By Susan Abad
In his inaugural speech last August, President Juan Manuel Santos said mining would be one of the five motors for Colombia´s progress. But critics complain that promoting this industry would endanger the country´s chance at environmental and cultural sustainability.
Colombia holds Latin America´s largest coal reserves and has significant amounts of gold, silver, platinum, nickel, copper, iron, magnesium, lead, zinc and titanium, as well as deposits of emeralds.
Forty-percent of the country is currently concessioned off for mining projects because of lax laws, according to Mario Valencia of the non governmental Colombian Network Against Large Scale Transnational Mining, an umbrella group of 50 rights and environmental organizations in the country. Government figures show that the mining and hydrocarbon industries comprise 85 percent of Colombia´s foreign investment. From 2002 to 2009, investment from these industries has increased from US$466 million to $3 billion, and exports from $2.8 billion to $8.1 billion.
“The law prioritizes only the economic aspects,” says Juana Díaz, a spokeswoman for the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia´s Territory and Biodiversity arm.
Díaz pointed to a 2001 reform to the Mining Code that loosened environmental regulations by scrapping approval for exploration, and changed land ownership requirements, in favor of large companies, with requirements such as large-scale infrastructure and heavy machinery “that only multinational companies could fulfill,” cutting out many small-scale miners.
Heavy metals, heavy impact
Mining may generate billions in profits, but that “does not make up for the environmental and social and many other costs that are difficult to calculate,” said Juan Mayr, Colombia´s former environment minister and a current advisor for the United Nations Development Program. “They are extracting non renewable natural resources, causing a great impact on Colombians´ collective patrimony. They grant mining titles without any kind of oversight, any kind of qualification. It´s a system plagued with a lack of vision and [with] irregularities.”
Transnational mining companies have 43,000 square kilometers of concessions.
South African miner Anglo Gold Ashanti has a concession of 6,900 square kilometers in its gold projects Gramalote in Antioquia and La Colosa in Tolima with important political and economic impact that explains the numerous social conflicts, says Sen. Jorge Robledo, of the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole.
“The population is paying and will continue to pay a high price,” said indigenous Sen. Marco Avirama. “In the process of mining exploration and exploitation, because of the machinery, vehicles and technology used, the soil stability and the fauna, flora and water is strongly affected, wiping out the local ecosystem with no possibility of its recovery.”
Avirama pointed to the large amounts of water needed to extract gold and the use of cyanide and mercury that eventually contaminates local rivers.
According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Colombia´s gold mining industry has made the country home to the largest mercury contamination on earth. Measurements taken by the agency last year in Segovia, in the northwestern Antioquia department a mineral rich zone, found 10 to 20 times greater the 10,000 nanograms per cubic meter considered safe by the World Health Organization.
Water resources are also at severe risk.
Some local residents in the northeastern Santander department have urged the government to deny an environmental permit for Canadian mining company Grey Star that plans to extract more than 500,000 ounces of gold per year from deposits in the Santurbán high-altitude wetland, a valuable ecosystem that is protected under the constitution. The area is home to more than 40 lagoons, hundreds of streams and abundant vegetation that regulates the water cycle.
Drilling here would put the water supplies for 1.6 million people in the cities of Cucuta and Bucaramanga in jeopardy, Robledo said.
“They are going to use 40 metric tons of cyanide and 230 metric tons of ammonium nitrate-fuel a day,” he added. They are going to dynamite 1,075 million metric tons of soil in the first phase [of the project] and … do so in an area of high-altitude wetlands and natural reserve, which is prohibited.”
Opponents to the industry note its cultural impact.
Campesinos, indigenous and Afro-Colombians are already being deprived of water and land by those who are working in informal mining or those who have “sold out” to the big companies,” said Avirama. “Also, the investment that companies bring in and the investment that they generate are accompanied by practices that are not in accordance with the ancestral forms of life of the population.”
Eviction and displacement
This influx of wealth attracts illegal armed groups, which position themselves near the projects to extort or sometimes putting themselves at the service of the transnational companies.
“A dispossession of land is being consolidated, as well as foreign investment, especially in mining and palm oil, that is tied to forced displacement,” said Jorge Rojas, director of the non governmental Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy.
He said that nearly one-third of the 280,000 people displaced in Colombia in 2010 came from areas where these two industries were present.
The government has started to crack down on informal mining by making surprise visits to the mines, cancelling permits for a lack of security and instating higher fines for violations. Santos´ government also said it would create the National Minerals Agency to regulate small-scale mining, which it says is highly contaminating and has become a source of financing for the armed groups.
But Valencia says that that it is really a way to favor large-scale mining companies.
“There are more than 2 million artisanal miners in Colombia that have long lived off of this activity,” he said. “The government is trying to take this way of life away from them and give it to the large mining companies. It has been grouping artisanal mining with illegal mining, so now it has the authorization to persecute both of them … and clear the way for the transnationals.”