Showing posts with label mining. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mining. Show all posts

Friday, May 9, 2014

Colombia - Country of Conflicts

La Guajira residents protest against a proposed rerouting of the Rancheria River.
We know that Colombia has the world's longest-running domestic armed conflict, now closing in on a half-century. But Colombia is also a world leader in environmental and other conflicts, according to several recent reports.

The two phenomena, likely, aren't unrelated.

Houses near the Marmato gold mine in Caldas Department.
Mine neighbors won a lawsuit against
the mine for damage to their homes.
A report issued in March by the awkwardly-named Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade (Ejolt) counted 72 environmental conflicts in Colombia, primarily around hydroelectric dams, petroleum production and agroindustrial projects, second only to the 112 conflicts they counted in India. Colombia had far more conflicts even than much bigger countries such as Brazil, where they counted 58. Tiny Ecuador had 48 conflicts, Argentina had 32, Perú 31 and Chile 30, according to Ejolt's count.

The study, which has to be subjective (what exactly rates being a conflict?) still provides a measure of the accelerating exploitation of natural resources in Colombia and across the region, which inevitably generates conflicts between the projects' often impoverished neighbors and the huge corporations carrying out those projects.
The Marmato gold mine in Caldas Department.

For his part, Prof. Mario Alejandro Pérez of the Universidad del Valle, counted 110 environmental conflicts in Colombia, of which he was able to gather sufficient information about 72. (Perez worked with the Ejolt).

According to Perez, 59% of the conflicts are related to mining and oil production, and slightly more than half involve foreign multinational corporations.

In La Guajira, a desert peninsula, the Cerrejo coal mine has proposed rerouting the Ranchería River to expand the mine. In Caldas Department, owners of the centuries-old Marmato gold mine want to displace a town to expand the mine.

All across the country, many of the generally poor communities near mines and petroleum fields have protested against the health and environmental impacts they suffer, while receiving few benefits.

In recent years, Colombia has opened itself up to resource extraction, including mining and oil drilling, bringing powerful corporations into conflict with poor people and the natural environment. In a nation in which power is very unevenly distributed and poor people feel powerless against sophisticated corporations, it's not surprising that tensions often break out into conflicts, some of them violent.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Colombia's Invisible Mines

Colombia exports about 100 tons of tungsten per year. But, strangely, the country has only one legal tungsten mine - and it isn't operating, according to a recent Bloomberg News report. Instead, the tungsten - used in cars, smartphones and tablet computers - apparently comes from an illegal mine called Tiger Hill operated by the FARC guerrillas in southern Colombia.

Today's El Espectador contains a report about Colombian municipalities which recieve substantial incomes from gold mining royalties. Strangely, however, many of those municipalities have few or no gold mines.

Then there's coltan, also used in many electronic devices. Colombia has little coltan - but Venezuela apparently has lots of it, in particular near the Colombian border. In 2009, Venezuela prohibited coltan mining. That didn't shutter the industry, however, but just pushed it into the hands of outlaws such as Colombia's guerrillas, paramilitaries and other criminal groups.

Illegal mining has long been a bane for Colombia's society, economy and environment. Illegal artesanal miners use poisonous materials such as cyanide and mercury but don't have the knowledge or resources to safely dispose of them. But illegal mining has become a growing source of income for illegal groups. In 2012, Colombia exported almost $2 million dollars worth of tungsten to a single company in the United States which manufactures wire and other industrial supplies, according to Bloomberg news. After Bloomberg inquired, the buyer said it would stop purchasing Colombian tungsten.

And the legal mining industry, with all of its own social and environmental impacts, uses the spectre of illegal mining to pressure governments to approve large-scale mining. After all, in a country like Colombia with abundant minerals, corruption and weak rule of law, if legal companies do not exploit minerals, most likely somebody else less answerable to the law will do so.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Big Mining, Small Taxes?

Mining, in all its beauty.

President Santos often calls the mining sector one of Colombia's economic 'locomotives.' But a new report by the contraloria, the government audit office, suggests that the mining industry isn't contributing all that it should for Colombia.

According to the new report, summarized by El Tiempo, the mining industry is using questionable deductions to radically reduce its taxes - 200 pesos in taxes lost for each 100 actually paid. As a result, while mining's official tax rate is 33% of profits, its actual rate is only about 10%.

The report also found contradictions between Colombia's actual gold export numbers and those reported to the government, which were 53 tons less between 2003 and 2011.

Mining, of course, does pump money into the economy in other ways, thru wages and purchase. But it also has a huge deficit, particular from its environmental impacts. For each ton of coal produced, the industry produces ten times as much waste, called tailings. Some of those tailings cover forests and choke rivers. El Espectador reported recently that there are many mining concessions inside of National Parks, apparently in violation of the law.

