(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator)
May 26, 2010
Since 2007, environmentalists, NGOs, conservation experts, university professors, ordinary citizens, and recently, officers of agencies like the Metropolitan Aqueduct of Bucaramanga, have all been issuing warnings about the numerous grants of mining permits in the paramo [Andean high plain] of Santurbán, the source of the Bucaramanga people's water supply. This “green wave,” which has been growing, received hopeful news this week that puts the mining sector under pressure. The water that the people of Bucaramanga will need in the next decades may be protected, at least to a certain point, thanks to the fact that last week the Ministry of the Environment ordered the a new study of the environmental impact by the Canadian multinational Greystar Resources, which had expected an environmental license for their gold and silver mining project, Angostura, in California, Santander.
After more than 15 years of exploration work, Greystar received a strong setback that “would hold the project back considerably and hold back investment in the region and the creation of new jobs,” Steve Kesler, executive president of the company, told Vanguardia Liberal. This same setback has made those who defend the conservation of the paramo—in this case that of Santurbán, where part of the project would be developed—very happy, especially since the water for the people on Bucaramanga is in play.
For the moment, the economic interests of Greystar regarding the Angostura project, which according to the exploratory studies is one of the biggest still undeveloped deposits of gold in South America, are suspended. But there is much more. According to the calculations of the company, if the project were developed, it is estimated that the region would receive 15 million dollars in royalties annually for the extraction of the precious metal and that 1,500 jobs would be generated during the construction of the mine and 800 more in the exploration phase. Apparently, in the face of such a bonanza, not even the fiercest detractors of Angostura expected the environmental authority to “apply the brakes.” That’s the way it was described by environmentalists in numerous emails that they began to circulate as soon as they learned of the news.
But the reason the Ministry of the Environment had to ask Greystar for a new study of environmental impact is very strong. 52.9% of the area needed for construction and operating Angostura, which amounts to 575 hectares [about 1421 acres], is paramo, and mining activity in the paramos is prohibited by Colombian legislation through Article 3 of Law 1382 of February 9, 2010, which recently modified the Mining Code. Before the law's enaction, the paramos were not protected. Even so, Greystar will present an appeal of the decree emitted by the Ministry of the Environment, which will be about “demonstrating that the project has a minimal environmental impact and that the affected area of the paramo will be rehabilitated after the mining work,” said the executive president of the company.
The Autonomous Corporation of Bucaramanga, which contributed to the decision taken by the Ministry of the Environment, thinks differently. They say: “…because of the fragility of the ecosystems of the paramos and the high Andean forest, and the goods and services that they are providing to the community, the CDMB (The Regional Committee for the Defense of the Meseta of Bucaramanga) concludes that executing the project as proposed would have a grave impact on these ecosystems…” From a legal point of view, in the Eastern Cordillera [mountain range], where Santurbán is found, paramos must be protected starting at 3,000 meters above sea level, and several of the parcels that Greystar has purchased are above this level.
The Angostura Project
In 1994, Greystar initiated an intense program of exploration in Angostura, 69 kilometers from Bucaramanga . Since then, and until today, they have acquired eight mining titles that cover an area of approximately 30,000 hectares [about 74,132 acres] located in California, Vetas, Suratá, Berlín (Tona) and Matanza. The Angostura Project would be developed in 1,100 hectares. These titles have been granted directly by the State through INGEOMINAS [the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining] or acquired by purchase. The investment has been high. The total reaches 135 million dollars which includes exploration, acquiring land, environmental and engineering studies, programs of social and environmental responsibility [legally mandated “give-backs”—SC], wages, taxes and purchases in Colombia. Further, the firm had begun to look for $650 million dollars in financing from international sources.
According to Steve Kesler of Greystar, Angostura would affect 1.6% of the total area of the paramo of Santurbán (the same 575 hectares of which the Ministry of the Environment speaks), but the impact would be minimal, and he adds that long ago, “from the time of colonization [these zones] have been affected in order to advance gold mining projects and agricultural activities forward.” Kesler refers to the traditional mining that is practiced in the municipalities of Vetas and California, but this mining has also generated warnings, especially because of the contamination of the Suratá River, which is the main water supply for the metropolitan Bucaramanga area.
It is exactly the topic of water, so very important today, that would seem to be under control in the environmental impact study carried out by Greystar to obtain the environmental license for Angostura. The company asserts that the three currents that would be affected would continue to have sufficient water to satisfy their ecological flow. “That flow required for the process will be recirculated and reused most of the time,” added Kesler. However, this is not sufficient for experts in the area. Elkin Briceño, representative of the environmental NGOs to the Executive Council of the Corporation for the Defense of the Meseta of Bucaramanga (CDMB), explains that in order to talk about paramos, it is necessary to talk at a systemic level, since everything is affected together. “We defend the application of the “cautionary principal” that is in the law and that is used when there is no scientific certainty about the consequences for the environment of a particular action.” For Briceño, talking about sustainable mining in a project like Angostura is “totally questionable, because it changes the landscape, it is aggressive and it has a strong impact, not only on the paramos, but on the forests.”
Most recent decrees about environmental licenses
In the last eight years, Decree 1728 of 2002 (paramos, sources of rivers and sources that refill aquifers will be objects of special protection) was replaced by Decree 1180 of 2003 which eliminates prohibitions in the paramos and reserves, and later by Decree 1220 of 2005, which only limits mining activity in special ecosystems: “Equally, when the projects…are intended to be developed in ecosystems of paramos, wetlands and /or mangrove swamps, the environmental authorities must take into account the determinations that have been adopted in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of said ecosystems…”
Later came Article 3 of Law 1382 of February 9, 2010, which modified the Mining Code and which prohibits the development of mining activity in the paramo: “Works and projects of mining exploration and exploitation in zones declared and delimited according to the norms in force may not be carried out…”
Mining titles everywhere
Greystar is not the only firm interested in Santurbán.
