The closest translation for páramo is “moorland,” a term probably most identified with the heaths and muirs of the British Isles. But the fragile ecosystems of Colombia’s high Andes have no direct comparison on earth.
That made a Monday decision by the Colombian Constitutional Court all the more significant. The court ruled against allowing mining in páramos, loosely identifiable as the area between the tree line and the permanent snow line.
Colombia’s páramos are home to dozens of unique plant and animal species, some of which — like the spectacled or Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) — are considered vulnerable or endangered.
The unique mountain ecosystems also help collect water from mists and rain and filter it into streams and rivers, providing water resources for much of Colombia. Experts estimate that as much as 70 percent of the population depends on water originating in Colombia’s páramos.
An unusually strong El Niño weather pattern has particularly strained the country’s water supply.
The ruling to ban mining represents a win for Colombian biodiversity as well as the country’s hydrologic resources, according to proponents of the decision.
“By prohibiting mining in páramos, the court saves the environment,” said Polo Democrático Senator Alberto Castilla, one of a handful of politicians who took the case to court.
“When they scrapped protection for páramos in the Plan Desarrollo I said it was my most bitter day in the Senate. Today is a sweet one,” said Green Party Senator Claudia López on Twitter following the court decision.
“First comes life, then comes business,” said Alirio Uribe Muñoz, a Polo Democrático representative and another member of the group who argued against mining.
The decision affects more than 300 mining operations across at least 25 different páramos, according to the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA).
Mining operations were outlawed in 2011 when official boundaries were drawn for most of Colombia’s páramos, although a clause in that legislation allowed companies with a license from earlier than February 2010 to continue projects until they were completed.
Monday’s court decision strikes that clause.