lunes, 24 de diciembre de 2012

A mining park? It looks as if Colombia has lost its way

By Erwing Rodriguez-Salah*

Colombia Support Network (CSN) wishes to thank Erwing Rodriguez-Salah for authorizing us to publish his complete study of the current situation in Santurbán (Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN volunteer translator)

You can‟t help feeling indignant when you hear the Autonomous Regional Corporation for the Defense of the Bucaramanga Plateau (CDMB is the Spanish acronym.) call it a victory when the plateau will be declared a regional nature park (PNR is the Spanish acronym.) as is predicted for the coming December 17. It is a fallacy to say that with the scant 10,890 hectares left after several cutbacks, the Santurbán Nature Park will guarantee water in perpetuity for the Bucaramanga metropolitan area, while there are mining concessions of approximately 37,000 hectares in the area.

In June of 2008, the Autonomous Regional Corporation for the Northeast Frontier (CORPONOR is the Spanish acronym.) i.e. the analog of the CDMB in the neighboring province of North Santander, designated the part of the Santurbán high plain that lies within its jurisdiction as the Sisavita regional nature park. Its altitude is between 1,845 and 4,232 meters above sea level. Ever since then, their efforts have been focused on augmenting its area considerably. On the contrary, the CDMB has delayed the designation and now, that it is going to do it, we who live in Santander cannot understand why, as reported in the news magazine SEMANA, they originally talked about protecting more than 60,000 hectares, 63,200 to be exact, that are under CDMB‟s jurisdiction, and that are part of the Santurbán-Almorzadero biogeography unit, then later they talked about protecting around 20,000 and later on about 11,028, and ended up with 10,890 hectares.

Last December 1, in El Espectador, the journalist Pastor Virviescas, the winner of several national journalism prizes, including for environmental journalism, in his
report titled “Santurbán, the Shrinking Park” ( made reference to the opinion previously announced by the Alexander Von Humboldt Institute for the Investigation of Biological Resources. It supports the designation as a regional nature park. Nevertheless, comments the Virviescas report, “in the favorable opinion set forth by Brigitte LG Baptiste, director of the Humboldt Institute, she calls attention to the trimming back that the CDMB had made to the proposal. From the 12,267 hectares contemplated in October of 2010 by the then-director of that autonomous corporation, Elvia Hercilia Páez, it went to 11,089 hectares in December of that same year “without any justification based on technical or scientific information that would support the change”. Later, on this past September 19, the CDMB talked about 10,912 hectares, taking 177 hectares out of the Angostura sector (California municipality) which is where the Canadian multinational Eco Oro (formerly Greystar) owns an enormous deposit.

Worse yet is the way the Virviescas report continues: “The Humboldt also noted that the CDMB increased the height above sea level by 3,000 meters to 3,400, referring to the recommendations by the Minister of Mines, but once again “without the biophysical criteria that call for that variation to be based on the objectives of conservation that were proposed.”

And to complete the “adjustments”, the Virviescas report says, the CDMB on October 1 provided its final proposal, but with 23 hectares less. They gave legal reasons, i.e., barely 10,890, deducting 1,377 hectares because of the lawsuit of two years ago. So that now they are trying to sell us a story about rights that have been acquired and the legitimate expectations of the owners of mining titles. Don‟t the residents of Santander who have been drinking the water generated in the Santurbán high plain for centuries—today almost two and a half million people-- have more rights?

Baptiste is also worried because the vegetation in the high plain and the plateau have been “shrunk” by 544 hectares, “at a time when the Andean forests (predominantly oak groves) and the forests of the high Andes have been reduced by 76%, from 627 to 149 hectares”. This was a key factor when it was time to look at the Santurbán high plain as a fragile ecosystem and not as a simple line on the map.

On that point, Baptiste asserts “It would have been desirable to be able to count on an area that would include the high plains ecosystems present in the area in a more integrated manner and one more consistent with conservation objectives” the Virviescas report concludes.

