Political institutions tend to respond slowly in adapting to challenges. Longstanding problems typically arise and evolve long before policymakers and government officials are able to identify them. And when they do, they are generally ill-equipped to devise proposals to solving these problems. One of the more telling examples is happening in Colombia—where not only the mining industry is impacted but strategic assets like water are being put at risk.
Colombia is the largest coal producer in Latin America, and after Venezuela and Brazil, the third-largest for crude oil. The exploitation of gold, silver and rare earth minerals such as coltan (a combination of columbite and tantalite) is growing exponentially. Must of this activity is driven by foreign direct investment (FDI); between 2008 and 2009 alone, the percentage of investments in mining projects out of all FDI skyrocketed from 17 percent to 43 percent—from $1.8 billion to $3.1 billion. The figure is expected to further increase in 2010.
But environmentalists are concerned about the booming mining sector. “Mining is a high-risk industry growing in Colombia at an exorbitant rate while national environmental institutions that are meant to regulate it are in their weakest shape in 15 years,” notes Guillermo Rudas, a researcher at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. Rudas’ study maps the evolution of land with mining titles and land requested for mining in the last 20 years. He notes that from 2002-2010 areas with mining titles boomed from 2.8 million acres to 21 million acres. Despite this trend, Rudas notes that the budget relative to GDP for Colombia’s environmental agencies was three times larger in 1994 than in 2010.
This fiscal disconnect takes a serious and unique toll. Despite its relatively small size, Colombia is ranked among the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Its rich ecosystems range from tropical rainforests to high-altitude moorlands to the open sabana valley of ponds and wetlands. This means that the success of the mining industry has a lasting imprint on Colombia’s ecology. Mining involves heavy machinery, enormous need of water, extensive soil removal and tree removal, massive usage of toxic chemicals, and opening new roads in naturally-protected areas. It also poses unprecedented health risks to workers and local populations.
Colombia needs clear legal frameworks, reliable information, strong regulations, and well-financed environmental institutions. But none of these seem to be happening.
Consider the present scenario in Segovia, a gold-mining city in the northwestern state of Antioquia. This city of 35,000 citizens is threatened by lethal mercury poisoning. Last year, scientists working for the United Nations Global Mercury Project (UNGMP) recorded levels of mercury gas in downtown Segovia to be 1,000 times higher than World Health Organization limits. So far, the local and national government have done nothing to solve the problem.
“Nowhere is this problem of mercury contamination more urgent than in Colombia,” wrote Shefa Siegel, former UNGMP director, in a recent article by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “This growth [of the gold industry] has turned Colombia into the world’s leading per-capita emitter of mercury,” Siegel warns. He wrote that experts fear a worse health disaster in Segovia than in Minamata, Japan—where releases of mercury from a factory killed more than 1,700 people.
Recent administrations have finally begun to acknowledge Colombia’s shortcomings on mining reform. In 2009 the Colombian Congress passed a law that prohibits mining in national parks and forest reserves. Carlos Rodado, the minister of energy and mines, admitted poor handling of the issue. President Juan Manuel Santos—who created the position of National Environment Advisor—has discussed creating a new mining agency (Agencia Nacional Minera) and granting more independence to the environment ministry. Right now, it has little political or technical muscle after being merged with the housing and urban development ministry under the Úribe administration.
The question remains whether Colombia can stick to these promises. Will it set the pace of mining regulation or will its environment suffer in the face of legislative stagnation?
*Lorenzo Morales is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor at the Center for Journalism Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and is also a journalist currently funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to report on the Colombian mining and water industries.