AUTHOR : Gonzalo Peña



(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator)

Source : Comité para la Defensa del Agua y del Páramo de Santurbán 


In the face of the threat that the country and the whole world is already going through, of the unquestionable effects of climate change, and the desire of multinational firms to operate in areas of the paramo and high mountain ecosystems in order to extract gold, silver and rare metals, calm and scientific reflection necessarily moves for the immediate declaration of a moratorium of no less than 10 years, with the goal of bringing together the best intellectual forces of all tendencies and breadths, in order to study the real effects on these areas of the country, which are so special and indispensible for human life.

Studying these areas is necessary in order to understand how they function.

¿What are the paramos for Colombia and the world?

There are only five countries in the world—located in Central and South America—that have the privilege of having paramo areas. Colombia has 49% of all the paramos that exist in the world. This special biogeographic condition has meant that around 70% of the entire Colombian population lives in areas directly influenced by the paramos. The reason for this proximity of the Colombian population lies in the fact that the paramos with their areas of direct influence, that is to say the high mountain ecosystems, is something that, if they are properly cared for, maintained and restored, guarantee the functioning of the water cycle, which is to say, they provide water.

Just as the great civilizations throughout history have developed along the rivers, in our country, because of this fortunate circumstance, our most important ancestral civilizations have developed in paramo areas.

Our knowledge about the dynamics of the existing paramos, now only partial, will be enriched by profound studies, which must be developed during the period of the proposed moratorium.

The logical conclusion will be the inevitability of declaring the paramos and their buffer zones to be free of any sort of massive or medium mining, agricultural or cattle-raising activity, no matter what type.

How is it believed that the paramos work?

The paramo receives water in two ways: the first is the normal rain that falls vertically; the second, more beneficial and constant, is produced y the continuous collision of clouds with the soil. The paramo’s profile allows all this water to be absorbed through condensation. The vegetation and the soil of the paramo function like a sponge; they receive and store rain water in rainy periods and allow it to flow continuously in dry periods, that is, they act as regulators. This is what allows us to always have water available to cover our necessities.

The paramo is formed of what are called igneous or volcanic rocks. Its origin goes back to past times when the earth began to cool and to be consolidated in what today we call the continental plates. These plates make up what today we call the earth’s crust.

Through phenomena of very different kinds, such as water vapor that came from the volcanoes or masses of ice from outer space, the seas were formed during the course of millions of years. Because of differences in temperature, water leaves the seas and forms clouds, which fall again to earth in the form of rain. This is known as the water cycle.

At one point, the mountain ranges of Colombia were being formed, a product of movements in the earth’s crust, or the continental plates, creasing, rising and falling to end up at the topography that we have today.

In our case, these igneous rocks, as a result of their formation, are very porous, as they are very fractured, as a result of the phenomena that formed them. This special condition, added to the soil and the predominant vegetation in these ecosystems united to produce the marvel that today we know as the water factory,” that is, the paramo.

When there is an intervention in the paramo through agriculture, cattle raising or mining, that is, when the soil is stripped of its natural condition of capturing water, then it begins to lose its magic—that magic that today allows us to live.

Recent studies by the World Bank (April, 2010) carried out in Peru, concluded—after calibrating and validating the proposed model—that in the next 20 years, as a result of climate change, the amount of water that gets to them will be reduced between 18 and 21%. We are behind in carrying out a similar study in our soil.

In the study of the paramos carried out by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, they mention as a special case the dry paramos of Santander and Norte de Santander, which confront a grave danger of shortage of water. Well, in this area more than two million persons are settled.

Where do we have to go if there is no water for us?

What does open-pit mining expose us to?

We mention this because in Tolima, in the mine called “La Colosa” (municipality of Cajamarca), Anglo Gold Ashanti is still thinking they can get gold with open-pit operations. We could say the same about Marmato in Caldas, where a priest has already lost his life for wanting to prevent the municipality from being swept away to take out the gold.

This “technology,” already applied in Peru, Chile and many other countries on every continent, kills all the life in the area. In our environment, there is nothing more predatory than open-pit mining in La Guajira or in Cesar.

And what about underground mining?With the underground mining that they intend to do in Santander and Norte de Santander (California, Vetas, Suratá and Cucutilla); in the northeastern part of Antioquia (El Bagre Zaragoza, Remedios, Nechi); the Colombian Massif (Cauca and Nariño), Tolima and Huila, what are we facing?

An altitude has been defined as the boundary of the paramo, but at the same time, for reasons of “the high government,” mining at those altitudes has to be privileged under penalty of having difficulties and fights with the owners of the mining titles.

What shamefacedness! A vile metal, of which 85% is used only for vanity or pieces of jewelry! Water, which is life for all the species, including the human species, is relegated to second place.

The Constitution of the Republic, in articles 2, 8, 58, 79, 80 and 93, as well as article 202 of Law 1450—the National Development Plan—privilege life above any other activity.

