A coalition of environmentalists and human rights groups denounced the Colombian government’s efforts to expand mining in the Santurban Paramo, in a letter introduced in the 24th session of the United Nation’s Council on Human Rights last Thursday.
The letter, signed by the UN-affiliated Franciscans International human rights watch and two local environmental and social activist groups, called on the global governing body to address ongoing legal ambiguities and human rights abuses in the Santurban region of Colombia’s northeast Norte de Santander department.
For more than 20 years, the Santurban Paramo has been a focus of international mining interests, and a hotspot for widespread human rights violations and environmental controversy.
The paramo, a type of mountainous wetland unique to the northern Andes, supplies fresh water to over 2 million Colombians. But longterm exploration efforts on the part of certain multinational mining companies — especially the Canadian gold mining firm Eco Oro Resources, formerly Greystar Limited — have revealed that Santurban is also sitting on immense reserves of gold and silver.
A decree passed by Colombia’s Environmental Ministry this past January seemingly put an end to a contentious dispute over a proposed underground gold mine in the Santurban Paramo, which opponents claimed would irrevocably damage the area’s various ecosystems and compromise water supplies throughout the entire region. The creation of the Santurban National Park ostensibly precluded any existing mining titles in the area, rendering the Eco Oro proposal unviable.
Representatives from the company, however, insisted that the project could still be executed outside of official park boundaries, and the “national interest” status granted to the Santurban project by Colombia’s Ministry of Mining and Energy earlier this summer presented the possibility that Eco Oro would be allowed to circumvent any relevant environmental regulations, including a blanket prohibition on any and all mining activity on national park land.
The government has yet to delineate the exact borders of the new park, and has claimed that no mining projects will be approved within the eventual territory. But as Eco Oro joins other multinational mining companies operating in the region in calling for the government to make its official announcement, claiming that delays have forced layoffs of over 1,500 workers, opponents say the government’s park protections do not go far enough.
The Franciscans International letter merely presents to the United Nations arguments local activists have been making for years now: namely that the region, and its communities and its ecosystems, are too delicate for any large-scale mining to be allowed, at least until scientists have had the chance to study the paramo further.
The letter provides a brief overview of the messy history associated with large-scale mining in the region — which includes forced displacements, the politically-motivated killings of activists and community leaders, economic crisis and lasting environmental damage — and lists five broad measures for the UN to impose on the Colombian state, in the face of what activists claim are government efforts to promote corporate mining interests at the expense of local environmental and community interests:
- Guarantee a delineation of the paramo that recognizes and protects all of its 395,369 acres according to official standards [the Santurban Park covers less than 30,000 acres]
- Refrain from giving mining licences in the Santurban Paramo
- Take concrete measures to protect the right to drinkable water for the more than two million people that depend on the Paramo
- Investigate, detain and punish human rights violations and environmental injuries already committed
- Apply environmental and social precautions previously submitted by the Franciscans International regarding Colombia, and its unique human rights situation
There has been no official indication as to how the letter was received, or how the Colombian government would react to any potential UN mandates.
The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly highlighted its efforts to expand nationally protected parkland and address Colombia’s long-standing human rights crisis. But the administration has also followed the overall mining policy laid out by previous president Alvaro Uribe, who awarded foreign mining titles covering over one-third of the country’s continental territory, and aggressively encouraged multinational mining investment.
Colombia has among the world’s most extensive supplies of metals and fossil fuels, but a lack of local refining capability means that most of its natural resources end up abroad, creating high internal prices on resources such as gasoline.
In the past few decades, gold mining in particular has become associated with paramilitary groups linked to multinational companies, and rebel groups financed by large-scale illegal mining operations, both of which have been accused of stealing vast tracts of land and displacing entire communities in the process.
- Llevan caso del Paramo Santurban a las Naciones Unidas (Republica)
- Llevan a la ONU caso de Santurban (El Tiempo)
- Ante la ONU fue denunciado caso del Santurban (Caracol Radio)
- Organizacion Colombiana denuncia ante la ONU caso del Santurban (Prensa Latina)