- Libero Copper, a Canadian company, plans to mine copper, molybdenum and other metals in the richly biodiverse Andean-Amazon Piedmont, which has led to strong divisions within Indigenous and local communities.
- The copper and molybdenum project is framed as a green project that could contribute much-needed minerals for the country’s energy transition, a proposal that aligns with the goals of the new left-wing government of Gustavo Petro.
- However, some communities and environmental activists oppose the mining project over concerns of deforestation, landslides and loss of forest-based livelihoods in the region.
- Others support the clean energy transition and the company’s promise of jobs in the historically neglected region.
MOCOA, Colombia — “We are experiencing a profound crisis, not only in the Amazon but throughout humanity,” said Campo Elías de la Cruz, a Catholic priest and environmental activist who opposes mining activity in Colombia’s Putumayo region. “Over these three centuries, the umbilical cord of Mother Earth has been cut. Thousands of rubber trees were cut down alongside 70,000 Indigenous people who died during the exploitation of rubber, timber, quinine and oil. And today, in the 21st century, they tell us they are taking the copper from Mother Earth.”
Campo Elias is referring to the rubber, quinine and timber rush that happened in the Amazon region during colonization. And also of current plans to explore and mine for copper and molybdenum to feed clean energy technologies in what could be one of the largest deposits of these minerals on the continent and in the world.
In this richly biodiverse region, where the cool mountains of the Andes meet the Amazon Rainforest, opinions are divided and emotions are high among communities over the environmental and social costs of hosting this green mining project and the jobs it promises to bring.
In 2018, Canadian multinational Libero Copper acquired four mining titles to explore for and exploit minerals such as copper and molybdenum across more than 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of land in Mocoa, the capital of the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia.
The mining project has been framed by proponents as a green project that’s part of crucial climate efforts to transition to renewable energy and replace polluting fossil fuels while creating much-needed work opportunities in the region. This proposal aligns with the left-wing government of President Gustavo Petro, who took office last year. During his campaign, he vowed to stop issuing oil and gas exploration licenses and has recently advocated for the exploration of crucial minerals in the country to develop renewable energy as a climate change solution.
Libero Copper expects the copper and molybdenum mine in Mocoa to be huge. According to the company, the municipality’s reserves contain 4.6 billion pounds (2 million metric tons) of copper and 510.5 million lbs (232,000 metric tons) of molybdenum.
“The energy transition has an enormous demand for strategic minerals. At the global level that means extraction frontiers are under pressure,” said Irene Vélez, the new minister of mines and energy, two weeks ago while visiting Indigenous, local and environmental activists. “But this government is not going to generate a copper rush that will leave social and environmental destruction.”
Currently, the Colombian government is revising the existing mining code, with the aim of strengthening regulations and protecting the environment, said Alvaro Pardo, president of the National Mining Agency (ANM).
Clean energy or protecting territory?
The Andean-Amazon Piedmont region is of particular ecological and hydrological importance. It’s here where the Caquetá and Putumayo rivers originate, both major tributaries of the Amazon River. This region is home to species including a great variety of birds, as well as cougars (Puma concolor), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and mountain pacas (Cuniculus taczanowskii).
For many Indigenous people from the surrounding Inga, Kametsa, and Nasa communities, and for environmental activists, the protection of this region from deforestation should be the priority. It’s a position that has grown stronger since Libero Copper was found breaking several environmental and legal codes.
Drilling by the company was put on hold in March 2022 after it came to light that the company was exploring despite its mining titles being under temporary suspension. Under this temporary suspension, Libero Copper was not allowed to carry out any exploration, exploitation, construction or installation activities.
The Nasa Indigenous Guard also accuses the company of using water sources through motor pumps, storing contaminated water and clearing trees without the necessary permits. Libero Copper denies these accusations. Although the company has four mining titles, it still needs separate permits to use or dispose of water and clear trees during exploration. Before moving forward to the exploitation phase, the company also needs to apply for an environmental license.
The company’s activities also breached a 2018 regional accord that prohibits mining in Mocoa, with or without the necessary licenses. The purpose of the accord is to preserve the ecological and cultural patrimony of the municipality. Under these circumstances, the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of Southern Amazonia (Corpoamazonia) issued a principle of environmental protection. In a public statement, this government entity also cited the overlap of the mining titles with the forest reserve area of the Upper Mocoa River Basin and eight other areas of environmental importance.
