Gold v. Water

Last August 7 in his inaugural speech as President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos said : “We are a nation with one of the largest biological diversities in the world, and with a great supply of water. Therefore we are called upon to care for them for our own benefit and that of mankind…We will create the National Agency for Water Resources, in order to guarantee greater protection of our natural resources”. In another segment of his speech President Santos emphasized the need to create jobs in order to reduce the highest unemployment rate in Latin America and  he specifically pointed out  focus areas which are indispensable if Colombia is to move  forward, naming agricultural development, infra-structure construction, build additional housing, mining development and technological innovation.

Based upon President Santos’ speech, the challenges he must meet include protecting bio-diversity, guaranteeing sources of potable water, and creating employment for Colombia’s millions of unemployed, while overseeing an increase in mining operations such as those planned for the Santurban area.

Deep in the eastern mountain range of the Colombian Andes  there is a collection of mountains known as Santurban. This is a territory of “paramos”, a Spanish term that in pre-Roman times meant “desolation”. And the lands of the paramos are desolate, because they are found at an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 meters. Their vegetation and grasses are appropriate for such heights. They are in permanent action, retaining water vapor from the ever-present fog and transforming it into liquid water. The secret of this process is in the nature of their soils, which are of volcanic origin and contain organic material and aluminum. The organic material accumulates, due to the low temperature in the paramos, which slows the activity of microbes. Upon combining with the aluminum, particles are formed which are resistant to decomposition. It is in this way that the soil retains water for long periods of time. Water is freed slowly and continuously. The paramos do not produce water. It comes from rain, fog and snow from higher altitudes, which are above 5,000 meters and are  snow-covered mountains. They collect water and regulate it. For this reason the Andean paramos are considered natural “factories” of potable water. In addition, because of the very nature of their soil, the Andean paramos store carbon from the atmosphere and thus help to control global warming. These mountains may be able to offer a response to global warming and to the shortage of water.

In the specific case of Santurban, its ecosystem shelters a high biodiversity, in addition to providing water to rivers and ponds. Santurban has 85 ponds, which give origin to a number of rivers and streams that sustain agricultural production and cattle-raising in the low zones, as well as supplying water for the 2.2 million inhabitants of the cities of Bucaramanga and Cucuta and 20 nearby municipalities.

The paramo of Santurban holds 457 species of plants, among which stand out the frailejon subshrub, Espeletia conglomerata, ferns, orchids, mosses, lichens and the oak tree called Quercus Humboldtii. Colombia is the country with the largest number of species of birds in the world, and of these 201 are endemic to Santurban. Many amphibians, such as frogs and lizards, and mammals, such as the Andean bear “Tremarcus Ornatus”, a threatened species, live there. Santurban also has a large expanse of swamps, called “turberas”, which act as sponges with a greater or lesser amount of water, depending upon the time of year.

As the Madrid daily newspaper El Pais reported on December 5, 2010, in an analysis of the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, “The priorities of Washington with respect to the South American subcontinent are clear: mines.” That seems also to be true for Canada, given that the Canada-based multinational Greystar sought permission to mine for gold in the area of Santurban, specifically near the stream of Angostura, from which the mining project takes its name. In the municipalities of Vetas and California the Spanish Crown took out gold beginning in 1513, in tunneled mines using artisan methods, to produce small amounts. Since that time this is how mining has been done in Santurban.

But the technology of that time is different from the type of technology which Greystar wishes to use .The company, using an open pit model, plans to excavate more than 2,700 acres and construct 2 piles of tailings and a dump at an altitude of 8,500 to 13,450 feet. The process uses heavy machinery to destroy the covering of vegetation for the purpose of exposing the soil, which will be removed with explosives. The hole which will be opened will be 656 feet deep and 1.075 billion tons of rock will be removed, of which 775 million tons will go to the dump and 300 million tons will go to the leaching water basins. A total of .25 kilograms of explosives will be used per ton of rock removed per hour. There will be two leaching water basins , one near the Angostura River and the other near a stream called Paez. The concentration of sodium cyanide used would be 500 milligrams per liter of water. The amount of sodium cyanide for each water basin would be 4,500 to 5,000 cubic meters per hour. The cycle would be 60 days long and the time of leaching would be 10 years. The amount of water used by the mine is calculated to be 250,000 liters per hour.  Greystar plans to extract 11.5 million ounces of gold and 61 million ounces of silver over 15 years. When it leaves, it will leave behind the hole and the desert to remember it by.

