MAC: Mines and Communities

Social Movements Fight Mining (and protect the paramos!) in Colombia

Published by MAC on 2011-02-14
Source: Inter Press Service (IPS), Reuters (2011-02-07)

On March 4 Greystar will have a second public hearing after which the environment ministry will decide on the license for Greystar's Angostura project. This second public hearing was ordered after citizens of the city of Bucaramanga complained they were impeded from attending the previous hearing on 21 November 2010. See: Greystar's public hearing goes ahead: But the public isn't allowed to properly participate

Colombia's Minister of Mines and Energy, recommended that Greystar redesign its proposed Angostura project, saying that the Ministry of Environment "has some well founded concerns". See: Greystar shares plunge as Colombia requests mine review

Colombia's State Ombudsman in addition, made their recommendations saying that the Minister of Environment should deny Greystar the environmental license it needs to proceed. See: Colombian state ombudsman opposes Angostura gold project

The Ombudsman indicated that 22 páramos are at risk from the impacts of mining. Páramos help regulate about 70% of the water supply that Colombians consume. 49% of the world's páramos ecosystems are in Colombia (some 2 million hectares) of which 108,972 hectares have been granted to 391 mining licenses.

For more info see www.reclamecolombia.org

ESPAÑOL

Increasingly Broad Social Movements Fight Mining

By Helda Martínez

Inter Press Service (IPS)

7 February 2011

BOGOTÁ - Social mobilisation against gold-mining is growing in Colombia, which is now one of the world's biggest per capita polluters of mercury, used in artisanal mining, according to the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

Water sources in páramo de Santurbán
Water sources in páramo de Santurbán - Photo: Gabriel Aponte

"Development, foreign investment, the generation of jobs or promises for improved living conditions for locals cannot be used as arguments to jeopardise the water wealth of our páramos (highland moors)," the national retailers association, FENALCO, said in a statement.

The association informed the government of Juan Manuel Santos of its staunch opposition to the Angostura mining project, an open pit mine that is to produce gold and silver over the next 15 years, run by the Canadian firm GreyStar on the páramo of Santurbán in the northern department (province) of Santander.

"We do not support this activity, which will cause irreparable and irreversible damages," Erwing Rodríguez, director of FENALCO in Bucaramanga, the provincial capital, told IPS by phone.

The Sociedad Santandereana de Ingenieros (Santander association of engineers), the Sociedad de Mejoras Públicas (Public Improvement Society) and other organisations backed FENALCO's protest. "We are all opposed to short-sighted approaches," Rodríguez said.

GreyStar denies that the mine will hurt the environment.

The U.S. firm "Drummond told me the same thing 20 years ago," former environment minister Manuel Rodríguez said in a public hearing held in Bucaramanga.

The former minister was referring to the proven environmental damages caused in the northern province of Cesar by Drummond's coal mining -- a disaster compounded by serious allegations of violations of the human rights of local residents and mineworkers.

The violations prompted legal action in Colombia and the United States, and formed part of the objections standing in the way of approval of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement by the U.S. Congress.

Colombia is one of the world's biggest per capita polluters with mercury, in the artisanal mining sector, with an average of between 50 and 100 tons a year lost during the gold extraction process, according to a report by UNIDO, which points out that artisanal mining has expanded fast as gold prices have risen.

"It's exciting that for the first time, a conglomeration of groups and people, including the upper-middle class, social organisations, leftist political groups and environmentalists, have come together around one goal: protecting our water," geologist Julio Fierro told IPS.

The broad social movement in Santander has added its voice to the long-time struggle by environmentalists in Cajamarca, in the central province of Tolima, against the South African company AngloGold Ashanti.

"The effort has been constant," Evelio Campos, director of Ecostierra, a local environmental organisation, told IPS by telephone.

The strategy is to draw wide attention to the devastating effects of mining on water supplies in an area with 160 sources of water, and on the surrounding ecosystems, which include fragile páramos and cloud forests.

"We visit the villages to explain to people the ecological, social and economic damages that the mining would cause," Campos said.

This grassroots awareness-raising is bolstered by a half-hour daily radio show, and a half-hour weekly TV show aired by the local station in Ibagué, the capital of Tolima.

And "this month we launched a degree in environmental management in the state University of Tolima," Campos added.

In addition, protest demonstrations have been held in the páramos of Nuevo Colón and Vijagual, in the northeastern province of Boyacá.

Fierro said "Another encouraging example is the mobilisation of Embera Indians and people of African descent against gold mining on Careperro mountain by the U.S. company Muriel Mining."

The Constitutional Court has already "ruled in favour of indigenous people, peasants, blacks and other people who are bravely opposing mining activity," Fierro said.

