With the water supply of millions of people at risk, we urge the ministry to publish details of the demarcation and ensure that this fragile ecosystem remains free of large-scale mining operations
(Bogotá, Colombia) Colombia’s Ministry of Environment announced the delimitation of the Santurbán Páramo, a high-altitude wetland ecosystem that supplies water to millions of people in the country. While the ministry disclosed some aspects of the measure to the media, it has not released full details. These include the full extension of the demarcation, exact coordinates and which mining operations are inside or outside of the defined area.
The ministry stated that the protected area would increase from 11,000 hectares to 42,000 hectares in the department of Santander. However, according to the Colombian Humboldt Institute’s atlas, the ecosystem has a surface area of at least 82,000 hectares in the departments of Santander and North Santander.
“We do not know if the protected area covers the total area of the páramo in both departments. Nor do we know the coordinates or what mining titles will be affected. We do not even know if there is a written draft of the official decision. This seems incompatible with the right to access accurate and impartial information, as enshrined in the Colombian Constitution,” said lawyer Carlos Lozano-Acosta of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA).
The páramo of Santurbán supply water to nearly two million people, including the cities of Bucaramanga and Cúcuta. As is common for this ecosystem, the páramo of Santurbán has a diversity of flora and fauna and is important for storage of atmospheric carbon, helping to mitigate climate change effects. According to the law, the demarcation of this ecosystem should be formally and clearly defined in order to prevent harmful activities such as large-scale mining, which could cause irreversible damage.
According to the Ministry, companies with mining concessions and environmental licenses will remain in Santurbán. The ministry said that the demarcation affects only 10 of 29 mining titles, including those of the Canadian firm Eco Oro Minerals. It did not provide any further details. Without the exact coordinates of the ecosystem, it is not possible to know precisely the extent of the demarcation and the ongoing threat that large-scale mining poses to this water source.
Eco Oro has threatened to pursue legal action if the final decision affects their investment, presumably basing its arguments on the free trade agreement between Colombia and Canada that would allow the company to sue Colombia in an international tribunal.
“Colombians should not pay a company for investing where it should not, much less if it threatens their water supplies. Colombian law prohibits mining in páramos. We call on Eco Oro to respect Colombians’ right to water instead of threatening legal action to protect their investment,” said Jennifer Moore of MiningWatch Canada.
Kristen Genovese of the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) said, “Eco Oro is not only violating Colombian law with regard to mining in the páramo, but the project is inconsistent with the social and environmental standards of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is financing the project. We believe that an investigation now underway regarding the IFC’s investment in Eco Oro will confirm our analysis.”
According to the Ministry, the decision will not be adopted immediately, and no date has been set to implement it.
“The participation of citizens in the demarcation process has not been adequate. We do not know, for example, if the Ministry used rigorous technical studies provided by the Humboldt Institute. Nor is much known about how public participation took place regarding this decision,” said Miguel Ramos of the Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo.
Also unknown is how Andean forest ecosystems, or cloud forests, located at altitudes of 2,200 to 2,600 meters above sea level, will be protected and managed. These are also vital to ecosystem health and water regulation. Similar to Eco Oro’s approach in Santurbán, the mining company AUX plans to carry out underground mining in these ecosystems.
To date, more than 19,000 people have signed a petition urging the Colombian government to protect the water of Santurbán according to scientific criteria. The government received 16,000 of those signatures in November 2013. Organizations and environmentalists have also asked the Colombian government to properly define the limits of the páramo ecosystem.
The demarcation of Santurbán will set a precedent for protecting the country’s other páramos. Colombia is home to half of the páramos in the world, which supply water to 85% of its population. The demarcation process must take into account the minimum projected area of the páramo in the Humboldt Institute’s Atlas and its technical studies at a scale of 1:25:000.
“If the Santurbán Páramo is adequately defined, it would set an important precedent for the protection of all the páramos. This would lead the way, taking another step toward respecting the right to water of all Colombians” said Carla Garcia Zendejas of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
AIDA, CIEL, the Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo, MiningWatch Canada and SOMO -- as allied organizations -- ask Eco Oro to refrain from threats of legal action in an attempt to influence the demarcation of the páramo, and ask the Colombian government to provide full, truthful, and impartial information about the process and final decision.
- Carla García Zendejas, CIEL, +1 (202) 374-2550, cgarcia(at)ciel.org
- Carlos Lozano Acosta, AIDA, (57) 300 56 40 282, clozano(at)aida-americas.org
- Jennifer Moore, MiningWatch Canadá, +1 (613) 569 – 3439, jen(at)miningwatch.ca
- Kristen Genovese, SOMO, + 31 65 277 3272, K.Genovese(at)somo.nl
- Miguel Ramos, Comité por la Defensa del Agua y el Páramo de Santurbán, (57) 311 880 63 50, abogado.mr(at)gmail.com