Mining halted in the Amazon: The Ministry of Environment temporarily blocks the Strategic Mining Areas Project promoted by President Santos

Article translated from Gaia Amazonas. See here for original article: Freno a la minería en el Amazonas

For at least the next two years, the Colombian Amazon will be safe from the further encroachment of mining activities. Last month, before leaving his position to focus on his new role in peace negotiations, the former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Frank Pearl, issued a Resolution that halts further mining extraction in the region. The Resolution implements the temporary suspension of mining applications in the Amazon forest reserve; a mechanism that allows authorities to exclude certain areas of the reserve from exploitation.

The news, applauded by environmentalists, is a significant counterweight to Resolution 0045 of July 2012, announced by President Juan Manuel Santos at the Rio +20 summit. This Resolution ultimately converted approximately 17 million hectares of the Amazon, the Orinoco and the Chocó, into “strategic mining areas”.

What is the significance of the present declaration? Despite uncertainties about the potential of the Resolution since its announcement, the government has insisted that this is a strategy that “…enables growth and the sustainable development of the mining sector in Colombia under a concept of social, environmental and technical responsibility”. In short, this strategy aims to close-off mineral rich areas to the illegal mining industry, and to select the most qualified companies to exploit the reserves.

The topic is complex and broad. While the government defends the Resolution as the best alternative to prevent illegal mining (which it cannot control), for environmental experts, the Amazonian territory should be excluded from any mining activities due to its rich biodiversity.

As it is, even if 83% of the strategic mining areas (14,230,558 hectares) remain valid, their use has been temporarily blocked due to their location within the protected forest reserve zone created under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment. To date, there are two reserve extraction requests, 51 pending mining titles, and nearly 1,200 concessions requested on almost five million hectares of the Amazon – these areas are rich in minerals such as gold and coltan. Within this context, and given the uncertainty of the true environmental impact that mineral exploitation presents, the former Minister Pearl has, under the “precautionary principle”abstained from granting any further mining permissions.

Given the uncertainty, the Constitutional Court has stated that a decision should always lean “towards the protection of the environment, because if mining activities advance and serious environmental damages arise, it would be impossible to revert its consequences”. In this case the Resolution specifically indicates: “Mining activities in the Amazon present a threat of irreversible damage and therefore, given the level of certainty about said risks, the Ministry of Environment considers it necessary to adopt direct measures to prevent environmental degradation”.

However, the Resolution is not indefinite. The same document clarifies that the Resolution can be lifted “once a zoning and land-use management plan are implemented in the reserve”; this would allow the possibility of establishing areas that will continue to be protected and those that will be economically exploited. According to the Ministry of Environment, this process could take a minimum of two years, although under the law, a five-year period currently exits for this task.

It is important to clarify that the Amazon will not be entirely free from mining. The Resolution is not retroactive and, as is clear in the document that requests filed before 31st of August will continue to be processed until a final decision is taken. Adding to this, is the proliferation of illegal artisanal mining in the area.

The Resolution is based on the laws and agreements that Colombia has signed to protect natural reserves and in particular the Amazon. This forest reserve, threatened by the mining industry, covers an area of 38 million hectares, with jurisdiction in nine departments and 88 municipalities. Additionally, it is one of the country’s most biodiverse regions, home to almost 700 species of birds, 158 of amphibians, 195 of reptiles, 212 of mammals and 753 of fish.

With this decision, the former Minister, Frank Pearl not only leaves a legacy of dispute between the portfolios of the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Mines, but also generates the possibility of redefining the strategic mining zones in the country.

What the experts say:

“Although the measure is positive, it should be accompanied with the strengthening of environmental authorities so that they can apply greater control in the area. Since most of the attempted mining activities are illegal, a method needs to be adopted to stop them”.

– Julio Carrizosa, an environmental expert

“I congratulate the decision and hope it reaches other places. This is not a matter of refusing the mining industry, but there are places like the Amazon where the priority should be environmental services. In times when we are looking for peace agreements, it is necessary to keep in mind that to achieve peace among the human beings it is necessary to be at peace with nature”.

– Gustavo Wilches, a specialist in Environmental Law

“My first concern with this Resolution is that it shows that there is a disconnection between the Ministry of Mines and the Ministry of Environment, and this is not good for the country. On the other hand, I find it strange that respect for environmental values are sought in the Amazon, yet the same respect has not been shown for the Andean region, where there are abundant water supplies and rich biodiversity”.

– Julio Fierro, geologist and mining expert

The Gaia Foundation supports this temporary moratorium and urges the Colombian government to uphold the Resolution.

This strategy aims to close-off mineral rich areas to unregulated and illegal mining, and allows time for cultural and environmental assessments and zoning to be carried out. Due to the rich biodiversity of the Amazon territory, this whole area should be permanently excluded from any mining activities, however, this Resolution is a breakthrough for two reasons. Firstly it puts on hold the devastating expansion of mining in the Colombian Amazon by halting any new mining concessions, and secondly it is an environmental public policy resolution that employs the “precautionary principle” (i.e: where environmental harm is likely, a lack of scientific certainty that harm will be caused should not impede measures to prevent environmental damage). This sets a precedent that can be used to push for it to be extended to rest of the forests in the country.

It is important that precedents like this gain international recognition and support, to stop the mining juggernaut and to preserve the last remaining critically biodiverse regions of the world.

Please support this moratorium by sending a letter to the Colombian government

See here for a template letter.

Further reading: