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Monkeys, mines, and money: The passion behind the mining conflict in Costa Rica

Getting an up close and personal look at wildlife is a common occurrence for Costa Ricans who live so in tune with nature they see any threat to their wilderness as a personal insult and perhaps even a global menace. Jeremy Hunka/For Global News

There’s never anything fun about waking up at 5:30 in the morning, unless it’s a pack of monkeys that’s to blame.

There they were – bouncing, screeching and swinging through the trees just outside our open window, looking at my camera curiously as I drowsily struggled to capture the moment in awed silence.

This surreal scene, incredibly, is commonplace for some Costa Ricans who live so in tune with nature they see any threat to their wilderness as a personal insult and perhaps even a global menace.

We came to Costa Rica for Global National – reporting on a Canadian company launching a billion-dollar lawsuit against the country.

READ MORE: Calgary-based mining company suing Costa Rica for more than $1 billion

Calgary-based Infinito Gold has been fighting tooth and nail to operate a massive open pit gold mine for years – in the face of a defiant country which has fought back every step of the way.

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After the company ultimately failed to get long-term approval, it decided to sue Costa Rica for ‘violating’ its trade agreements with Canada, the largest such lawsuit in Costa Rican history.

It’s an extremely controversial move.

That was the headline, but behind the legal battle and allegations of government wrongdoing — seven government officials are awaiting trial for initially granting the mine’s approvals without the legal requirements — lies a passion for the environment much more powerful and difficult to explain.

READ MORE: Costa Ricans investigating Canadian mine approval, trials pending

It can only really be demonstrated by Costa Ricans themselves.

Our host for a few days was a gentleman named Otto, whose gorgeous home is built on a hill above a sprawling sunrise and endless jungle.

He is a true environmental purist. He fights mines, hates hydro dams, and is vehemently against deforestation, believing nature should be guarded at all costs. He built his home himself – using only wood from wind-felled trees.

He farms organic pepper (the black stuff we use as spice, not the vegetable), oregano, yucca, corn – you name it.

He relies on the land to live, and has a connection to nature beyond anything I’ve ever seen. He seems to know everything about every plant and animal around.

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He showed us plants that, if you touch them, collapse and retract their leaves immediately as a form of self-defence.

He also explained which leaves should be used as toilet paper – because they not only leave a pleasant scent but also repel flies (I must point out, this information was unsolicited).

As we drove through the countryside he knew exactly where to stop to see Iguanas basking in the sun or sloths swinging up the trees. He grimaced anytime a logging truck drove by, blaming ‘bad’ policies for destroying the home of so many species.

Otto may be a more extreme example, but the bottom line is that life in Costa Rica is different.

For many, nature reigns supreme and is so entwined with residents it may be difficult to comprehend for some Canadians. Rather than embracing the outdoors 24/7, we in Canada must shut our doors and lock out our bitter cold for 6 months every year to survive.

In Costa Rica, doors are open, windows don’t have glass, and the environment is tightly guarded: open pit mining is outlawed and most deforestation is prohibited. Many Costa Ricans believe their country’s incredible jungle is the ‘lung’ of a world gasping for oxygen.

While some talk about gold mining as a pathway to prosperity, other Costa Ricans we met refer instead to ‘green gold’: the beautiful wilderness stretching across the country and producing work for thousands of people in tourism.

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It’s that unbridled passion for the environment that led to this billion dollar showdown. What happens with the lawsuit, and court cases of those 7 government officials, remains to be seen.

If the country loses its international arbitration to Infinito Gold for $1 billion it will be a devastating blow to Costa Rica.

But after a few weeks in the jungle, I suspect the country would rather pay even that staggering sum the money as opposed to allowing even a part of its precious nature to be scraped away for an open pit mine.

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