“The Strategy of the Government for Santurban: Change the Limits which Have Already Been Established”

By Erwing Rodriguez Saleh*

(Translated by John I. Laun, a CSN Volunteer Translator )

“After denying the license because the project would do damage and because the citizenry demanded it, the government reopened the door — and while doing that enlarged the area available for all of the mining companies. It simply will change the limits of the areas which require protection. An authentic swindle.”

A Well-Known History:

Four years have not been sufficient for the Santos government to resolve the conflict over the paramo of Santurban and the water of Colombians. The case of Santurban is paradigmatic because it establishes the model for the remaining paramos and other strategic ecosystems which are vital for Colombia. Ominous antecedents announce the decision of the Santos government (which says one thing and does another) to start its mining locomotive moving in Santurban and its complementary ecosystems, without contemplating the effects on water.

In 2010 the government carried through the Angostura project when it contemplated open-pit mining in Santurban, not taking into account the fact that it is a paramo. If it were not for the social mobilization and the national debate which this project provoked, the license would have been granted without any difficulty.

But the Greystar Company finally desisted and the government, “very dignified”, denied the request to desist as well as the environmental license in 2011. But the company announced a short while later that that it would undertake mining in an underground manner under the name Eco Oro with the complicit silence of the government.

Why did Santos permit the mining companies to continue exploring (as if the exploration would not also cause damage) if it were going to deny the environmental license for mining? This confirms that if there had been the will, the government would already have—at least—resolved the legal vacuum if the environmental license were not necessary for exploration.

Later the previous concept of the Ministry of Mines (in 2011) for the declaration of a National Regional Park (PNR) of Santurban sought to exclude the limit of 3,400 meters above sea level in the Jurisdiction of California, “taking into account that this zone is not an area of priority for conservation”, in benefit of mega-mining, at the same time as the government said “not in paramos”.

In fact the concept of the Humboldt Institute for declaring of Santurban as a PNR called attention to the fact that the Autonomous Corporation for the Defense of the Plateau of Bucaramanga (CDMB) had increased the height from 3,000 meters to 3,400 meters, appealing the recommendations of the Ministry of Mines, “without elements of judgment based upon biophysical information which evaluates the said variation in the light of the proposed objectives of conservation.”

The New Strategy:

Given the legal impossibility of carrying out mining in paramos, the government conceived the “best invention” to give the mega-mining companies an open road to their plans: ”re-delimiting these paramos, “delimiting” that which has already been delimited.

The Director of the Humboldt Institute, Brigitte Baptiste, in declarations to the magazine “Semana” in 2013, affirmed categorically that “Colombia does know the limits of its paramos.” And yet the prior Minister of Environment, Luz Helena Sarmiento, pretended to sell to her fellow people from Santander the “delimitation” of Santurban as a ”sublime triumph”—this, however, being a pyric victory or that of a deceit, since the delimitation of 44,000 hectares does not guarantee the protection of the water of residents of Santander, since a large part of this bio-geographical unit remains unprotected and at the mercy of the mining companies.

Only the CDMB has under its jurisdiction more than 66,000 hectares, plus 15,000 hectares of the corregimiento (local governmental land jurisdiction) of Berlin which, supposedly, it is going to include within the “delimitation”. In addition, it is calculated that with the new cartography at a scale of 1:100,000, the area of the paramos in Colombia increased by about one million hectares. The possibilities of manipulating a line of delimitation with an area of 44,000 hectares in favor of the mining companies are infinite.

Technical Concept 503 of the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA) contradicts the government, since it shows that the paramos are delimited. This Concept is based upon Resolution 0937 (2011) that businesses which carry out exploration in paramos enter upon “altoandino” (Andean highlands). Nonetheless the government continues with its proposal of “re-delimiting” the territory.

Notwithstanding the general rejection which the “express environmental licenses” produced, the government reduced the time of issuance and made the process oral, “without neglecting rigorousness” (sic), as Minister Vallejo confirmed, which is by all lights a utopia. This is the best cocktail in favor of the mining companies: the “re-delimitation of the paramos” together with the “fair of environmental licenses.”

