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‘Mercury is a complex problem’: Q&A with Colombian Mining Minister Irene Vélez Torres

  • Illegal gold mining has long plagued Colombia’s ecosystems and communities, while small-scale miners have lamented the difficulties they face in formalizing their operations.
  • Despite Colombia’s 2018 ban on the use of mercury in mining, the highly toxic metal continues to be widely used to extract gold.
  • The new government of President Gustavo Petro has vowed to tackle the problem of illegal mining and mercury contamination, but the prevailing mining legislation is outdated and ineffective.
  • Authorities are developing a new Mining Code that aims to be inclusive, help formalize artisanal and small-scale miners, and eliminate mercury from the industry.

The election victory in 2022 of Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing president in decades, has fanned winds of change in the country. The new government has vowed to tackle many of nation’s chronic issues, from violence and corruption to environmental problems and inclusivity.

Among these are illegal extractive activities, particularly gold mining, which threaten ecosystems and local and Indigenous communities. Authorities have called for a transformation of mining regulations, formalization of small-scale operations, a general cleaning up of the industry while keeping it profitable.

In charge of this ambitious reform program is Irene Vélez Torres, an engineering professor and environmental activist who has long campaigned against the environmental impacts of mining, and who is now Colombia’s minister of mines and energy. Mongabay spoke recently with Vélez on updating the decades-old Mining Code, safeguarding the well-being of mining-affected communities, and pushing for greater buyer awareness about mercury-free gold.

The following interview has been translated from Spanish and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: You’ve been appointed as the minister for mines and energy to help reform Colombia’s chaotic mining industry, marked by illegalities and mercury contamination. You’ve said that the biggest problems have to do with the 2001 Mining Code, which caters more to multinational mining companies than to small subsistence miners. Which steps is your ministry taking to change the situation and how are you going to solve Colombia’s illegal mining problem?

Irene Vélez Torres: The new Mining Code is being prepared by the government in cooperation with Congress, and aims to give the country a new mining model that, on top of guaranteeing adequate and differentiated protection to communities of artisanal, ancestral, traditional, small-scale miners, will effectively counteract illegal exploitation and the use of chemicals such as mercury.

To reach that goal will take several initiatives, including encouraging processes of associative or collective formalization, as well as strengthening mining by guaranteeing better working conditions for Colombian miners; the return of the state’s participation in the mineral supply chain, particularly in the fair gold trade, which incentivizes clean production and better controls on the quality of the gold traded domestically and internationally; promoting high-quality and origin-based certification for clean mineral production; and strengthening conditions for local mineral processing to boost the industrialization of our economy.

Cleaning up the gold industry and formalizing small-scale and artisanal miners’ work remain complex issues that the Colombian government hopes to solve by including all stakeholders. Image courtesy of Iván Castaneira.

This way, we can ensure that we create better socioeconomic conditions that will convince the illegal exploiters who use highly toxic chemicals to transition to a regulated practice that respects mining and environmental standards.

In parallel, the Ministry of Mines and Energy has made progress with the 2022 Mining Formalization Law, which includes the Unique Mining Legalization and Formalization Plan, an institutional action plan to tackle the main obstacles to regulating mining, based on four parameters: differentiated focus, simplified processes, institutional coordination, and adequate support for mining communities. This tool will be crucial to complement the other efforts pushed by the Mining Code [reform].

Mongabay: We spoke with an Afro-Colombian miner in Choco who wants to formalize his small mining operation, but feels frustrated with the expensive and complicated process. How does the government plan to help people like him?

 Irene Vélez Torres: The Colombian state is three decades behind with enacting the 1993 law [on Afro-Colombian land rights]. In the first 100 days of this government, the Ministry of Mines and Energy met with authorities from Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenque communities. Led by the country’s vice president, they drafted the regulatory decree for Chapter V of the law, dedicated to mining activities in territories claimed, acquired or ancestrally occupied by Afro-descendant communities, and to the rights of priority, differentiated concession and of Afro-Colombian mining areas covered by the law. In this way, the decree we are working on can offer concrete answers to the Afro-descendant miners who now find obstacles in their attempt to formalize.

It is also important to mention that the new Mining Code will be aligned with the content of Chapter V of the [1993] law, as the government is committed to create a new mining regime that respects the rights of ethnic communities.

Mongabay: The Ministry of Mines and Energy has been running consultations with ethnic communities, NGOs and other interested parties. What are the key points coming out of these conversations and at which stage of development is the new Mining Code?

Irene Vélez Torres: As a result of that ample dialogue, there are five aspects crucial to building the new Mining Code. First, the need to attain a mining planning process that respects environmental norms and duties, able to preserve water resources and strategic ecosystems, and in turn to provide certainty regarding mining activities in project areas.

