The government of Costa Rica has taken a major step in protecting its natural environment by placing a ban on new open pit mining. President Abel Pacheco signed the measure this week as part of the World Environment Day celebrations. According to Minister of Environment Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Ricans simply are not interested in opening their country for mineral exploitation at the cost of the environment.
The executive decree places a complete moratorium on new open pit mining projects and calls for cancellation of the three contracts already in place. This signifies an uncertain future for one operational and two planned mines in Costa Rica. Referring to the Decree, President Abel Pacheco stated that "if the price for protecting the environment" is paying damages, Costa Rica will do so. "We have many reasons for rescinding these contracts, and if they sue us for compensation it will be cheaper than paying for the loss of the country and its environment."
Large-scale open pit mining is environmentally destructive for several reasons. In addition to digging a vast crater in the earth, thereby stripping it of vital forests and ecosystems open pit mining often results in acid drainage. Rock formations rich in minerals can have high sulfur content. Sulfuric minerals are less stable when exposed to the atmosphere, acid drainage contaminates surface and ground waters and is especially problematic in a tropical climate with heavy rainfall, such as Costa Rica's. Open pit gold mines often use toxic chemicals such as cyanide to leach metals from the rock. This process can pollute the surrounding soil and water, and harms not only animals and aquatic life but humans as well.
One of the contracts in place in Costa Rica is for an open pit cyanide gold mine in Bellavista, Miramar. The Canadian company Wheaton River Minerals (WRM) currently owns the Bellavista project. WRM acquired it in 1997 and received a final environmental permit in early 2001 despite its lack of tropical mining experience and the serious adverse environmental impacts discussed above. Low gold prices forced WRM to delay construction. Glencairn Explorations, another Canadian company, recently agreed to purchase the rights to the project. AIDA (the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense) and Costa Rican and Canadian environmental groups have vigorously opposed the development of this mine because of the potential for environmental harm.
Representatives of WRM and Glencairn have stated that the Costa Rican decree does not affect the Bellavista mine project. While this is true in that the moratorium does not apply to projects that have been approved, the decree makes clear Costa Rica's commitment to negotiate the terms of termination with existing concessionaries.