This mine project generates many, many questions. What is going to happen to the 85 ponds?  What is going to happen to the river basins of the Zulia and Lebrija Rivers, which are located in the mining zone? What is going to become of the Surata, Tona and Frio Rivers, which supply drinking water to Bucaramanga? Near the city a dam is being built to supply drinking water to the one million inhabitants of Bucaramanga. Given that the Angostura Project will affect the generation of water in the paramo, what is the dam for? The cyanide accumulated in the debris pile will degrade and go into the air, and therefore there is a risk of long-term contamination because it will originate acid rain. Imagine this  in a region which is a peerless producer of water!

What will happen to the biodiversity  and to species on the way to extinction which live in the paramo of Santurban? What will happen to the millions of tons of earth impregnated with cyanide which the multinational is going to leave behind? What will happen to the soils left sterile by the mining operation?

Some more questions come to mind. How is the ground water going to be affected? By using so much water in the mine, the ground water currents will be weakened and the subsurface water will lose its potential, at the same time as the soils which capture water are being removed. The ponds of water containing cyanide could break because of an excess of rain or an earthquake or tremor – so frequent in these mountains- and this could lead to the presence of cyanide in the rivers which come from the high areas of the paramo and which supply water to the populations and cities below. The transporation of cyanide, especially in the higher reaches of the mountains, is risky given the very nature of the mountain land,  the insecure climatic conditions, and the primitive construction of the roads.

Before he left office as President, Alvaro Uribe signed mining concessions in most of the Colombian paramos.The political web page La Silla Vacia reports that at the end of his presidential term the number of hectares with mining concessions increased from 1.13 million to 8.53 million, 6.3 per cent  of which are in the paramos. Remarkably, all of this happened after the Colombian Congress had passed a reform in the Mining Code forbidding mining on paramos. Uribe delayed signing the legislation for eight months;  meanwhile, his administration granted  numerous mining permits to multinational mining companies.

The 1991 Colombian Constitution orders the protection of areas of ecological importance and of natural resources. In fact, Law 1382 of 2010 expressely amended Article 34 of the Mining Code to forbid  mining in paramos.

Colombian leaders will do anything except solving the structural problems of injustice. If developing the economy brings with it the destruction of the great bio-diversity of the country, so be it.There is no hurry to find other forms of development that do not include mining. To give the paramos to the rapacious multinational corporations, which are only interested in extracting the mineral wealth, knowing that mining always brings environmental consequences in a country like Colombia, is as suicidal as if Saudi Arabia  would decide to burn its oil fields.

And, as far as creating employment is concerned, experience in other Colombian mining operations shows that the permanent positions created are quite few in number. According to George Pierce, a truck mechanic from the US who worked for several years at a Drummond coal mine in Colombia, after the infrastructure of the mine has been set up, much of the permanent employment goes to experienced workers from abroad.

There is a new element in this case in relation to Greystar. The Colombian Constitution provides that the local population must be consulted before  mining may start and only with local permission can work start. Greystar has assured the local people that its presence will bring benefits, such as giving scholarships for the children and taking them on field trips, building greenhouses to grow endemic plants for reforestation and of course creating jobs. It is true there will be new jobs while the mine site is being prepared, but after that, most jobs will be for technical personnel coming from outside. The locals are really enthusiastic and support the coming of the mining company. This is different from what mining companies have done in Southern Bolivar state, where they have used paramilitaries to displace the local population. Worthy of note is the participation of the World Bank, which often presents itself as defending the environment, because it has investments in Greystar through its International Finance Corporation. See

The Colombian government ought to suspend the concession of mining rights in the zones which are producers of water. Its responsibility is not only to Colombia, but also to the planet itself. Santurban should be declared to be a national park and the small-scale local and informal mining in the lower areas should be regulated.  Instead, ecological tourism could offer an excellent alternative. It is time for the government of Colombia to put aside the insanity of exploiting the natural resources of the country at the service of the highest bidder. It should begin to think about the benefit to the people of Colombia, who deserve a future of respect and wellbeing for all, and not to place itself at the service of the greed of foreign investors.

President Santos must take seriously his promise of defending Colombia’s immense bio-diversity and its water resources, by making creative proposals which respect the environment. If he has the courage to do so, he will have an important place in Colombia’s history.

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CECILIA ZARATE-LAUN is  Program Director, Colombia Support Network in Madison, Wisconsin.