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COLOMBIA: Quarries in Slums Seen as Health Risk

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Nov 21 2007 (IPS) - Local residents of shantytowns on the outskirts of the Colombian capital complain that sand, gravel and limestone quarries operating in the area pose serious risks to their health as well as the danger of landslides. But they are afraid to speak out.

The people of Ciudad Bolívar and Soacha – poor, high-crime suburbs in the hills on the southeast edge of Bogotá – who talked to IPS did so on the condition of anonymity.

Sand and limestone began to be extracted on a small scale in the early 1950s by local campesinos (peasant farmers), when the area was still rural. Since then, vast slum neighbourhoods have grown up in the hills, largely populated by tens of thousands of people displaced from their land and villages by the four-decade civil war, in which left-wing guerrillas are facing off with government forces and far-right paramilitaries.

Ciudad Bolívar and Soacha have populations of around 850,000 and 400,000, respectively.

As their numbers grow – an estimated three million people in Colombia have been forced to flee their homes by the armed conflict – the displaced have had to build their shacks higher and higher up the barren hillsides. That is also where the quarries, which have provided the construction materials for building the capital city, are located.

A local resident who studies engineering and geology said “the mines are above the urban area, which receives airborne particles that increase vulnerability to viral diseases and respiratory ailments, especially among children and the elderly.”

But “they won’t allow us access to the health records of the local people who have fallen ill, which means we have been unable to prove this. However, our aim is to obtain evidence on the effects of these mines on the local population in the medium-term,” the student added.

In addition, there is a risk to the stability of nearby houses, some of which have been built above the quarries. One local man said he is afraid that “this will collapse, and they would have to go and try to find (our bodies) down in the quarry” if a landslide occurred.

“There is no safety perimeter,” he said. “We are facing a risk, especially the children. But there is also fear of speaking out, because the employees aren’t given to socialising with anyone, and you don’t know who you could talk to” about the problem.

Local residents who find temporary work in the quarries are reportedly under a “pact of silence” imposed by paramilitary groups.

The companies working in the area deny all such allegations.

The Colombian cement company Cementos Diamante S.A. worked the quarries in the area in the 1970s. But since the 1990s, foreign firms have been granted concessions, including Mexican cement giant Cemex and the Swiss-based Holcim, one of the world’s largest suppliers of cement, gravel, sand and concrete.

Also operating the quarries are the Argos cement company, which belongs to Sindicato Antioqueño, one of Colombia’s leading business groups; the army’s weapons producer Industria Militar (INDUMIL); the Catholic Church; and the Ladrillera Santafé, a brick-making company “that belongs to the family of former president Andrés Pastrana” (1998-2002), Francisco Ramírez, the president of SINTRAMINERCOL, the Colombian mineworker’s union, told IPS.

Foreign companies have benefited from the mining code enacted in Colombia in 2001. According to Ramírez, the new mining and energy code made environmental regulations more flexible and weakened labour guarantees.

The new code authorises firms to “explore for minerals in urban areas, and grants multinational companies concessions like article 212, which states that if a company repeatedly violates Colombia’s laws on the environment, the state can cancel its operating licence. ‘Can’ rather than ‘must’,” the trade unionist stressed.

Ramírez pointed to the construction of the Transmilenio project. All of the materials for the new system of rapid transit bus corridors built in Bogota came from the quarries in Ciudad Bolívar and Soacha. But while the state financed 90 percent of the new system, it will only obtain four percent of the profits earned – an arrangement that Ramírez described as “absurd.”

“Transmilenio and at least 70 percent of the entire city were built with materials extracted at low-cost, at our expense,” said one local resident of Ciudad Bolívar.

“This community, where so many basic needs go unmet, receives no social benefits in return, like health care, education, food assistance or recreational spaces or activities,” said Ramírez.

A former miner told IPS that the foreign companies pay each worker the equivalent of one cent of a dollar for each bag of sand or gravel extracted from the quarries, which are later sold for four times that price.

“The work contracts are only for two or three months, in order for the companies to avoid paying employee benefits required by law,” he added. “You can file a complaint, but who cares? So many human rights, including labour rights, are violated here, but the companies are interested in profits, not people or their needs.”

In an interview with IPS, Cemex human resources staff member Pilar Zabala dismissed such criticism. Of the company’s workers, “280 of us are Colombians. Most of the employees live in the area, and they and their families benefit from the work offered by the firm.”

“Fifteen percent are direct employees,” said Cemex engineer Ernesto Prieto. “The rest of the workers are hired by legally registered companies that offer their employees all of the guarantees provided by the law. They are not temporary employment agencies but sub-contractors for services.”

According to Zabala, “All of the accusations are false. It is not true that we carry out exploration activities under houses, undermining their stability. Nor do we generate dust or pollutants that hurt the community. Our industrial safety norms are very serious, for our workers as well as for local residents in the area, and the procedures that we use prevent the dispersal of elements that are toxic to human beings.”

“It is also false that there is a ‘pact of silence’ to keep workers from talking about their experiences in the quarries,” Prieto told IPS. “We can ask any of the workers.”

He then turned to the company grounds worker and asked him if there was any sort of “gag order”, to which the man responded “No, sir.”

But the complaints voiced by the trade unionists are echoed by those of local residents.

In November 2006, a non-governmental International Tribunal Against Impunity, convened by social organisations, condemned “crimes against humanity committed in Ciudad Bolívar”, for which it held responsible the Colombian and U.S. governments, local and foreign companies, the municipal governments of Bogotá and Soacha, and state institutions.

“This decision is not legally binding, but it contributes to building public opinion and facilitates investigations,” said Ramírez. “We have made progress in this specific case, but we will not make the results public until we have incontrovertible proof.”

Local authorities announced plans this week to relocate, in 2008, 2,000 people living in the vicinity of four old quarries that are 30 to 50 metres deep, which have been filled with water from the Tunjuelo river since 2002.

The Bogota water and sewage company and the Ministry of Mines said the measure was aimed at protecting the local populations.

But Ramírez does not believe the official explanation. “The concern is not about the people living near the old quarries, the effects on the stability of their homes, or the clouds of mosquitoes and fetid odours,” he argued. “The real interest is to expand the area of quarries and mining southwards, where the poorest people live.”

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