Mining is already notorious, of course, for its environmental impacts, often dubious respect for environmental laws and its often unhealthy impacts on poor neighboring communities.

And things may get even worse for the environment. In 2010, Colombia approved a new Mining Code to replace the 2001 version. But the next year a court ruled the 2010 code invalid because indigenous communities had not been consulted. At the same time, the court extended the code's validity for two years while a replacement could be developed. But a new code hasn't been created, meaning that as of mid-May the weak, outdated old 2001 code may kick back in.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Trouble at Cerro Matoso

Machinery at work at the Cerro Matoso nickel ore mine.
(Photo: W Radio)
Veteran journalist Juan Gossain has this grim full-page story in today's El Tiempo about troubles at the huge Cerro Matoso nickel mine. The mine has long been controversial because of questions about its environmental licenses. Its current license was first issued more than 30 years ago, when environmental standards were far lower. And the mine's operating license was recently extended to at least 2029, and perhaps 2044.

According to Gossain, people in communities near the mine have suffered many health problems, including skin diseases and miscarriages. He also cites a report saying that the local river water, which people use for drinking, bathing and fishing, has nickel concentrations many times higher than those considered safe.

The Cerro Matoso nickel ore mine in Cordoba Department.
(Photo: El Espectador
Mining companies generally respond to such accusations by arguing that the data is mistaken and-or that the health problems have other causes. Sometimes, unsophisticated rural people have bad health practices, such as high smoking rates - altho one would imagine that life in the country would generally be healthier than that in the city. They also usually point to company investments in the region.

In this interview in El Tiempo, the president of Cerro Matoso makes such arguments. But he offers few concrete figures. And his comment about the decades-old environmental license still being valid makes me question much of what he says.

In any case, if Gossain's report is accurate, it raises obvious questions. Why are these people, who live in a region of great wealth, so poor and ill? Part of the reason certainly could be alleged corruption and mismanagement among local officials, which caused the central government to suspend royalty payments to the region several years ago. But, notwithstanding that, the mine's operators, it seems to me, have an obligation to improve neighboring communities' quality of life and protect their health.

Skin outbreaks on a child's back in a community near Cerro Matoso.
(Photo: El Tiempo)
On its web site, mine owner BHP Billiton boasts that Cerro Matoso is one of the world's largest and "one of the world's lowest-cost producers" of nickel ore and that the company is considering expanding the mine. Doesn't that suggest that the company could invest more in neighboring communities?

This is far from the first piece of controversy over Cerro Matoso. Last December the controlaria objected to an extention of the mine's environmental license and has said that the mine's license is invalid and that it owes royalties.

ANLA Exposé By W Radio

On Plaza Bolivar, a popsicle seller relaxes near graffiti
denouncing the government's 'mining locomotive.'
To me, the accusations ring true, particularly in light of this harsh report about the National Environmental Licensing Agency, the ANLA, broadcast in February by W Radio.

The radio station had evidently talked to agency whistleblowers and obtained internal ANLA documents which showed that agency directors were watering down environmental requirements.

"There is a permanent tension between the technicians who develop the environmental licenses and the directors who finally sign and issue them," the reporter said.

The reporter said he had a license which had been drawn up by environmental technicians, but then altered by the agency's directors. He said the directors had removed many of the environmental standards, such as measurements of environmental function and biodiversity, forest cover, endangered species, water sedimentation, reforestation as compensation and others.

"These (requirements) are crossed out, in other words they don't demand them of those requesting the environmental license," he said. "The technicians prepare documents in which they try to protect the environment, but directors ask them to remove the requirements to make (the environmental licenses) much weaker."

He also said that in cases where technicians reject environmental applications, ANLA directors may call the applying company and advise them how to modify the application so that it will be approved.

He also described gifts by oil companies to ANLA officials.

"We've also discovered that ANLA directors receive invitations from oil companies, including Pacific Rubiales," the reporter said, including "one to Barranquilla to see a football game.

"Technicians say that the environmental licenses are being issued filled with chambonadas. That licenses developed over weeks and months are taken apart in days."

As an example, he cited a case in which a company had applied to prospect for oil in a place where the earth was so wet for much of the year that the groundwater would be polluted. Tecnicians had rejected the application, but ANLA directors approved it.

He also described a shift in priorities for the agency. Several months ago, he said, the ANLA had three attorneys drawing up environmental licenses and seven doing follow-up to ensure compliance. But now, they have three attorneys are drawing up licenses and only one doing following up."

He quoted a director of the ANLA, who said "We are paid to issue licenses, not to deny them."

