The publication of a map by the Ministry of Environment and Social Development (MADS) at the end of March was supposed to resolve the environmental issues facing the high-altitude wetland of Santurbán, and the interests of gold miners in this remote area of Santander. Yet despite its publication, no official coordinates were released, leaving those affected with more questions than answers.
The map, it appears, seemed inspired by political posturing months ahead of May’s presidential election. The residents of California, the town most affected by the Santurbán mining project, seem to think so, as the map traces a limit that follows topographical contours then dips to lower elevations to enwrap the La Baja valley, the California district, where Eco Oro Minerals Corp’s ‘Angostura’ project is located. Eco Oro is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange as ‘EOM.’
“President Santos is running for reelection and so the Environment Minister is campaigning for him. The Angostura project has been satanized and the political discourse is about protecting the water of Bucaramanga because in the region there are only some 10,000 votes compared to the 1.5 million in Bucaramanga,” claims local miner and hotelier, Elíecer Rodríguez Capacho.
“We have requested that MADS provide the actual coordinates for the boundaries of the Santurbán páramo so that we can assess the impact of the delineation on Eco Oro and its assets. In the meantime, any views regarding the impact of the Santurbán paramo on EOM or its assets should be regarded
as speculative,” stated Eco Oro’s President and CEO, João Carrelo. The Ministry of Environment subsequently claimed the map “should not be used to assess the impact of the Santurbán páramo on Angostura and that only the official coordinates should be used for this purpose.”
A representative of the Environment Ministry claimed that while the coordinates have been fixed, it was not possible to release them for technical reasons. A multiagency taskforce meanwhile is developing a ‘Santurbán Strategy’ to decide what to do with several thousand families near the Santurbán páramo, which lies at 3,300 metres a.s.l and whose economic activities range from mining to onion farming. Under the map’s delineation, farmers would be banned from cultivating within the páramo. And relocation is hardly an option as population displacement would be an embarrassment to the national government where an estimated 4.7 million have already been displaced by the violence, according to numbers released by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The solution by the Ministry of Environment effectively creates a system of patronage whereby farmers that are no longer able to grow potatoes or onions will receive payments for “protecting the delicate parámo”. This proposal doesn’t seem to resonate with the farmers of California, Berlin and Vetas. “The state has abandoned us and is proposing a system of subsidies, improving people’s houses and tourism,” claims Rodriguez. “But it’s still very lukewarm and there is little of substance. People in California invested in hotel and transport businesses to work with the mining sector, so if there is no mining we will have to leave. It will be a catastrophe.”
The eco-political “hot potato” that is the Santurbán wetland caught Eco Oro, and its predecessor Greystar Resources, offside after having spent US$230 million on exploring the Angostura gold project.
In November 2010, as Vancouver-based Greystar Resources pushed to have its Environmental Impact Assessment processed by the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development (MAVDT) it held a public hearing in California. The hearing was positive but a group opposed to the gold project claimed they could not make it, despite the fact that the Santander Police Office confirmed the meeting was accessible to all. It turned out they had tried to obtain support from local communities, but when they failed to do so they tried to get the meeting annulled.
Following the California hearing, one of the more powerful voices in Colombia, Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, wrote to the Environment Minister Beatriz Uribe to intervene. Writing publically before the Alexander von Humboldt Institute (AvHI) had completed its task of delimiting páramos, and before any studies into technical, social and environmental aspects had been undertaken, Ordoñez wrote: “Even if only advance in non-excluded areas and are developed in compliance with and in accordance to environmental regulations to the highest international standards, it will always leave an ecological footprint, often deep and irreversible, as could come to pass within the Greystar Resources project in the Santurbán paramo.” This letter seems to have sent a veiled message that Angostura should not proceed.
The Ministry subsequently requested a second public hearing in Bucaramanga. Where the protestors had failed in California they succeeded at the March 2011 hearing in Bucaramanga. Opposition leaders generated such an outcry over Angostura that the MAVDT was forced to abandon the hearing after only 28 of the inscribed 470 statements had been heard.
Greystar Resources was effectively eviscerated and the hearing was not reconvened. “The people of California and the company lost the image and reputation battle. The politicians took a decision that took into account the opinions of the people and they didn’t decide for the project because it would cost them a lot of votes,” states political analyst and former Greystar CEO Rafael Nieto.
Pro-mining advocates believe that formal mining can help ensure environmental protection and safe water supplies by providing the financial, human and technical resources to do so. Greystar certainly thought so. In addition to exploration, it removed landmines placed by the FARC, cleaned rubbish and debris from the páramo left by informal mining, and developed an impressive nursery to grow the plants to restore its project area, including the emblematic wild frailejón (Espeletia Conglomerata). “Greystar had successfully planted and reproduced a large quantity of [fraile- jón] plants in its nursery, and we were able to demonstrate that their speed of growth was much more rapid than the environmentalists pretended,” expressed exploration consultant and former Greystar executive VP Frederick Felder.
If formal exploration ceases it is likely that armed groups and informal miners will reestablish themselves in the area to the detriment of this delicate habitat. “There is going to be illegal mining in Santurbán which favors criminal groups and will cause worse environmental damage than the formal mining project,” says Nieto.
“Environmental” decision-making in Santander seems to depend on politics, and with a presidential election looming, the only certainty is, that the Santurbán saga is far from any kind of resolution.