Colombia has extended a suspension on receiving new requests for mining concessions for two months to handle a backlog of permits, the country’s energy ministry said on Friday.
The world’s No. 4 coal exporter has been hit by a series of mine explosions that killed dozens of workers over the last couple of years, prompting calls for stricter oversight at a time when Colombia’s mining sector is enjoying a mini-boom.
The government halted requests for mining concessions and for legalizing traditional mining operations from 2011 until February this year. Regulators have in the past been accused of doling out permits without sufficient oversight.
In a resolution published on Friday, Mining and Energy Minister Mauricio Cardenas Santamaria said the suspension had been extended for two months.
“There are two sides – it’s negative because we’re still being restricted, but on the positive side the government is strengthening institutions,” said Cesar Diaz, head of the Colombian Mining Chamber.
The government has said it needs more time to analyze requests due to the volume it receives. According to mining regulator Ingeominas, Colombia received 3,600 concession requests in 2010, 3,900 in 2009 and 7,800 in 2008.
Colombia has experienced a surge in oil and mining investment since a 2002 U.S.-backed crackdown against leftist rebels. A flood of new players has emerged to take advantage of government policies meant to attract investors.
The mining sector has seen a raft of changes since President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010 after high-profile accidents, a long delay in the approval of mining titles and growing criticism of the management of the sector.
Over the last year, the country has also changed the way it manages oil and mining royalties, modified some taxes which affected the sector, and saw the constitutional court strike down a mining law for failure to consult local communities.
The mining sector has been plagued by safety and corruption scandals, mainly in small mines, prompting the government to redesign regulation and create a new mining agency. Nearly 500 miners were killed between 2005 and 2010.
Eduardo Chaparro, head of the mining unit of Colombia’s industrialist group ANDI, said the government had cleared nearly 90 percent of the backlog in mining permits and needed some more time to finish.
“They want to look in detail at each and every application,” he said on the sidelines of a conference in the coastal city of Cartagena.