What are exploratory tunnels?

They are generally horizontal excavations, but they can be sloped or vertical, whose objective is to establish the presence of ores of whatever kind in a specific area.

When an “exploratory” tunnel of large dimensions is created below the altitude of the paramo, that is, below three thousand meters, as an altitude of reference, the following phenomena occur: all the communicating basins which before the contamination maintained the water inside the mountains in a dynamic equilibrium, once their lines are broken, allow the water to flow freely into the interior of the tunnel. From there it emerges, converted into acid water.

What is acid water?

It is water that contains dissolved arsenopyrite and iron pyrite, plus all the heavy metals that are present among the rocks. The pyrites are sulfuric compounds—that is, compounds of sulfur and the respective metal, for example iron or arsenic— which, if they remain in contact with the air, by biological or chemical or physical processes, the sulfur compounds are separated and the join with water from the formation or subterranean water, producing hydrogen sulfide as well as sulfuric acid. These substances lower the pH of the water to values as critical as 1.5. The foregoing produces two devastating effects: first, the heavy metals are dissolved and dragged along in the current of the water; and second, it does away with all the vegetable and animal life there. Living beings of whatever nature are not adapted to living in such acid environments.

Since the water that emerges through the tunnel comes from its upper part, all life in the upper part of the mountain, without the vital liquid, from what is called “the paramo,” dies of starvation.

On the other hand, as the water flow reached\s the level of the tunnel, the water also does not go on downward from there, and the oak forest below is also irremediably condemned to die..

In this way, the snowball that is formed will end up turning into an avalanche that will wipe away life in the entire ecosystem.

How does the extraction of gold and silver work?

First the ore is taken out of the tunnels, with the indicated consequences, that is, the deterioration of the bio-system. Later the material is carried by different means, but basically in vehicles, to the processing location

There the material is crushed and washed. The washing requires substantial amounts of water. Let us keep in mind that on average out of every ton of material they get between 5 and so grams of gold (according to data from INGEOMINAS [The Colombian Institute of Geology and Mines—a government body—SC]). The rest is small-sized rocks and clay. We can estimate between 50 and 50 percent for each of these two components. The rest is small rocks and clay. We can estimate each of these two components at 50 per cent of the total.

From a daily volume estimated per company of between 25,000 and 30,000 tons of material extracted, and considering that there are 5 big companies in the area of California and Vetas, we would have a total of 150,000 tons processed every day.

Of this amount, around half, some 75,000 tons is clay, which is separated from the rock by the washing that is necessary to clean the rocks that contain the gold and silver ore. In this way, it is mixed with water and heavy metals, which are included because of the acidity of the water that comes out of the mine. Remember that heavy metals dissolve in water with an acid pH, that is, less than 4 degrees or at lesser values.

The mega-businessmen say that they are going to recirculate this water, but we wonder, what water are they talking about?

What we have is a concentrated mud that increases every day with an equal volume of clay. So it is impossible to think of recirculating this mud, since it keeps becoming more concentrated. Just to say something, in 3 days there will be just mud. So, What will they do with this highly contaminating material? They are going to dispose of it, but where? What controls will they have? Will this volume of material be covered?  What guarantees are there of its harmlessness? Where has this been done where it has not generated problems?

Similarly, but with the aggravating factor of the concentration of cyanide, we will have another similar volume of the material that has been processed.

What guarantees are there, especially in areas like ours, characterized by a high level of seismic activity, that the dikes where it is stored will not break and that this water will not go down into the watercourses of the rivers?

Additionally, who is going to control the acidic waters that are going to continue coming out of the cave-ins for tens of years once the productive process has finished? Who is going to pay for this continued damage?

What is acid rain?

In the process of extracting the ores, dynamite is used. When it explodes, it frees nitrous gases, that is, various kinds of compounds of nitrogen and oxygen. To move ahead each time they break through rock without risking the lives of the workers, they have to get the residual gases out. To do this they use gigantic fans, which take the contaminated air from the mine. This gas, rich in nitrogenous compounds, goes out into the atmosphere, and on making contact with ambient humidity it forms nitric acid.  When it rains, this falls on the earth and destroys the vegetation. In the same way, when it falls in the river watercourse, it augments the effect of the acid water from the cave-ins.

This suggests once more the imperative necessity of the moratorium in order to study the paramo and its dynamics, but not for mining developments.

It is clear in the Constitution that the protection of water, and therefore of life, are motives with more weight than whatever economic benefit.

As we can see, this is a problem that will be very difficult to resolve if there is no objective will on the part of the Government to conserve water and therefore life.

This is why there is an urgent need to stop the mining locomotive, since if we wait to see the damage, it will already be impossible to recover our ecosystems.

[Translator’s note: the references to “the locomotive” are references to the use of the word by president Santos, who has argued that extractive industry, and mining in particular, will be “the locomotive” that will pull the train of Colombian economic development forward—SC]

(This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.)

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