Conservation Riverbed Mining Destroying the Rivers and Wildlife of Osa Peninsula

Published on February 3rd, 2010 | by admin


Riverbed Mining Destroying the Rivers and Wildlife of Osa Peninsula

Water is the source of life and its nurturer. It has the power to ferociously destroy life and then gently recreate it. This liquid elixir gathers in the high country, often collecting in lakes, and sometimes flowing to the sea through an intricate series of streams and rivers. There is no more important resource on Earth and it is now seriously threatening Costa Rica’s ecological balance, and this affront to nature is occurring within the very heart of this verdant paradise, the Osa Peninsula.

Costa Rica has earned well-deserved praise from ecologists and recognition in the world community for protecting and restoring its forests, and protecting marine areas and its overall biodiversity. Unfortunately, rivers and streams are being carelessly treated as a free and easy resource for building highways, while ignoring their irreplaceable significance in maintaining nature’s fragile balance.

Fourteen gravel-mining concessions have been awarded, fatally impacting five different rivers in Osa, all of them feeding into the Golfo Dulce! They are Rio Tigre (4), Rio Rincon (5), Rio Barrigones (2), Rio Agujas (2), and Rio Conte (1).


Picture an idyllic, lush jungle river and the only sounds you hear are birdcalls and the quiet conversation of local villagers, often accompanied by tourists from all over the world, who have come to witness this precious world within a world. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now, imagine the jarring sounds of heavy trucks and earth moving equipment. You see the jaws of a metallic dinosaur plunging into this river and quickly scraping along the river bottom and then lifting its claws and depositing a thousand pounds of the gravel riverbed into a rumbling truck, which will then lumber away, ripping up the vegetation on the side of this very delicate waterway. Just one of these fourteen concessions is authorized to remove 80 truckloads of gravel from the Rio Tigre every day!

The consequences of riverbed gravel mining are quite obvious when you see how the Rio Tigre is supposed to look (left) and what happens with mining.


The Osa Peninsula is home to more than 50% of all species found in Costa Rica. It has the largest population of Scarlet Macaws in Central America. Five different cats roam the jungles. There are 358 bird species and the region is extraordinarily popular with bird watchers. According to Eduardo Chacon, a certified Costa Rican biologist, more than 1/3 of these species depend upon the rivers and surrounding vegetation. Any reduction in this vegetation and the insect life found in the rivers would have an adverse effect on bird population, seriously impacting tourism to the area. Many villagers rely on the thousands of ecotourists who come to the southern part of country specifically for its pristine jungle wildlife and rivers. When the highways are finished, the construction jobs will end and there will be a weakened tourist economy in its wake, with less long-term employment for people who desperately need it.

When stretches of a riverbed are ripped up for gravel, the velocity of the water increases dramatically, eliminating deeper waterholes that host a variety of life. It erodes the streamside environment, allowing the sun to shine on the water, significantly altering the aquatic environment and causing a deadly rise in temperature. It creates a lifeless, liquid cadaver that floats its decay downstream. In this case, it spreads its poison to the river mouth and the innocent open arms of the Golfo Dulce. On its way, it manages to infect the forests, reducing the quantity and quality of all life that relies on its natural integrity. Once this water leaves the river, the mangroves, reefs and fisheries of this splendid body of water will begin a slow and painful death.

Usually, there is no compromise when commerce and conservation face off against each other, which has always made for a contentious relationship. In this instance, there actually is an alternative to this environmentally devastating practice, which is creating the tragedy in Osa. There is gravel under most of the Coastal plain, under the plantations and cattle pastures.  Many farms report 7-12 meters of this material with less than 1 meter of soil on top of it.  Taking gravel from pits would be a lot less destructive and have a lot less impact on the environment and the enormous number of species that simply cannot survive without an intact river ecosystem.

A hydrology report relating to the Rio Tigre was prepared by Bruce Melton, PE, a US based civil engineer specializing in critical envirionemtnal issues. He adds to the rational of exploring alternatives to the destructive practice of riverbed mining. “The suitability of upland gravel deposits should be explored fully. The existence of the deposits on the Eastern shore of Osa Peninsula is certain, and their suitability is likely. If these resources could be efficiently developed, untold damages to the environment of the Osa Peninsula could be avoided. Other materials besides sand and gravel from riverbeds are certainly for road building, concrete construction and other concrete uses. These materials are widespread across the world and are used very commonly in place of river gravels.”

gravel mining

Up to this point, Costa Rica has been incredibly fortunate in that its public perception remains unscathed by questionable internal choices that appear to put development ahead of environmental protection. It is not hard to imagine a tourist’s reaction to the destruction of pristine rivers or the absence of Leatherbacks on the beaches of Playa Grande. Improved highways are very important and so is a strong real estate market, but this desire for commercial development has been fueled by the appeal of the country’s unfettered natural beauty. A balance needs to be struck and the government is the only institution to protect the rivers and coastlines, which belong to all Costa Ricans.

We will be following this unfolding story in the months ahead. In the meantime, you are strongly encouraged to visit and learn more about the Save Rio Tigre campaign, which is constantly evolving to include all rivers and communities impacted by this brutal riverbed mining practice.


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