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New law banning mining in Colombia’s moorlands could draw its first lawsuit

  • On its website, the mining company announced that it’s “developing a multi-million ounce gold-silver deposit in Colombia.”
  • Half of the world’s moorlands are in Colombia, providing 70% of the drinking water in the country, aside from being ecosystems that are crucial for climate change mitigation. 
  • The new law that bans mining in Colombia’s moorlands took years to materialize, and was the product of multiple activist campaigns, and pressure from civil society.

The new law that bans mining in Colombia’s moorlands took years to materialize, and was the product of multiple activist campaigns, lawsuits, and pressure from civil society to preserve one of the world’s most sensitive ecosystems.

Last month, Colombia’s Constitutional Court approved a law that has no precent. It bans mining and oil exploitation –effectively blocking 473 already-existing concessions– in the country’s moorlands. The law is expected to impact more than 300 mining operations in 25 moorlands, according to data from the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA).

One of those companies is the Canadian transnational, Eco Oro. Its Angostura mine is located within the Santurbán moorland, in the Norte de Santander and Santander departments, within an area larger than 142,000 hectares. Santurbán includes five regional parks and a variety of species in danger of extinction, such as the condor (Vultur gryphus), the chirriador (Cisttothorus apollinari), the moorland duck (Anas flavirostris) and the curí (Cavia porcellus).

On its website, the company has announced that it is “developing a multi-million ounce gold-silver deposit in Colombia.” Eco Oro has already completed more than 350,000 meters of drilling and 3,000 meters of underground development, thanks to an investment by the International Financing Corporation of the World Bank

Juan Orduz, president of Eco Oro’s board of directors, said back in 2014 –before the law was approved– that the company “has invested more than 240 million dollars in the region.”
“It’s no secret that we’ve had many challenges and that we will keep having them. There’s always a new source of conflict, and even then, we’re going to keep coming up with strategies to keep working in this area,” said Orduz back then, when the demarcations for mining in Colombia’s moorlands were an issue of conflict.

In a recent press release, Eco Oro announced that it has the option of bringing the dispute to international arbitration and seeking “monetary compensation for the damages suffered” due to the new anti-mining law.

“Since the Angostura project got underway, it has been clear that páramos are constitutionally and legally protected and that this project could affect Santurbán, such that it might not be authorized,” said Carlos Lozano Acosta, an attorney with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA). “States should not be sanctioned for protecting their water sources, given that they are doing so in accordance with national and international obligations.”

According to data from the Institute of Biological Research Alexander Von Humboldt, half of the world’s moorlands are in Colombia and are the source of 70% of the fresh water in the country, besides being an ecosystem essential for mitigating climate change. Their importance is especially acute right now, since Colombia is facing the El Niño climate phenomenon and going through one of the worst droughts in its history.

Eco Oro’s critics explain that five years ago, Colombia’s Environment Ministry had denied the Angostura mine its environmental license. And now, the decision of the Constitutional Court reaffirms that decision, “finding that the right to water and the protection of the páramos (moorlands) takes precedent over the economic interests of companies trying to develop mining projects in these ecosystems.” That’s according to Miguel Ramos, from the Water Defense Committee and the Páramo of Santurbán (El Comité por la Defensa del Agua y el Páramo de Santurbán).

The Committee has presented a complaint about the Angostura mining project to The World Bank, and hopes to receive a response in the next few months.

Mining activities in Colombia’s moorlands. Image courtesy of Agencia Nacional de Minería.