Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mining's Curse

An anti-mining mural by Toxicomano on 26th Street in Bogotá. The text says 'Water is worth more than gold.' 
The misbehavior of Drummond Coal company has made headlines in recent weeks. The United States-based coal miner and exporter was fined recently for spilling coal into Santa Marta Bay, and now has been forced to stop exports because of its failure to replace its barges with a direct loading system, despite having been ordered to do so years ago.

Colombian coal production has boomed in
recent years as security has improved.
Nearly all of Colombia's coal is exported. 
Today's El Tiempo reports more government allegations against Drummond, including that it extended a pier without a permit and used higher-capacity barges than it had reported. If those and other charges are confirmed, Drummond could be subject to more big fines.

Drummond has helped make Colombia the world's fourth-largest coal exporter, but left a trail of controversy. The company has also been sued for allegedly collaborating with right-wing paramilitary groups to repress and even murder union leaders. Drummond denies the accusations. Pres. Juan Manuel Santos calls mining one of the 'locomotives' of Colombia's economy, and mining pours huge sums into the economy - but at a great social and environmental cost.

An exhibition in the Claustro de San Agustin paints a dire picture of mining's impacts on
El Cerrejon coal mine. 
Colombia's environment and indigenous people. Controls on the industry are weak, according to the exhibition, and much of Colombia's mining is carried out in highly biodiverse regions and even in 'protected' areas. Unlike many other mining nations, Colombia does not require environmental impact studies for mineral exploration, but only for actual exploitation. And the country has only 15 government inspectors to oversee 6,000 mines.

Ironically, the requirement that mining companies replace their barge loading systems with direct loading systems such as conveyor belts will produce different environmental impacts if the transport ships must approach the shore, requiring dredging of the seafloor.

Black stain in Santa Marta Bay, apparently
from coal exporting. (Image: Alejandro Arias)
Today, the Contraloria released its second report about mining, titled 'Mining in Colombia: Institutionality and Territory,' which found that in many cases mining licenses are granted without sufficient requirements to restore the area, and that licenses are often granted without considering the environmental and social impacts of the projects. The government also does not consider the often violent conflicts generated by mining projects, which are usually located in regions with weak government presence. And those areas with the most mining are usually the poorest with the lowest quality of life, according to the Contraloria's report. That is in part due to mining's negative health impacts and to the low salaries of mining jobs.

This week, neighbors spotted a black stain in the waters near Santa Marta, apparently caused by coal. Drummond said that it didn't cause the pollution, which may come from another company washing off its coal loading equipment.

Coincidentally, a United Nations report released today also found that coal mining in Cesar Department has actually increased poverty in the region, as well as drug addiction and prostitution by young women.

(Images below are from the exhibition in the Claustro de San Agustin)
Foreign mining companies working in Colombia. With five major mines, Canadian companies dominate Colombian mining. There are also two South African-owned mines and one owned by the United States-based Drummond Coal.
Colombia has only 15 inspectors for its 6,000 mines. And Colombia does not require environmental licenses for exploratory work for minerals. 
In several Colombian departments, illegal mines far outnumber legal ones. 
Pres. Alvaro Uribe gave mining companies huge tax benefits and removed restrictions on their expansion. 
More than 200 mining licenses are partly or completely within indigenous territories. 
Many 'protected areas' have mines or proposed mines within their borders.
'Many foreign companies use mining methods which are banned in their home countrties.'
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

Feeling quite a bit uncomfortable with all the negativity around the word foreign in this post.

Miguel said...

For better or for worse, foreign companies dominate large-scale mining in Colombia.


Stuart Oswald said...

Being "foreign" is no reason to make them a worse (or better) company than a supposedly home nation company. The word plays on nationalist sentiments.

Miguel said...

No, being foreign doesn't make them any worse. In fact, in Ecuador, where indigenous people are suing Chevron/Texaco over pollution, I saw huge pools of oil spilled by the state oil company. But nobody criticized the Ecuador state company. Sometimes, foreign companies behave better because of fear of criticism at home, or because they have better, cleaner technologies.