A few days earlier, in the column headlined “The CDMB‟s Deceptions” our Citizens‟ Civic Conscience Movement (MCC is the Spanish acronym.) in Vanguardia Liberal ( complained that “ . . . quietly, throughout last year, the directors of the CDMB and their aides are trying to „stretch the fence‟ of the park in order to favor the multinational mining companies. They are trying to exclude two parcels and nearly 500 hectares right in the middle of the high plain from the park. They are trying to raise the height above sea level or the Humboldt line and all of a sudden their reports refuse to recognize the biological characterization of the area. They are trying to please the national government: in the Mining Ministry’s application through its director, in its prior conception on December 22, 2011, a prerequisite for the designation of the nature park, he asked to “revise the previous boundary proposed for the California area, between the Páez and Angosturas Gorges and to change the height above sea level to 3,400 so as to exclude it from the park . . .” What a disgrace!

And again, “. . . the officials of the previous and the current administrations ought to take responsibility for furnishing mining titles on the country‟s strategic ecosystems. It is the mining companies that decide their own fate when they take the risk of investing in areas where mining is not allowed.”
To cap the climax, now the AUX firm is going to apply to the Ministry of the Environment for an environmental permit for an underground operation and it has already built an exploratory tunnel in the town of Angosturas, just 35 meters from the stream called La Baja. Look at (

We mourn the loss of 75,000 square meters of national heritage ocean in our San Andrés archipelago, but we do not mourn the loss of sovereignty over ecosystems like the high plains. We have a government that is complacent and permissive with the multinationals, so that they will come and do what they are not allowed to do in their own countries. As the news magazine SEMANA complained, the mining companies do not allow the technicians from the Comptroller General‟s Office to come in. At least the natives of San Andrés will have permission to fish in the waters assigned exclusively to Nicaragua for economic purposes. ( Who will defend our territory?

Neither can we understand, how can they keep on allowing mining exploration while they are still defining where the high plains begin? When we talk about protected areas, a height in meters above sea level is the least of it, because aquifers cannot be excluded from protection, nor water recharge areas, lower vegetation zones, high Andean forest, peat bogs, lagoon systems, and watersheds. They are indispensable for the water of the Bucaramanga Metropolitan Aqueduct (AMB is the Spanish acronym.) If this is about the height in meters above sea level, there could not be any protected areas in the provinces of Amazonas, Vichada or Chocó, where there are no high plains. For example, Rasgón-La Judía is located between 1,000-2,800 meters above sea level and is an area designated for protection by the CDMB. The problem of Santurbán cannot be solved by placing or expanding a boundary.

It would seem that the national government would like to stigmatize all of the small informal miners, some of them ancestral, as illegal, in order to promote the concept that only the multinational mining companies can do the job right. Could there be mining more illegal than what they are trying to do in ecological areas where mining is prohibited? We do not oppose mega-mining, but we have to be aware that there are areas where mining simply cannot be done, no matter what method of extraction is being used. The high plains, in the broad sense of the word, the gorges and the watersheds, are an example of those.

Last month Alfredo Molano Bravo commented in his column titled “The Gold is Red” in the El Espectador newspaper on how the Santos administration has started a fight against illegal mining, claiming environmental and social reasons. . . . “On paper, that makes sense. In reality, it is difficult. At bottom, those are not measures that preserve the environment and do even less for the people who mine with a pan and a hoe. Their purpose, as Mr. Restrepo, a powerful miner in Antioquia Province, says, is to open up the field to the multinational mining companies, almost all of them Canadian. They are business that, through the Canadian International Development Agency, contributed to the drafting of the new mining code.” That is how Santos is trying to pull their chestnuts out of the fire so that the big foreign firms can eat the seed, writes Molano in his column.

As his conclusion, Molano complains that “the government‟s recent decrees have been drafted to favor the big mining companies that do not pay for the right to import, not even the IVA (value-added tax). They report whatever they feel like reporting as the value of their extractions and they only employ workers recommended by the regional bosses. And they toss tons of mercury and cyanide into the rivers.

Every Colombian ought to pay close attention to the reform of the Mining Code, in order to avoid what happened with the ill-fated Justice Reform, where they were going to legislate a benefit for a few, contrary to the national interest. Because it is very possible that earmarks will be the order of the day. The biggest earmark, big as an orangutan, would be to repeal the articles that prohibit mining on the high plains and other ecosystems vital to the country, to favor the multinational mining companies.

On the other hand, people from other latitudes are adding themselves to the large number of Colombians who believe that the Santos administration is going in the wrong direction. This year, also thanks to El Espectador, we found Noam Chomsky‟s letter. In the words of The New York Times, Chomsky is “probably the most important living intellectual of the 20th Century”. In his letter to President Santos, in connection with his journey to Colombia in June 2010 for the inauguration of the Carol Chomsky Forest, in the Colombian Massif, named in honor of his late wife, Chomsky commits to an initiative by campesinos to defend the land.

