Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie

Lessons from Santurbán : Canadian mining company Greystar's project in Santander

25 Mars 2011
Social mobilization and a growing awareness of the environmental effects of Greystar’s proposed mine in Santurbán --including the contamination of water that supplies some of the inhabitants of Santander and feeds the Lebrija, Pamplonita and Zulia rivers and the tributaries of the Arauca and Catatumbo rivers--have contributed to the temporary withdrawal of the multinational from Colombia. This clearly demonstrates the possibility of new forms of resistance and social expression in the country.

At the same time, it is necessary to explore the outcomes of this case and examine what short and long-term strategies can be applied to similar situations, where the extractive industry threatens the future and lives of millions of Colombians.

It is important to remember that: more than 391 mining permits have already been granted, affecting nearly 109 000 hectares of land, including properties which provide water to millions of Colombians; that the National Development Plan clearly ignores the protection of forest reserve areas; and that the federal policy of “democratic prosperity” has not managed to resolve contradictions between neoliberal privatization and ecological sustainability, and has not brought jobs to rural areas, where most of the mining permits have been granted.

The exploration phase of Greystar's Angostura project, which was processed by the Ministry of Mines and Energy and requires an environmental license from the Ministry of Interior, took place with the consent of the local communities of California and Vetas. These project have the support of municipal authorities. It is not surprising that they consented to such a project, attracted by promises of a prosperous future for the local population. This is how multinationals work, by pledging to offer benefits to the communities in which they operate.

The inhabitants were seduced by the Canadian company, which is offering 1500 direct jobs to people who, in years of living on their own land, have never had a fixed income or the possibility of a stable livelihood. Years of neoliberal bias have prevented communities and their leaders from even considering 'green' job creation, let alone developing programs that protect land and water resources. Aggressive reactions, such as those demonstrated by city counsellors towards journalists who have exposed the gravity of the situation, are a reflection of this mentality.

The company exploited the community's needs, and the gaps in environmental and mining laws. Under the guise of “corporate social responsibility,” it created the illusion that it would provide decent jobs for local inhabitants. Unfortunately, public outcry in urban areas did not sufficiently reach those living near Santurbán.

This context has led to attacks on journalists and insults directed against environmental and human rights groups. Local people are misinformed, manipulated, and absolutely convinced that the company will follow through on their promises. Offering short-term benefits is just one of the techniques employed by companies like Greystar.

Both the provincial government and business associations are pleased about the decision to temporarily suspend the project. However, none of them have addressed the issue of the right to work for a decent salary. This important because in the future the government will use this argument to justify the development of mining and oil projects. They will argue that the economic benefits outweigh and mitigate the negative human and environmental effects brought by companies like Greystar.

It is important that the people living near Santurbán know that Colombia exported more than 10,000 million dollars worth of its natural resources between 2002 and 2009; that it has the second highest unemployment rate in Latin America; and that tax exemptions have not improved the quality of life for Colombians. In fact, Colombia has one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America.

Colombia must implement a public policy that generates decent and ecological jobs. The inhabitants of Santurbán and the surrounding areas must realize that if they tap into the collective memory of the region, they will remember how, in addition to poverty, commercial projects like these have also been associated with paramilitary groups. In the pursuit of profit, banana, oil palm, and extractive companies like Drummond Co. have committed crimes against humanity in the past.

For the time being the Santos government has presented the decision to suspend the Greystar project as a victory. Rodado Noriega, Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy, quite opportunistically said that the multinational had heard their objections and warnings, and added that Colombian law clearly prohibits any type of exploitation in national wilderness areas. Professing to be ecological, he stated: "The mining policy of this government takes the position that the country's mineral wealth can only be used to enhance the prosperity of all Colombians, and this only when mining activities are in compliance with environmental regulations, and employ internationally-recognized and sustainable mining practices."

Statements like these, coming from those responsible for implementing the “development machine” in Colombia, are surprising. They do not mention public outcry surrounding the mine, or the underlying concerns about the project itself. A few hours later, in line with Greystar’s announcement that it remained interested in mining in Colombia, the Ministry of Environment announced that it was ready to examine business proposals.

Here, yet another example of the ambiguity upon which both political parties in Colombia depend; ambiguities between war and peace, respect for and abuse of human rights, the extension of former president Uribe's policies and rejection of them. Added to this is a commitment to natural resource extraction on the one hand, and the restitution of land and support of ecological peasant agriculture on the other.

It would be quite naïve to think that a Canadian mining company would relinquish the chance to extract 7,500,000 ounces of gold over 15 years. This naiveté can not and must not spread. The company has neither explored nor exploited land in Cerro Cara de Perro through the Muriel Mining Corporation, upon which it can now rely as a “disguise,” as other Canadian multinationals are doing. In January, Sunward Resources, a Canadian mining firm, announced that it would acquire the Muriel Mining Corporation (an American company) and sell its gold, copper and molybdenum mines on Embera sacred land to Rio Tino, an Australian-British corporation. This is an other mechanism to guarantee business and put aside civil responsibilities and support the exploitation activities of the companies which in this specific case have been stopped by the Institutional Court due to a lack of consultation and consent of the communities

Returning to the case of Santurbán, the departmental and national ministries have not rejected the 14 million dollars in royalties offered by mining companies to operate in the desert here. It is quite possible that they will not transfer the money to the proper authorities. Instead, they may use this money for their own benefit or for the benefit of their friends, or even to maintain their power and protect the economic interests of other companies.

The mining law is another important issue. There are gaps in the current law that favour multinationals. This problem continues despite the creation of Law 1382 in 2010, which excludes mining in areas 3000 meters above sea level, and the strengthening of Law 685, which protects national parks. It is obvious that multinationals and the Colombian government are turning a blind eye to law enforcement, just as the 'Autonomous Corporations,' created by Law 99 in 1993, did .

This has led to approval of more than five hundred private mining permits, while local and traditional economic activities are stigmatized. Local people are persecuted, and then assimilated in the guerrilla movement, just like their successors and the communities who came before. “Modernization” and the promise of the extractive sector have taken convinced a certain segments of Colombia. At the same time, however, the prospect of a growing environmental consciousness opposed to this view is significant.

The fact that thirty thousand protesters came out against the Santurbán project is important because it will take millions around the world to keep mining out of Colombia for good—despite the fact that protecting Colombia's land and forests will have a positive impact on the global scale as well as the local.

This conflict of interest is not over. We must use our social, media, legal and political forces to foster and protect the right to a healthy environment, which is essential for human rights and social development. A “change” strategy in public policy is urgent. Without this, another opportunity to transform the future of Colombia will be lost.

22 March 2011

Interclesial Commission for Justice and Peace


Justicia y Paz