Increasingly Broad Social Movements Fight Mining in Colombia

(IPS) – 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).

“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.