Protests have also been held to the south of Bogotá against polluting activities in quarries run by the army on the grounds of the Artillery School, and by the Catholic diocese of Bogotá's Fundación San Antonio, Mexico's Cemex company and the Swiss firm Holcim.

Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, was also one of the world's top gold exporters until the mid-20th century. But after that gold-mining declined until the recent boom.

This civil war-torn South American country is now the second largest producer of gold in Latin America, the world's top producer of emeralds, and has the largest coal reserves in Latin America. It also produces silver, platinum, nickel, copper, iron, manganese, lead, zinc, titanium, salt, limestone, gravel, sand, clay, sulphur, talcum, gypsum, phosphorus and ornamental stones.

Along with the country's oil and natural gas, these natural resources have attracted a flood of international investors over the last decade, who have benefited by the mining code adopted by the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).

"Investment was encouraged by the successful promotion of the industry by the following government, of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), which sent sizable delegations to mining fairs around the world, where it gave assurances that the armed conflict was over, which would allow the mining industry to develop," Fierro said.

Colombia has issued contracts to some 10,000 mines, 4,000 of which are already in operation, but without sufficient oversight by the government, environmentalists complain.

The government itself admits that "there are only 40 officials verifying compliance with mining industry regulations, which is insufficient" in this country of 45 million people, the geologist said.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy announced a reform early this month that would increase controls over the mining industry, especially in illegal informal mining that is carried out in different regions, driven by extreme poverty and a lack of incentives for farming like a lack of roads to bring goods to market.

Mining in Colombia is also dangerous. The Colombian Mining Chamber reported that 134 miners died in 2010, while 27 have already been killed so far this year in two explosions in coal mines.

"The best thing would be to push for a popular referendum calling for an overhaul of the mining code and the implementation of policies favourable to the country, to the conservation of its natural and human wealth," Fierro said. "In-depth changes are needed, and they won't come about at the initiative of the government or the legislature."

The referendum proposal should be promoted by the Red Colombiana Frente a la Gran Minería Transnacional, a coalition of over 50 social organisations that emerged in February 2010, he said.


Greystar: Colombia gold plan won't hurt ecosystem

By Diana Delgado

Reuters

24 January 2011

BOGOTA- Canadian gold miner Greystar Resources said on Monday its gold and silver Angostura project in Colombia poses no threat to the ecosystem amid growing opposition from local authorities.

Colombia is studying whether to grant a license for the project but Bogota has already accepted that the company does not have to resubmit its environmental study to conform to new regulations in the Andean nation.

"There is no danger to the city of Bucaramanga or any other small municipality in the vicinity," Greystar President and CEO Steve Kesler told Reuters by email.

"The project as designed provides the maximum benefit to the economy, job creation and can be carried out with care of the environment," he added.

Greystar will have a second public hearing on March 4 after which the environment ministry will decide on the license.

Colombian state ombudsman has recommended the government consider rejecting the license. While Bogota is not obliged to follow the recommendation, it usually abides by the request, said Jose Fernando Restrepo of the brokerage Interbolsa.

"There is a high probability that the government does not authorize the environmental license for the proposed project," Restrepo said.

Greystar planned to start construction of the mine early this year. Output of gold and silver was expected to begin in the second half of 2012 with an average output of 2.3 million ounces of silver per year over a 15-year mine life.

Colombia, once written off as a failing state mired in drug violence, is enjoying a resurgence in oil and mining investment as its long guerrilla war wanes and companies return to explore in areas that used to be dismissed as too dangerous.

Angostura has 10.2 million troy ounces of measured and indicated gold reserves and 3.4 million of inferred resources with 74 million ounces of silver reserves and resources, according to preliminary studies.

The local environmental authority for the city of Bucaramanga (CDMB), some lawmakers and the state's ombudsman oppose Angostura. Foes argue that the project would hurt the delicate paramo ecosystems. They say it would threaten water quality, plants and animals in northeastern Santander province.

"The project as it is proposed is not feasible. They have to find another alternative ... it cannot be an open-pit mine," said Elvia Paez, general manager of the CDMB.

Paez said that an open-pit mine would require using approximately 1,100 hectares, of which 53 percent are located above Paramo and the rest in Andean forest.

The project may risk water resources that supply 2.2 million inhabitants as well as the endemic species, she said.

Paramo occurs in the Andes between upper forest limits and the lower edges of snow line, but in Colombia, Paramo ecosystems vary depending on the mountain range.

Kesler, however, said the company's studies showed there were no species of flora and fauna in the project's site that were not also found throughout the area.

If the license is rejected, Greystar could reconfigure the project, including possibly turning it into an underground mine -- but that would put the project back two years, Kesler said.

"This means delay in and less investment, fewer jobs and less royalties and taxes," he said.

(Editing by Jack Kimball; Editing by David Gregorio)

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