Pres. Juan Manuel Santos would probably agree with the ANLA official. He likes to call mining a "locomotive" of Colombia's economy.

The W Radio reporter said that ANLA officials had not responded to requests for comments.

El Tiempo columnist Manuel Rodriguez Becerra writes that the Anla is required to decide on environmental licenses within 180 days, whereas other nations' environmental authorities are given several years to make such judgements. Even worse, Becerra points out that the Anla is responsible for only 30 of the more than 2,000 extant environmental licenses. While Anla is responsible for the very large mining and infrastructure projects, the rest are handled by the Regional Autonomous Corporations, known as CARs, which are notorious for political influences.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Colombia vs. Columbia

One of the most common mistakes committed by anglophiles unfamiliar with the nation at the northern end of South America is to spell its name 'Columbia.' But the misspelling might represent something much more profound than bad ortography.

A map indicates regions
designated for mining. 
An art exhibit, named 'A Nation Belonging to Others,' by Fernando Arias, on now in the NC Galeria in the Macarena neighborhood uses the O vs. U difference to portray two nations: A healthy one with burgeoning biodiversity and lots of indigenous culture, and another that is selling out its culture and biodiversity to outsiders.

Like many modern art exhibits, this one could be visually more interesting. Almost its entire first floor consists of a taut red string describing Colombia's borders, perhaps to illustrate the weakness of the country's frontiers, and the word 'Columbia' on the back wall. Oh, and there's a reworked version of the nation's coat of arms, with rapacious hawks landing on it, and nearby the words 'Sale' in English. On the second floor you'll see a video denouncing mega-mining and a sculpture of Colombia's three Andean mountain ranges that's apparently made from gold. (You can't touch it.)

But if the artwork isn't so impressive, the idea of two Colombias, or a Colombia at a crossroads, is interesting.

Colombia and Columbia. 
And, sadly, the artist's point seems to be true. Colombia has opened itself wide to foreign investment, which has helped drive economic growth, but also appears to be destroying much of the country's biodiversity while creating few good jobs.

Should somebody rename the country?

Incidentally, I'd always wondered why Colombia IS spelled as it is and not 'Colonia' (from Cristobal Colon), or 'Columbia' (from Cristopher Columbus). That, probably, showed my own ignorance. The real reason is that the country's name comes from 'Colombo,' the Italian-born explorers original name.

Colombia's Andes Mountain ranges in gold. 

Pres. Santos has declared 17 million hectares as 'mining-energy reserve.'

'...a Colombia which appears to be always disposed to give itself away without hesitation for the most mediocre and pathetic prices.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Minister From the Wrong Environment

Colombian biodiversity - in good hands?

After eight years, Colombia, one of the world's most biodiverse nations, finally has a minister of the environment again. 

In 2003, then-Pres. Alvaro Uribe merged the ministry of the environment into that of housing and territorial development - in order to save money, I suppose. A glance at the combined ministry's website shows that its housing side, which generates political support, gets lots more priority than does environmental regulation, which can cost votes.

So it was encouraging last June when Pres. Juan Manuel Santos once again gave the environment its own ministry.

Frank Pearl: Good at resolving armed conflict,
but can he protect the environment?
However, it would be more reassuring if Pres. Juan Manuel Santos had actually appointed an environmentalist to head the ministry. His designee, Frank Pearl is, by all appearances, an intelligent, accomplished well-meaning guy. He was Pres. Uribe's high commissioner for integrating ex-guerrilla and paramilitary combatants into society. He's also got university degrees in law, economics and business administration, and has taught, worked and studied in such far-flung places as Canada, Russia, Ukrania and Lithuania. He's also been an activist against Colombia's conflict.

An open-pit mine in Colombia.
The gold, coal and other industries
want more of these.
But missing from his resume is experience on the environment. As Colombia's environmental minister,  Pearl will be charged with safeguarding some of the planet's greatest biodiversity - at a time when it is under assault by oil, mining, agricultural and other economic interests eager to yank Colombia's natural resources out of the ground and ship them north to wealthy nations.

One suspects, unfortunately, that Pearl was chosen because, as a greenhorn on the environment  and untrained in biodiversity defense, extraction industries expect him to be a pushover for those strip-mining, clear-cutting multinationals.

Wasn't there anybody else available? The leader of an environmentalist NGO? A respected official in the existing ministry of the environment and housing?

Sandra Bessudo: Too radical to be minister?
Back in July, the president had said he'd appoint Sandra Bessudo, a current ministry official and accomplished defender of the marine environment, to head the new ministry. But Bessudo, something of a hippie Earth child, was perhaps too radical and unconventional for Pres. Santos' pro-business agenda. Fortunately, at least, she will be staying on at the ministry.

