Cogua is a small farming town surrounded by native forest in the middle of the Colombian Andes. Most of the people here make a good living growing potatoes and grazing their cows on the emerald green land. But this idyllic picture could change quickly.
“Our main problem here is that mining is booming without control and it’s taking our water away,” said Cogua mayor Javier Garzón, a big man with a black moustache and humble origins. He is battling to preserve the unique water source of the 20,000 people who live in his town from miners attracted by the growing demand for coal (especially from China and the United States) and its soaring price on the international market.
The water for his town and five nearby municipalities comes from the páramos, a unique highland ecosystem of the Andes, described by some as a “water factory.” Its sponge-like soil and particular vegetation and geology capture water in the rainy season, acting as a natural buffer against floods. During the dry season, the páramos release water into hundreds of small creeks that feed crops and reservoirs.
In Guerrero, Cogua’s surrounding páramo, the landscape is both breathtaking and alarming: a field of blossoming frailejones – an endemic plant with velvety leaves that capture the particles of water from the mist of these altitudes – is pierced by dozens of deep shafts and tunnels with piles of coal alongside. The mines are interconnected with an improvised network of trails that bulldozers and trucks use to move their loads of coal. Miners with faces covered in black dust gaze at strangers while streams flow dark with runoff from their excavations.
Like Guerrero, many of Colombia’s remaining páramos are under siege. The recent mining boom is threatening ecosystems that are critical for the well-being of hundreds of small towns and even a few big cities. Páramos represent only two percent of Colombia’s land, but provide water to 70 percent of its people.
“The water from the páramos is key for the development of our country,” said Felipe Rubio Torgler, a biologist and researcher for the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, a government agency that in 2007 produced the first comprehensive atlas of the Colombian páramos. Rubio said that the páramos are the most fragile ecosystem in Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
During the eight-year administration of former president Alvaro Uribe, mining in Colombia expanded exponentially. Between 2002 and 2010, areas with mining titles skyrocketed from 2.8 million acres to 21 million, according to Ingeominas, the government agency in charge of granting the titles. At least 7 percent of the land in the páramos is now in hands of mining companies.
The new president, Juan Manuel Santos, has said he will use fiscal stimulus to give more steam to the “mining locomotive.” Any attempt to slow down this train could prove costly: Today, 80 percent of foreign investment in Colombia goes to the mining and hydrocarbons sector, and that number keeps growing.
“I run short of time to process all the application requests from mining companies that are landing in the country,” admitted Mines and Energy Minister Carlos Rodado, in a recent forum at Bogota's Chamber of Commerce.
Nevertheless, the Santos government has tried to calm fears that the mining interests will run roughshod over the country’s ecological assets.
“One of the things that we have set very clearly is that in some regions mining is forbidden, especially there where water can be scarce,” said Sandra Bessudo, National Adviser for the Environment, a new position created by President Santos. “A number of mining titles that were given in protected areas such as forest reserves and national parks will need to be revised,” she added.
One of the tools Bessudo is counting on is a refurbished mining law approved by Congress in July 2009. The law prohibits any mining activity in the páramos, a development environmentalists claim as their biggest victory in years. However, in the unusually long time span of eight months between congressional approval and presidential sanction, more than 8.9 million acres of land were given to mining, much of it in areas now protected under the new law. Miners insist that their titles can’t be reversed, challenging Bessudo’s plan to revise those titles.
One of the most emblematic examples of this conflict is the Angostura Project, a proposed 2,700 acres open-pit excavation in the Santurbán páramo by Greystar Resources, a Canadian gold mining company that benefited from the legal limbo. While the company promises to create no environmental hazards, the cities of Bucaramanga and Cucuta have opposed the project, alleging that this high-altitude mine threatens the water supplies for the two million residents. On December 22, Colombia’s General Inspector urged the government to block the project.
Despite the confidence of some that the new law has put a lock on areas that should be protected, rules are easily broken in Colombia. The country’s territory is vast (53 times the size of El Salvador) and the government is weak. A confidential government document states that just in Chocó – one of the country’s 32 provinces and one of the richest in water provisions and rainforest – there are about 848 square miles in the hands of illegal miners, mainly small-scale gold miners, who are well-known as heavy users of chainsaws, mercury and cyanide. To recover that land will cost some $80 million, according to the report. That is far more the annual budget of the Ministry of the Environment.
“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,” said Guillermo Rudas, a researcher at the Universidad Externado in Bogotá who mapped official data of land with mining titles and land requested for mining over the last 20 years. In his report, he also shows how the budget for the environmental institutions in Colombia relative to GDP is today one-third of what it was in 1994.
The lack of government control over the small-scale mining industry is not only obvious in far-flung places.
“Welcome to Dante’s Inferno,” said Rubio when we drove the so-called “Coal Route” that besieges Rabanal, another patch of páramo in the centrally located province of Boyacá. Hundreds of archaic coal mines have visibly nibbled the mountain. Dozens of ovens for processing coke – a type of coal distilled in gigantic brick caldrons at more that 3600 degrees – belch out columns of black smoke that make throats itch and taint the trees and soil, day and night. The miners work in precarious conditions without health or safety guarantees.
Colombia is Latin America’s principal coal producer. However, the coal from Guerrero or Rabanal is not a crucial part of Colombia’s energy diet. Seventy percent of Colombia´s energy comes from hydropower plants, moved precisely by the force of the water that runs down the mountain from this threatened páramos.
"If this situation doesn´t stop, we will end up displaced, this time not by the guerrillas or any other armed group but from people like us who have exploited this land without control,” said Mayor Garzón, sitting atop a mountain rock and looking down at his hometown in the green valley below. “We’ll only have two options: leaving our homes or living in a desert”.
* Lorenzo Morales is a a journalist currently funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to report on the Colombian mining boom and its impact on water provision. This article was done with support of the Pulitzer Center (pulitzercenter.org).He teaches at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.