MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2006-10-22


Search for Uranium Building Hopes and Worries Among Villagers of Santander

By Féliz Leonardo Quintero, El Tiempo

22nd October 2006

Chima, Santander, Colombia

For some weeks now, the highways and the rains have stopped being the central themes in conversations in Chima (Santander, Colombia). A good part of its more than 3,000 inhabitants are now only talking about what foreigners could bring to them. Deep within the mountains of Chima lie some of the 2,000 tonnes of uranium which Colombia is said to hold.

Multinational mining corporations want to dig the depths of the mountains of Zapatoca, Simacota, Ábrego, Ocaña and Chima in their search for the radioactive mineral.

Here, where the only people who enjoy the benefits of the aqueduct are those who live in the urban centers, Canadian mining multinational KPS Ventures is searching for uranium, a metal necessary for the generation of nuclear power. Municipal leader, Blas Antionio Ochoa, said that he recently received an unexpected visit from a Colombian geologist and two foreigners who announced to him that the search for uranium will begin in his jurisdiction, but did not tell him when. In his office, located in an old country house in disrepair, in front of a park, the town leader calculated that the exploration could make possible the paving of the 17 kilometers of roadway which separate Chima from Simacota, the nearest town, a route which now requires a torturous journey of two and a half hours.

It is known that the multinational has its sights set upon Chima, Simacota and Zapatoca (in Santander), Ábrego y Ocaña (north of Santander), and on Berlín (Caldas). In fact in Los Santanderes there are already twenty formal solicitations for uranium exploration. "Of the 33,600 hectacres which have been initially requested, the area of exploration will be reduced to some 20,000, because some of the zones indicated are located in the National Park of Los Yariguíes, which is an environmental reserve," said Mauricio Jiménez, regional coordinator of the Institute of Geological-Mining Investigations (INGEOMINAS). It is also known that the investment of the Canadians will reach some seven million dollars (about 16,500 million Colombian pesos), a gigantic sum when compared to the 2,000 million pesos annually managed by the administration of Ochoa, or with the 70 million pesos which the municipality collects in form of taxes annually.

Jiménez says that the studies carried out by the geology institutions indicated that this region holds the major reserves of uranium in Colombia. The bad news is that the country does not have either the technology, specialists or the resources to exploit it. Because of this, if it is to be dug out, the majority of the work will be carried out by multinationals. According to geologist Luis Albino León, a pound of uranium is worth US $40 (some 95,800 pesos) in the international markets.

It is not the first time that foreign firms are testing the southwest of Santander in search of this material. Campesino Pedro Caro remembers the first feelers. It was 32 years ago, when Canadians and workers of the Colombian firm Enusa, Laea and Coluranio arrived in the mountains.

The search for uranium has aroused all sorts of discussions in Chima. Father Alfredo Mogollón, parish priest of the only church in Chima, fears that the area will become deserted as a consequence of the lack of coordination on the part of authorities managing the issue of uranium mining. "There has been no training or education of the workers to prevent that everyone from seeking work with the foreigners. It is necessary that the people know where this project is heading, and that we design an official project in the face of the mining exploration," said the chaplain of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built more than 300 years ago.

A Scarce, Costly and Dangerous Metal

Uranium is a metallic, radioactive metal with a silver color, heavy, flammable, pliable and very toxic. The methods most utilized to unearth uranium are radiation dectectors which point to the presence of the metal through radiation emitted through the earth. Two thousand tonnes of uranium are estimated to lie within Colombia's Eastern Range, principally in Caldas, Los Santanderes and Cundinamarca, according to various studies and numbers of the INGEOMINAS. The company searching for the uranium will have to pay the government some 18,000 Colombian pesos, or seven US dollars, annually per hectare explored.

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