Careful with the Páramos!
Editorial El TIEMPO Newspaper - www.eltiempo.com
13th July 2007
Colombia - The fifty days of operations of Geoperforaciones, a company contracted by the mining firm Acerías Paz de Río to analyze coal deposits, ended up being very costly for the high mountain páramo of Rabanal, located between Boyacá and Cundinamarca in Colombia.
A 350 meter deep well was drilled, some 25,000 frailejón (a species of rose) plants were destroyed, a road cut through the heart of the wetlands, and dams and diversions were constructed in creeks from which originate the water supplies of the 300,000 people of eight municipalities who live below. In the words of Corpoboyacá, "very serious damages were caused in 10,000 square meters of the wetlands, with damages against a species of frailejón in danger of extinction."
Many of the specimens destroyed were over 200 years old. This is just an example, as recently reported in this newspaper, of how little our páramos matter to some people. The páramos are a unique and extremely fragile system of high mountain wetlands, found only in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. They are a vital source of water, serve as carbon sinks and support endemic biodiversity, as well as being essential spaces for the development of indigenous and campesino cultures in the Andes. They compromise ecosystems which are very vulnerable and seriously threatened by climate change and livestock and extractive industries.
Because of its importance, the Rabanal páramo has been selected as one of the pilot sites for Colombia in the Andean Páramo Project, financed by the Global Environmental Fund, with the goal of protecting this valuable ecosystem. The waters which emerge from these wetlands support almost one hundred aqueducts and several reservoirs and lakes which provide water for some 180,000 persons and irrigate more than a million hectares. The Acerías project is destined to be the first extractive intervention. In 2001 the company reported carrying out 44 coal explorations with various constructions. According to the Ministry of Mines, there are 22 claims filed for the extraction of coal and one for construction materials in the area. We will have to wait and see what the environmental impact of mining colonization will be.
Unfortunately, what happened to Rabanal is not the exception. Many other páramos are threatened by gold, coal, lime and gravel operations, as well as livestock and other inappropriate uses of these systems. Colombia has over a million hectares of páramo. By the end of 2005, some 311,000 of them were covered with mining concessions, and 62,000 had active mining concessions awarded. The threat looming over the páramos is very high.
A confusing section of the Mining Code of 2001 describing areas protected from mining is serving to award mining titles in highly environmentally sensitive areas. This is taking place despite conditions put forth by Constitutional Courts, which interpret this article saying "the decision should be necessarily inclined towards the protection of the environment, as if mining activities are carried out and later found to cause serious damages, it will be impossible to correct the consequences" (Sentence C-339 of 2002).
This is exactly what happened in Rabanal. Who is now going to replace the frailejones? The solution is obvious: Aside from imposing a fine as an example to those responsible for the damages produced, the reformulation of the necessary articles in the Mining Code is necessary, to put into highlight the most important objective: The defense and preservation of the páramos.