Decree 2041(2014), which annulled Decree 2820 of 2010, leaves open the possibility for projects which propose to intervene in the paramos to request a prior concept of the Ministry of the Environment “concerning the sustainable use of said ecosystems.” But it is well known that, because of their vulnerability, there cannot be sustainable mining in the paramos.

For the Water of the Future:

Although the National Development Plan (PDN) of the Santos government, to achieve “coherence”, ought to ratify Article 202 of the previous PDN (Law 1450) on the protection of the paramos, the water produced by them, which 70% of Colombians consume, cannot depend upon a “small article”. If the government wishes to assure that there is water for all Colombians, it will have to annul the provision on the “new delimitation” which the government itself intends to put in, calling upon the sophism that the mega-mining will contribute to create employment in impoverished zones, when it is well known that large-scale mega- mining uses capital goods above all.

Article 202 of the mentioned Development Plan asks that the paramos be delimited “based upon technical, economic, social and environmental studies…” But since when do economic and social studies replace the delimitation of nature or technical and environmental studies? Paramo is paramo.

Paragraph 1 says that “in paramos there cannot be mining activities of exploration or exploitation (removal of minerals)”, but in reality—and with the government’s complacency—the mining businesses continue in the paramo, waiting for the added provision of the “delimitation” to “delimit” what has already been delimited in their benefit.

Decree 2372 of 2010 stipulates the special protection that strategic ecosystems such as the paramos should have, since as “water factories” they are irreplaceable and their environmental benefits for the quality of life are immeasurable. But the Colombian state infringes upon the principle of precaution, which had been sacred since 1993 (Law 99).

It is most simplistic and erroneous to see the ecosystems of paramos as a simple limit of meters above sea level (another fallacy that they have tried to sell to us), when the concept of paramo goes way beyond that. Unscrupulous persons wait for the “delimitation”, betting that outside of that they can devastate as they wish. Others, of the same ilk, see in the artificial pond of Tona the perfect argument to convert the Surata river basin into a sewer.

Under the fundamental premise of conserving water for future generations the government has the legal and moral obligation to revoke the environmental licenses already issued (and if it is the case, investigate who issued them) and to deny applications for licenses for projects which propose to intervene in said ecosystems. Speaking frankly, every mining project which is above the intake pipes of the aqueducts puts at risk the water of citizens.

Another sophism by which the government seeks to defend its measures is that the mining in Santurban has existed for several centuries. But it must be remembered that that involved mining on a small scale, the impact of which cannot be compared with that of mega-mining: the latter could devastate in 15 or 20 years that which the previous mining did not devastate for centuries. As far as the sophism of “responsible mining” is concerned, it is not possible within a vulnerable paramo.

Al Gore insists that there are strategic ecological zones which should not be subjected to development projects. But President Santos responded to Al Gore saying that “the title which conveys a right to exploration for minerals does not automatically concede the right to mine exploitation”. However, the government speaks of the rights acquired and the legitimate expectations of the mining companies, when from the same words of Santos one infers that they invested on their own account and at their own risk.

The rights acquired by the mining companies should not have primacy over the right to water and life of future generations. On this point Al Gore was totally convincing when he affirmed that “You residents of Santander have a dilemma with Santurban: take out the gold, in benefit of a few, or guarantee potable water for the citizens. You cannot arrive at a worse future scenario than when your children reproach you saying what were our fathers thinking about when they permitted mining projects to be approved in Santurban?”

Colombians ought to be alert because, possibly, the government will pretend to make as a gift to the mining companies the “delimitation of Santurban” in our December holidays.

Santos ought to be coherent with his peace process, since the defense of water is a way of obtaining a durable peace, and even more so when it is foreseeable that future wars will be fought for the vital liquid.

If the government crystalizes its “great invention”, “delimiting” the paramos with biased arguments in order to be in the good graces of mining companies, it will end up depriving water to the next generation of Colombians. Would this be coherent with the banner of peace?

* Founder and leader of the Movimiento Cívico Conciencia Ciudadana in Bucaramanga which defends water, the environment and the Paramo de Santurban

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