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June 3, 2013 8:32 pm

Eco protests grow over mining expansion

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When it comes to biodiversity, Colombia has few rivals. Thanks to one of the most varied geographies anywhere, with Andean mountains and Amazon rainforest, and as the only South American country with Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, it is home to the world’s largest number of bird species and the second-largest number of amphibians. 

The country’s relatively small population – just 47m people live in an area almost twice the size of France – and complicated topography, which has hampered the construction of physical infrastructure, have shielded Colombia’s biodiversity from the often traumatic effects of development.

The insurgency war of 50 years has, in many cases, acted as an unlikely protector of the country’s natural habitats, deterring would-be developers and leaving much of the countryside relatively untouched – even though armed groups are also responsible for large-scale deforestation for illicit crop growing.

But environmentalists, academics and even voices from the country’s private sector now say Colombia’s rich biodiversity is under threat as never before, and from one source more than any other: mining.

Over the past decade, successive governments have been clear they want to promote mining as a springboard to development. Between 2006 and 2010 alone, the administration of Álvaro Uribe granted about 9,000 mining licences, with an estimated 15,000 more requests caught in a bottleneck of too few officials with too little office space to approve them.

Manuel Rodríguez, a former environment minister, was horrified. “It was like the Wild West,” he says. “All you had to do was put money in a government bank account and send the co-ordinates of your claim via the internet. It was one of the easiest procedures in Colombia.”

More recently, President Juan Manuel Santos has stated his intention to make mining, which accounts for just 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product, one of several “locomotives” of economic growth. Last year, he left more than a few environmental groups agog when he announced to the UN conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro the decision to create what he described as “a strategic mining area” of 17.6m ha in Colombia’s Amazon region.

What worries environmentalists such as Astrid Puentes, co-executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, a non-governmental organisation, is that the opening of potential mining areas coincides with the ramping-up in recent years of international commodities and metals prices.

“Higher prices have made mining companies look at areas they would never even have considered a decade ago,” she says. “That represents a very real threat to the country’s delicate ecosystems.”

To be fair, the Santos administration has been more cautious than the previous administration on the mining issue, and it has declared a moratorium on mining concessions until a new mining code, which is being drawn up, is passed.

“In Colombia, areas of great importance in terms of the ecosystem are legally protected,” says the ANM, the national mining agency, which is responsible for assessing mining applications.  

But the ANM also says it is working hard to improve efficiency for the mining sector and to “solve some bottlenecks that, once resolved, will give greater fluidity to mining, generate greater confidence for the industry and strengthen effective control over the sector”.

In the past nine months alone, the ANM says, it has resolved more than 12,000 applications that had been stuck for years pending a decision. By this July, it intends to have a virtual platform up and running to handle applications from mining companies considerably faster than before. “These changes will allow us to promote orderly, planned and sustainable development of the sector,” the agency says. 

Yet for all these good intentions, Santos and his government appear to have pleased nobody so far. According to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank that sends an annual questionnaire to leading mining companies, Colombia has plummeted in the rankings of preferred destinations for the industry. Meanwhile, the country fell in Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index to 27th in the world last year from ninth four years earlier.

For environmentalists such as Puentes, these falls reflect what she calls the government’s “schizophrenic” approach to sustainability and open-pit mining. “The government still hasn’t come to terms with a basic issue,” she says. “Large-scale mining and environmental sustainability don’t go together.”

 

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