Based on a technical report by Libero Copper, if the Colombian government denies it access to the regional forest reserve, the available mineral deposits would be slashed by around 50%, from 636 million metric tons to 325 million metric tons.
Complications piled on in May of the same year when the Inga Indigenous community also presented a successful appeal for lack of prior consultation — a requirement by law when a project could affect the community’s livelihood or culture.
Some environmental activists say both biodiversity and the communities will be affected as an open-pit mine of its size would require extensive deforestation and generate noise disturbing nearby species. They also fear potential pollution of surface or groundwater and the dispersion of contaminated elements if waste from extracting and processing the minerals is not disposed of properly.
“As a result of these mining activities, not only the community of Condagua will be affected, but all other communities in the river basin,” said Yamid Murillo, a lawyer working with the Zonal Indigenous Organization of Putumayo (OZIP). “People will stop going to the chagra [Indigenous agroforestry system] because it will be easy for them to earn a salary as an unskilled worker, leading to a physical and cultural extermination.”
The mountainous area where mining would occur also has highly fractured rocks, said Julio Fierro, director of the Colombian Geological Service. Locals worry about another landslide like that in 2017 that killed at least 254 people.
“The use of machinery would debilitate the soil and could cause a new disaster,” said Soraida Chindoy, an Indigenous leader of the Inga community and a survivor of the landslide. “We shouldn’t allow that to happen.”
But for all their opposition to the mega mine, the collective of different social and environmental organizations say they support the clean energy transition. “Just as we oppose large-scale mining in these territories, we support energy communities and sustainable projects that allow another way of life,” a representative of the collective said during the visit of the mining minister.
Support for the project by Indigenous and local community members has grown over the last year as the company opens job vacancies, educational opportunities for employees’ children, and support for local businesses, according to members of the local communities of Pueblo Viejo and Monclart.
“The families that were resisting now work for the company. They are conscious of the damage that would take place but keep silent to keep their jobs,” said Ofelia Samboni, an Indigenous Yanacona member and landowner in Monclart, during an interview with Mongabay. “The company has been strategic. They give presents and help people to cover their necessities and that way gain their support.”
A local man working with Libero Copper, who asked not to be named for fear of losing his job, told Mongabay that regardless of the possible environmental impacts, he works there because “it is the job that is available, the pay is good and helps me to meet my needs.”
Mocoa has the highest level of unemployment (10.2%) within Colombia’s Center-South region, where 77% of the workforce has informal jobs. Many say mining is the solution to the economic problems in the region.
During the meeting with the mining minister, a tearful Kametsa Indigenous leader representing the collective handed Minister Vélez a proposal for social and economic sustainable development in the region as an alternative to the mining project. Among the proposals was the creation of a university, the promotion of community and ethno-tourism, and the marketing of agroecological products.
“We understand the complexity of this conflict is going to generate a reaction from the company workers but we are not going to turn our backs on them,” Mayerly Garzón, a member of Minga, said at the event. “That is why we should continue the dialogue based on actions to create a model based on alternative economies.”
What the future holds
Earlier this year, a notice was handed to the company reporting another violation of the temporary suspension of one of the mining titles.
Such a violation could lead to the removal of the company from the region, said Pardo, the mining agency president, who was present at the community event two weeks ago with the mining minister. He said his office was conducting an investigation into Libero Copper’s project in Mocoa and was awaiting the company’s response to the latest alleged violation, but that the evidence would be difficult to refute.
Libero Copper, however, denies the accusations against it. Thyana Alvarez, Libero Copper’s vice president of corporate relations, told Mongabay that the company was only conducting “environmental and social studies.”
This contradicts a report published in November by the company, in which it says it’s “currently advancing systematic exploration on the Mocoa project and is continuing the soil sampling program, prospecting and mapping across the entire district scale property.” According to the ANM, this confirms the violation of the temporal suspension of activities and the regional accord, which specify that no exploration or exploitation activities are permitted. So far, no sanctions have been handed down against Libero Copper, and the controversy over the energy project rages on.
“We should not bring any kind of extractive project that will end our Amazon region,” said Jose Homero Mutumbajoy of OZIP, “even if it contributes to the energy transition.”
Banner image: Soraida Chindoy, 38, Indigenous leader from the Inga community of the Condagua reservation. She has been part of the movement to stop the mining project from the beginning. Image by Antonio Cascio for Mongabay.
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