Urgent Action: Protect Vital Wetlands in Colombia from Canadian Mining Project

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

This urgent action is being distributed by the Colombian Network Against Large-Scale Transnational Mining (Reclame Colombia), which brings together nearly fifty organizations in Colombia.

The letter below can also be signed on to at the RECLAME web site: http://www.reclamecolombia.org/

Doctor
Beatriz Elena Uribe Botero
Minister of Environment, Housing, and Territorial Development
Republic of Colombia

Honourable Doctor,

I would like to request that your ministry pronounce itself with regard to the Angostura project belonging to Greystar Resources Ltd., asking that the environmental license that the company has requested for open-pit gold and silver extraction in the municipalities of Vetas and California in the department of Santander be denied. This decision should be made based upon official information from Colombia's Páramo Atlas and the company's own environmental impact study demonstrating that 81% of the total area destined for extraction, processing of ore with cyanide, and waste rock, is situated within the Páramo of Santurbán, an area in which mining activities are not permitted.

Article 34 of the mining code states that “mining exploration and extraction activities and works cannot be executed within areas declared and demarcated according to current norms for protection and development of renewable natural resources or the environment.” According to the same norm, such areas include, among others, “areas within the national natural parks system, regional natural parks, protected forest reserve areas and other areas of forest reserves, páramo ecosystems and designated wetlands of international importance according to the Ramsar Convention list.”

The same article indicates that activities will be respected, without opportunity for extension, which were built, assembled or in production with a mining title and environmental licence at the time that the norm was emitted (Law 1382 dated February 9th 2010). Given this, it is worth noting that at this time the Angostura project had hardly begun exploration and did not have an environmental license, which leaves the illegal intention of this project without grounds for removing gold from Santurbán. Illegal because, in any case, the páramos enjoyed legal protection before the mining code was reformed, according to international environmental treaties and the Political Constitution, which are superior laws with undeniable prevalence, and which already excluded such activities from these lands.

The páramo are vital ecosystems, which given their low temperatures and unique vegetation have the capacity to capture, store and regulate flows of surface and underground waters. They also store carbon with even greater capacity than tropical forests, and provide refuge for endemic species of flora and fauna. It is also important to indicate their cultural, economic and social importance, such as the fact that they are found within only five countries on the planet, the greatest extent of which are located within Colombia. We have the privilege to shelter within our territory 60% of all the páramos in the world, while the other 40% is divided between Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Costa Rica.

It is not an overstatement to further recall that the sources of water that arise from the Páramo of Santurbán supply the aqueducts of the city of Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, and 21 other municipalities in the department of Santander. In other words, to emit an environmental license for the Angostura project, would put in grave risk the water on which more than two million Colombians depend. This situation corresponds to the fact that 70% of the water for human consumption in Colombia comes from the páramos, such that to allow a company to trample on national and international norms and to get away with it would be a terrible precedent that would put the health and life of Colombians in danger.

The privilege we have to possess the greatest proportion of páramos in the world, brings with it an ethical duty and an undeniable responsibility to protect them, such that the highest environmental authority in Colombia cannot continue to leave any doubt in this regard. As you yourself have indicated, “mining exploitation is completely and definitively prohibited in the páramos and other areas in national territory” (October 19th 2010). This affirmation has to be accompanied by concrete actions and decisions that demonstrate the government's will to protect the collective interest and the environment, over that of particular interests.

To leave no further room for distorted and false legal interpretations, the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development should duly fulfill its duty and apply the precautionary principle, environmental legislation, and the mining code. The Constitutional Court stated this much in its sentence C-443 of 2009, in which it “exhorted the Ministry of Environment, as well as the autonomous regional corporations and the competent environmental authorities to fulfill their environmental duties... and adopt effective means for the protection of the environment in general, as well as areas of special ecological importance such as the páramos... applying the precautionary principle... in such a way as that when there is a lack of absolute scientific certainty with regard to mining exploration or extraction in a given area that the decision should necessarily tend toward environmental protection.”

We are not talking about just any project, but rather one that implies the introduction to Colombia of the most contaminating industrial activity on earth, since in addition to destroy the vegetal layer, along with surface and underground waters, open pit gold mining cannot take place without the use of contaminating substances such as cyanide. This chemical is considered one of the principal contaminants in the world, given that as a result of its toxicity it can have a catastrophic and irreversible impact on human health, the environment and biological diversity (Science 2010). These and other environmental impacts, are rarely born by the companies involved, which often disappear or end up in bankruptcy. Rather, it is often the state, and particularly local populations that in addition to suffering the damages, have to pay to remediate them.

Furthermore, in May 2010, the European Parliament decided to recommend that the European Commission consider the prohibition of cyanide on the entire European continent considering that in the last twenty five years more than thirty serious accidents have taken place related to spills of this chemical. This is due to increases in extreme weather conditions, such as strong and frequent rains, as well as the weak application of current legislation with relation to the use of cyanide in mining which does not provide any real guarantee that new accidents will not take place.

It is clear that the Ministry of Environment not only has sufficient legal, technical and ethical basis to immediately deny the environmental license for the Angostura project belonging to Greystar Resources Ltd., but also that it has the support of the national and international citizenry with which to make a decision that should have been made public months ago.

It is essential that the protection of water resources, biodiversity and the human right to water be prioritized, and that the obligation of the Colombian state be fulfilled to protect the páramo ecosystems. Therefore, I reiterate the request that national and international environmental dispositions be rigorously applied, including the express exclusion of mining activities from within páramos found in article 34 of the Mining Code, such that the environmental license for the Angostura project in the páramo of Santurbán, department of Santander be rejected as soon as possible.

Attentively,

(your name here)