In his letter, he expresses his concern about the large-scale mining activity in a sensitive ecosystem like the Colombian Massif, a Colombian hydrological star, where the Magdalena, Cauca, Patía and Caquetá Rivers all originate: “I am writing to you because of a general concern that I share with many others about the plans to operate large scale mining. It appears that that would be a serious threat to the delicate ecosystem of the Colombian Massif.” In another part, he writes: “This forms part (the Carol Chomsky Forest) of a project for the development and protection of the water resources and the riches of the environment in general that is well designed by the leaders of Santa Rita and was carefully explained in a public meeting. These would certainly be gravely injured or destroyed by mining operations.”
According to El Espectador, the leaders of Santa Rita calculate that there are 19 mining companies going after the riches of the Colombian Massif and their special worry is the Dominical Project, which would cover some 24,300 hectares. They see that as their biggest threat. We can only hope that some day El Espectador will publish President Santos‟ answer to Chomsky.

On the day of his inauguration, President Juan Manuel Santos, in one of the paragraphs of his address, stated:
“As a wise naturalist has said, the world is not an inheritance from our forefathers, but a loan from our children. Because of that we must work for the environment, in order to pay that non-deferrable debt to the next generations.”

But with the speed with which he is trying to impose the devastating mining locomotive, we will be in debt to our children to a point that we will never be able to pay off the loan that the President was alluding to on the day of his inauguration.

And if the government does not protect the territory of the Colombian Massif, the brightest star and greatest fountain of water production, from the megamining interests, what will it be interested in protecting?

In the face of the imminent derailment of the mining locomotive, without consideration of the environment, as demonstrated by what we now know as the mining title fair, corruption, environmental protection agencies that do not enforce environmental legislation, experts ignored, tired of calling attention to the dangers of megamining in strategic ecosystems, the voracity of the transnational companies given seats in a complacent government, the attempts to stigmatize all informal mining as illegal while favoring the transnationals, the widely denounced revolving door -public servants that go to the private sector, or vice versa, taking privileges with them from one side to the other-, the sophistry of sustainable mining, the toxicity of cyanide and heavy metal residuals, appointment of Ministers of the Environment, as one journalist put it, admittedly uninformed about environmental subjects and just there to “do a job”, among others. Why don‟t we think strategically about the long term, and instead of the mining locomotive, we could bet, for example, on the industrialization locomotive, on the rails of innovation, which has education as its cornerstone? Are we afraid of big challenges? Would we prefer to be a mediocre country and be the first to exhaust our natural resources?

Innovation, another of President Santos‟ locomotives, certainly, is the transversal of every locomotive. It would be better, together with sustainable development, to choose the rails of the locomotive -Agriculture, Infrastructure, Industry, Housing. .-.

By refusing to destroy the environment with an out-of-control mining loco-motive (crazy-motive) we would make the country more attractive to a new locomotive: tourism. The tourism locomotive has lasting power. Megamining, which affects water and strategic ecosystems, lasts a very short time. It causes devastation, benefits just a few, and leaves a miserable and desolate landscape. What about eco-tourism in Santurbán?

Why are we thinking in the short term, in a mining locomotive that frequently -as has been shown- goes counter to the environment, placing the country‟s greatest
riches at risk: its water resources and our biodiversity that are envied in other parts of the world? Are we forgetting that Colombia is the country that has the second highest biodiversity in the world?

If we continue to think in a short-term manner, we are condemning our country to mediocrity and, more and more, to be submerged in backwardness and poverty. Meanwhile many leaders keep quiet in complicit silence.

It looks as if we want to welcome a real “patria boba”**, with mining that will flatten our territory. We are disposed to destroy our water and our biodiversity, our health and the well-being of our fellow citizens. The Santos Administration‟s locomotives only make sense if they travel on the “sustainable development” track, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the resources and possibilities of future generations.