Second, the importance of modernizing the mining model and cycle in the country, which would allow a better titling scheme and leverage of mineral resources, prioritizing the needs of the energy transition and of the climate crisis, the gradual phasing out of highly contaminating fuels, and support for better geological knowledge for decision-making in the industry.

The third is incorporating the norms that guarantee the transition toward a productive economy, which involves, among other things, mining that prioritizes more than just the needs of a fair energy transition: those of industrializing the country, contributing to the recovery and diversification of local economies, reenabling the state’s participation in the mineral market.

The fourth is protecting artisanal, ancestral, traditional and small-scale mining, the people involved, and their related cultural and social practices. Mining communities have insisted that it is important for the new Mining Code to strengthen supply chains for these types of mining and to involve the state in this production cycle, to support formalization and to promote public-private partnerships.

The fifth is having the new Mining Code include tools that guarantee transparency, access to information, and dialogue with all the parties involved.

Currently, the national government alongside Congress members and senators has concluded the first phase in developing the new Mining Code, this social dialogue, and is starting the first draft that will be presented to the public in the first quarter of 2023.

Small-scale and artisanal mining remains a big user of mercury for extracting gold, but the sector requires government help to eliminate the highly polluting compound. Image courtesy of Iván Castaneira.

Mongabay: How have mining multinational companies responded to the reform?

Irene Vélez Torres: The response has been favorable. The companies have been open to dialogue and brought many proposals. As part of our dialogues, we have met consensus on issues like sustainable mining, social responsibility, and health and safety. We are sure we can reach agreements with the multinationals, which are also aware of the urgent need to improve our mining policies.

Mongabay: What has been the biggest obstacle in reforming the Mining Code?

Irene Vélez Torres: It’s the first time that Colombia is developing a Mining Code through dialogue, revising the effect the current mining policy has had on the various stakeholders in the country. More than an obstacle, a challenge has been to develop scenarios that address the thirst for dialogue that the country has for these types of issues and ensure that these diverse voices can share their thoughts, proposals and expectations.

Mongabay: In 2019, a consortium of Indigenous groups from the Colombian Amazon filed a lawsuit against the government for allowing mining and mercury contamination in their territories. How is your ministry and the new Mining Code going to protect these groups in remote territories from illegal mining and mercury contamination?

Irene Vélez Torres: The ministry is part of the Amazon Regional Roundtable that includes Indigenous local authorities from the Amazon. We are working with other ministries, including environment, health, defense, and internal affairs and Indigenous authorities on the actions needed to effectively control illegal mining and manage its effects.

Mongabay: Although Colombia has prohibited the use of mercury in mining since 2018, more than half of the mercury used in the country goes into extracting gold, and most of the artisanal and small-scale mining sector continues to use it. How will the new code help eliminate mercury use?

Irene Vélez Torres: Mercury use in Colombia’s mining sector is a very complex problem that needs to be analyzed thoroughly to understand how to tackle it. Among other lessons learned, the current legislation has shown us that prohibition is not effective as it creates illegal markets and criminalizes the miners without providing solutions for mercury use or the contamination it generates. Thus the initiatives I mentioned earlier.

Mongabay: Marcos Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, has praised Colombia’s mercury ban, but criticized the lack of capacity to apply the law. According to him, it’s not Colombia’s responsibility to enact the ban, but it’s a problem of the Minamata Convention on Mercury that still allows the use of mercury in gold extraction. Do you think the convention needs to be changed to make the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale mining an environmental crime?

 Irene Vélez Torres: The Minamata Convention is an “agreement on essentials” between nations at an international level. Reaching that agreement was in itself a challenge, which makes any attempt to change it not an easy mission.

I want to highlight that every agreement included in Minamata, however small it may be, was in itself an achievement of international politics and of the alignment between the 128 states that to date, have adhered to it.

These essential agreements open a path, and that can always be complemented by other provisions that the states consider relevant domestically. Therefore, any measure considered to be included in the convention could be more viable in the short term in national situations.

Mongabay: You’ve said that one solution to the mercury problem can come from the market and that companies need to buy more mercury-free gold. Can you tell us more about this and how the international market can play a role?

Irene Vélez Torres: The international market can be a key actor in supporting environmental responsibility, green certification or sustainability initiatives. These reward small and medium-scale miners with certification for clean and responsible gold extraction, improving the economic benefits of these companies and adding value to the supply chain. This government aims to expand these international alliances.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Banner image: Irene Velez, Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy. Image photo by Cesar Nigrinis, courtesy of the Ministry of Mines and Energy of Colombia.

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For some Colombians, vows of mining reform are just a flash in the pan


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