Most disappointingly, I haven't heard any objections to Pearl's apppointment. In fact, Colombian beauty queen crownings have sometimes generated more controversy.

Perhaps Pearl will surprise. For Colombia's future, let's hope he does.

But I'm not betting on it. And I suspect that the multinationals don't expect him too, either.

See Also: Environment: A Ministry Found. ... and Lost?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Defending the Upia River

On Plaza Bolívar, protesting mining pollution along the Upia River. 
Today, people who live near the Upia River protested on Plaza Bolívar against the impacts of mining along the river.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get details from them about what sort of mining - whether gold, coal, silver or emeralds - is being done there, or details about the impacts on the environment and the people, whether erosion, pollution or the destruction of biodiversity.

Pollution, likely from small, illegal mines,
near the city of Buenaventura (Photo:
The answer most likely is 'most or all of these impacts.' Colombia is experiencing a mining boom, which brings in billions of dollars in royalties, but also takes a huge toll on the nation's environment. Authorities have tried to exercise control on some mines, most famously the suspension of  Greystar's gold mine, planned in or near a high-altitude wetland called a paramo. On the other hand, the small, informal and often illegal mines generally produce proportionately more pollution from chemicals including mercury and cyanide, and also endanger their workers. The Santos administration has tried to shut down thousands of illegal mines - but that's only a little easier than ending the drug trade.

The Upia River (Photo:
The Upia River, located on the eastern side of the Andes Mtns east of Bogota, hasn't made much news, which probably means that destructive mining goes on there unchecked and unnoticed by anybody outside the region.

Large-scale mining, altho generally cleaner than small, informal mines, has been widely criticized in Colombia as a losing proposition, both economically and environmentally. The government has called mining the 'locomotive' of economic growth, and it does contribute a lot to the GPD. But mining areas tend to be poor and environmentally damaged. And those royalties often feed corruption instead of improving common people's lives.

The fear is: When Colombia's finally dug up up and exported all of its natural resources, it'll be left still poor and corrupt and with its tremendous biodiversity gone forever.

Few nations have built stable, solid democracies and a strong middle class, which is the foundation of every democracy, by exporting raw materials. Rather, they turn those raw materials into finished products, such as furniture, computers and airplanes and sell them for much more money, generating lots of skilled, good-paying jobs along the way.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Two Wins for the Environment

Gold mountain?
Colombia's environment scored two wins the other day:

In one, Canadian mining company Greystar backed off of its plan for a huge open-pit gold mine near the city of Bucaramanga, after environmental authorities said the project was unacceptable. Colombia is experiencing a gold mining boom as the metal's price has soared - with its related environmental impacts: jungles and wetlands destroyed and rivers poisoned with mercury and choked with silt.

The proposed Greystar Mine might have been better than most - the company had promised to reforest six acres for each one destroyed and to carefully manage the cyanide it used. And, the company argued, much of the area planned for its mine had already been damaged by illegal, informal miners, who use even-more-damaging mercury.

Illegal mining's devastation - the worst of all worlds. (Foto: Dinero magazine)
Certainly, Greystar's project might have been less bad than others, but the project would have made a travesty of Colombian law prohibiting mining in paramos: high-altitude wetlands which produce much of the country's fresh water. To have approved this project would have made a mockery of the law and set a terrible precedent.

Map showing mining concessions overlaid on
forest areas in  the Serrania de San Lucas.
Foto: Geominas
Besides, Colombia still has time to escape from the long list of 'developing' nations which have sold off their natural resources and been left with only poverty and a devastated environment to show for it. Tragically, raw material production often feeds corruption and outlaw groups and does little to develop the kind of skilled jobs which build sustainable economic growth.

Now, Greystar is talking about building instead an undergound mine, which would cause much less environmental impact, but produce less gold and be more dangerous for miners. That could be a reasonable compromise, and would demonstrate that Colombia's environmental laws do mean something.

If Colombian officials respect the spirit of the laws protecting paramos, these critical wetlands could be preserved for more future generations - or at least until they fall victim to global warming.

Jumping for joy?
The second win for the environment was Colombia's decision to join the International Whaling Commission. Why this was an issue at all is a mystery to me. After all, Colombians do not either hunt or eat whales, and the country's relations with whale-hunting nations aren't particularly close. But Colombia is increasingly marketing itself as a whale watching destination. Every year between July and November, humpbacks meet and mate off of Colombia's Pacific Coast.

In 2009, the Dominican Republic joined the IWC, leaving Venezuela as the only Latin American nation outside of the organizaion. (Some small Carribean nations have joined apparently at the behest of Japan and defend its whale hunting.)

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours