because of the spirited opposition of local communities, none of the companies have been able to start mining. But as pressure from the companies and the government (which has spent the last month attempting to convince the communities to accept the mining) builds, the communities represented by Frente need to know they have the support of people from around the world.
Letters to Costa Rica's Ministry of the Environment calling for the immediate cancellation of all gold mining concessions that use the open-pit, cyanide heap leaching technique should be faxed to Mr Ren Castro at 506-257-0697. Letters of support to Frente can be sent via Friends of the Earth Costa Rica at Apdo postal 11812-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica, fax 223 3925.
For more information contact Cam Walker at Friends of the Earth Australia, Box 222, Fitzroy 3065, telephone (03) 9419 8700, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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