The map of INGEOMINAS, where forest preserves and the paramo area between Santander and Norte de Santander , exactly in the area of influence of the Metropolitan Aqueduct of Bucaramanga, AMB, are clear. The green corresponds to the areas of preserves and the paramo, the blue to mining titles already given, and the red area to the zone where the applications for mining licenses that were awaiting a decision of INGEOMINAS in February 2010 are concentrated.[the original article included a link to the map—SC]
German Augusto Figueroa, Director of the Metropolitan Aqueduct of Bucaramanga, warned that nearby the watersheds, from which the agency gets the water for Bucaramanga, Floridablanca and Girón, 40 mining titles have been issued that come to 22,000 hectares [more than 54,000 acres], and there are 39 more applications for mining titles that would amount to 125,000 hectares [nearly 309,000 acres]. Some of them are in paramo areas, and there are others that are close to paramos and to the forests that the Aqueduct has been acquiring, with the goal of conserving them. But the agency confronts a difficult competition for land. “We can only buy the land according to the value assessed by the Agustín Codazzi [Geographic Institute], while Greystar offers what they want,” said Figueroa.
The Metropolitan Aqueduct of Bucaramanga attends to more than 1 million inhabitants and today takes water from the Suratá, Tona and Frío Rivers. The Bucaramanga reservoir, located only 12 kilometers from the city, solves the supply [issue] until 2032, and then comes the Umpalá, which would go until 2050, as well as Piedras Blancas, which would guarantee the supply of water until 2080. But this cannot be accomplished, according to Figueroa, if mining continues threatening the sources of water.
During 2010, the AMB twice brought this problem to the attention of the President of the Republic, Alvaro Uribe Vélez, taking advantage of communal councils in Bucaramanga. The director of the agency was emphatic: “If mining concessions continue to be given, a glass of water is going to be traded for a glass of gold,” he said to Uribe Vélez. For Figueroa, the real problem for the water of Bucaramanga, after the year 2010, will not be the phenomenon of El Niño, but mining. This is not precisely because the water will be contaminated – since if that were the case the Aqueduct’s treatment plant would be capable of treating it, although at a very high price – but because of the alterations of the ecological balance and the direct impact on the amount of water that the paramo generates.
Jairo Puente Brugés, dean of the School of Environmental Chemistry at Santo Tomás University, has also warned, in a column published in Vanguardia Liberal on December 9, 2009, that the dam that is being built to supply Bucaramanga will be of little use “if we continue razing the paramos and sources of water for the sake of the great gold and carbon mining projects” This is a national concern. According to data from the Humboldt Institute, of the 34 paramo complexes, which occupy 2 million hectares [more than 4.9 million acres], already 48% are affected by mining.
The ace up their sleeve
The paramo of Santurbán is a star of the water system; it is important for the two Santanders and also for Venezuela, because that is where the currents arise that come to form the Zulia River (Norte de Santander) and the Suratá, which unite with the Lebrija and arrive at the Magdalena. In the same way, the paramo of Berlín (Tona, Santander) is the source of the Tona River, where the Arauca River practically begins. However, Santurbán also has mineral wealth, especially gold. That is why in Vetas and California, small and medium local firms and informal miners have been mining for centuries. This has been changing in recent years, since the multinational firms set their eyes on the area.
A conflict developed: conserve or generate mining? Carlos Suárez, the subdirector for planning of CDMB, explains that open-pit mining, which is what Greystar would develop, affects subterranean water because it intercepts it, modifying the currents and diminishing the potential of the aquifers. Open-pit mining eliminates vegetation and removes soil layers. Therefore, thinking of the future, CDMB and the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Norte de Santander (CORPONOR), in late 2077 declared an Integrated Management District in the paramo of Berlín, setting aside 44,000 hectares [nearly 109,000 acres] for preservation, production and recovery.
Santurbán has also been on the agenda of the environmental agencies of the two Santanders, which have moved studies forward to propose that it be a large conservation area. First, they thought about a National Natural Park, which is the most restricted area in Colombia, so that 62,000 hectares [over 153,000 acres], from 2,500 meters above sea level and above, would be protected. However, in 2008, CORPONOR established the Sisavita Regional Natural Park, 12,000 hectares [nearly 30,000 acres] in size, hoping to protect a part of the paramo of Santurbán that is in Norte de Santander, and excluding mining activities from it.
“Part of the Angostura project involves Sisavita, because there was a plan to locate the pools there where they put cyanide into the mined material to get the gold,” said Elkin Briceño, the environmental consultant. CDMB, therefore, continued with their studies in order to establish the Santurbán Lagoon Complex, more than 19,000 hectares [nearly 47,000 acres] in size, a regional natural park, which would protect the ecosystem from 3,000 and 3,500 meters above sea level and higher. (It would be located in the area of Suratá, Vetas, California). The process for its establishment has been going on now for four years and has not been able to reach a successful conclusion, among other reasons because of the intense debates about mining in Santurbán. If this park were to be approved its use for mining would also be restricted.
The foregoing is added to what the Metropolitan Aqueduct of Bucaramanga won during the last general assembly of the National Association of Public Service Agencies (ANDESCO), which approved the implementation of a policy of collective action towards the ministries of Mines and of Environment, and other competent authorities, precisely in order to prevent the granting of mining titles, especially in the areas that produce water. As things are, there would be two ways to stop mining in protected areas. One, that INGEOMINAS would stop granting mining titles in paramos, and the other, that the Ministry of the Environment would continue with decisions like the one that now has Greystar on tenterhooks.