Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Quest for Colombian Gold

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Colombia’s mining industry is trying to re-write its history. Can it turn paramilitary incursions, envorinmental chaos and land disputes into friendlier mining?

Participating in the world economy with a highly strategical mineral and preserving the environment seem to be at odds with each other in Colombia . And issues like workers’ rights come into the picture it seems harder than ever for the Latin American country to stay on good terms with all the different parties involved.

Lets start with a bit of background: mining in Colombia has become an important source of income for the nation, since in 2009 it earned more than 8 thousand million dollars, representing 25% of the total exports for the nation. Colombian is 4th in the worldwide ranking of coal export, and is also recognized for its gold and emeralds.

Mining is definitely the apple in the eye of many investors and entrepreneurs in Colombia, but it is also the livelihood of hundreds of Colombians who work in the mines in different areas of the country. Blogs like Miners from ChocóMinería Risaralda and Centro Nacional Minero provide a perspective from the viewpoint of those closer connected to the actual extraction of these commodities. One can quickly get a glimpse of the issues that matter to most miners: legalization of de facto mining and how it will enable traditional miners to become legally recognized in their trade, the need to inform others of the recently updated decrees on safety in underground mining and  their interest in trying to clear their names from connections with paramilitary groups.

Safe and green mining is also an issue that concerns the miners: mining that hurts the environment will more than certain affect them and their families and all others who live in the vicinity of the mines. The Collective of Miners from Chocó has even supported campaigns against open pit mining in Colombia, stating that it isn’t about negating mining, but about having socially responsible, economical and environmentally conscientious mining. They call it mining with a human face. And as they state:

“Without mining life is not possible, anti-mining ideas are against nature and history, it is part of the hysteria of some who have no problem using metals but deny their origin”.

So what are some of the voices against mining saying? It seems that disagreement on mining is centered around 3 main issues: environmental concerns, land ownership and human rights.

On the environmental front we have the well known concerns of the impact on water sources, on biodiversity and on air and land quality, but also the tricky issue of where there are permits for mining and extraction: it seems that in the past years, the government gave permission to extract on lands that were also destined for conservation or as natural preserves. And it seems that the newest decree also allows mining extraction in protected areas, so, what are they being protected from?

The Ministry of Environment, Housing and Land Development and the Ministry of Mines and Energy spoke at the VI Mining Show in Medellin, and they’ve expressed their interest in fighting mining crimes by being able to create an interinstitutional law enforcing organization to prosecute illegal miners and those who even though they might be legal, are extracting products in manners harmful to the environment.

However, this is easier said than done: Colombia’s history in fighting crime is not the most successful. After all, the war on drugs in Colombia has been going on for about 15 years and it seems it will never be won. So what is the certainty that these new laws will help with the environmental issues?

About the land ownership dilemma which was extensively written by Francisco Ramirez of the Grupo Semillas, an organization focusing on sustainable use of biodiversity, collective rights and food security. He wrote back in 2007 with some scary statistics regarding forced displacement and the impact multinational mining companies have on the population :

“Poverty in the fields reached 67%, in the cities 64%. 23.4% of the population live in extreme poverty, there are more than 3 million people unemployed, and about 4 million people have been forcefully displaced, 160 children die every day from hunger, malnutrition and lack of medical attention. 85% of youth don’t have access to higher education… In conclusion, the mining industry not only produces a grave impact on the land but also fundamentally in the population who lives from it”.

Also, in 2006, the people of the south of the Bolivar region in Colombia claimed to have been displaced by joint actions of the military and multinational corporations,  after their lands were discovered to be rich in gold. In their press release they stated:

“Our communities have worked and lived in the region, making a living from mining and agriculture for generations. In the past 10 years, multinationals from the mining sector, motivated by the great riches in the region have wanted to take our lands, developing through the years the same strategies through murder, terror, looting, etc, supported by the state and the paramilitarism”.

Although the situation in Colombia regarding paramilitarism isn’t as dire as it once was the government is still struggling to deal with the backlash of these forced expropriations.

The remaining issue would be the concern regarding the Human Rights of those who live from mining or live around mines. For miners themselves, the insecurity they face in their line of work, which in the past 10 years have caused more than 200 deaths. The problem is a complex one: regulations are being put in place to protect the security of miners, but illegal mining outfits aren’t the kind to worry about regulations on safety, if they don’t even comply with operational aspects. The Director for the Colombian Mining Office, César Díaz Guerrero, explains about some of the challenges the government faces in regulating these activities :

“The License to explore can sometimes take up to 3 years, while the illegal outfit just brings a backhoe and is already producing within the week… What we have today is the accumulated result of decades of inadequate management of mining. The challenge is colossal and it can’t be changed overnight“.

Accidents are usually blamed on Ingeominas, The Colombian Institute for Geology and Mining. Mauricio Flechas, who coordinates the institute’s operations in Boyaca, where more than 14.500 mine shafts for coal extraction exist, stated that the responsibility is also for the business owners and mayors of the towns where the mines are located, since most of the accidents could have been prevented on the official mines if security measures had been put in place.

Mining will continue to take place in Colombia and the government has its eyes set on Coltan, a combination of columbite–tantalite that is used in all sorts of electronic devices and which is known popularly as blue gold. Surely, even mining’s loudest detractors will have to consider that it is due to Coltan that they can have their gadgets including cell phones, computers, mp3 players and video games, or satellite TV. Maybe Coltan’s short but violent history will bring the message home quickly: mining is here to stay, now we just have to make sure it is done in the best way possible, protecting the environment, the health of people in the industry and the human rights of all those involved.

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