Last December 4 the news magazine SEMANA presented a discussion on the question “Where will the economy go in 2013?” There this writer emphasized once again that beyond the growth in gross domestic product, our country is going in the wrong direction. Today Colombia depends largely on commodities, on the mining locomotive that they are trying to impose, apparently paying no attention to the cost for future generations, ignoring sustainable development and without any long term vision. Besides that, the industrial and agricultural sectors are lagging and stagnant and the value of our exports has not increased by much. Don‟t even mention our pitiful technology exports. In practical terms we are a country with a paltry vision of the future. Right now we are still hurting from the loss of the San Andrés sea shelf, the result of a series of mistakes that go back to several past administrations. In decades to come, we will very possibly be lamenting the decisions that this administration is making.

In conclusion, Colombians ought to join more and more in our civic mobilization that started as regional and is now a national movement against megamining that affects our water resources and strategic ecosystems that are vital for our country. Because of all the situations that we see, we must form a national crusade that will have as its battle cry a moratorium on this kind of mining, denouncing it to the authorities, the Inspector General‟s Office, Comptroller‟s Office, and the Attorney General‟s unit for environmental crimes and to the public servants who are not carrying out their functions of protecting the environment and to the businesses that affect the environment. We should have confidence in the Constitutional Court so that the constitutional rights of our citizens prevail.

In the column published today by Vanguardia Liberal , “They Took It All”, by Sergio Rangel Consuegra ( he writes “ . . . the entities who are supposed to oversee compliance with Resolution 937 of 2011, as Jairo Puente Bruges points out, should be made to comply because it is the law that delineates the high plains ecosystems. The ECO ORO (Eco Oro Minerals Co.) and Leyhat Colombia are carrying out catastrophic explorations in the prohibited area of the high plains. They had better not touch the “pingos” (ice-cored hills) or they might end up in prison.” In this same column, he comments . . . “knowing, as the greedy proprietor of AUX( AUX Colombia) knows, that greed nests in the heart of man, he called the movers and shakers of the city to the Commerce Club (Someone said that they were the movers in the city) to explain to them how a mining operation that is almost surgical, with the skill and asepsis of surgeons, can extract the gold from Santurbán and leave everybody in Bucaramanga rich, but without any water . . .”

Some people expect the designation of a regional nature park or a simplistic definition of a high plain, more than a distance in meters above sea level, because they believe that that could devastate all that is left of the insufficient 10,890 hectares that they are planning to designate or, because it is lower than the designated height above sea level, and that is what we citizens of Santander oppose.

As we said in the Citizens‟ Civic Conscience Movement (MCC), the defense of Bucaramanga‟s water, which includes not just the high plain of Santurbán, but also the hydrological gorges and watersheds such as those in Suratá, Alto, Vetas, Charta, Suratá Bajo and Tona is a cause that we will not give up. These mining projects will never receive a social permit from the people of Santander or the people of Colombia, and this is a condition sine qua non for an environmental permit.

Beginning now, the people of Santander are gathering for a Grand March, 100,000 Voices for the Water Supply, scheduled for March 22, 2013. This date coincides with the celebration of World Water Supply Day, and we hope that other cities in the country will join in the cause to make this a national convocation. Right now the citizens of Santander are an example for the world. There is no precedent for accomplishing a halt to a megamining project, as happened with the Angostura project, by means of a broad civic mobilization. This culminated in the Grand March to Defend Bucaramanga‟s Water Supply on February 25, 2011, where nearly 45,000 people went out and marched peacefully through the streets of our city to defend it.

We are crying out to the whole world to look at the high plain of Santurbán and its adjacent strategic ecosystems—hydrological gorges and watersheds—so that we do not commit a great ecocide and put our city‟s water supply at risk. We remember that only 1.8% of Colombian territory is high plains, and that represents 49% of all the high plains in the world as well as 70% of the potable water that all Colombians drink. The world cannot allow this serious and irreparable ecological damage. We would lose what ought soon to be designated as a World Heritage Site. Please help us.


*Erwing Rodriguez-Salah is a civic leader, co-founder and spokesman of the Citizens‟ Civic Conscience Movement (MCC), recognized by SEMANA in 2011 as one of the 35 most outstanding leaders in the country, and as a leader in one of the 20 most important events in Colombia and the world in 2011. He was the leader of the Grand March to Defend Bucaramanga‟s Water Supply (February 25, 2011), which succeeded in stopping the Angostura project (open pit gold mining in the high plains of Santurbán). E-mail:

**”Patria boba”: episode of colombian history.
This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered and the source, author and translator are cited.

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