Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Gold Conflict in Colombia's Central Mountains

CAJAMARCA, Colombia, Jul 6 2009 (IPS) - The Colombian authorities could determine this month whether they will move forward on a giant gold mining project in a nature preserve in the central mountain range.

Cajamarca's central square, with a gold-rich mountain in the background. - Helda Martínez/IPS

Cajamarca's central square, with a gold-rich mountain in the background. - Helda Martínez/IPS

In a protected area of the Cordillera Central, or central mountain range, gold mining plans are clashing with the will of farmers, activists and environmental officials to preserve forests and water resources.

A movement made up of 25 international, national and local non-governmental organizations is calling on the government to halt the exploration activities of the South Africa-based mining transnational corporation, AngloGold Ashanti.

The corporation, which has been working in the area since 2006, is awaiting authorization to conclude explorations of a gold deposit situated in the municipality of Cajamarca, in the central-west department of Tolima, and part of the Central Forest Reserve.

A 1959 law demarcated the reserve in order to ensure protection of a 1.5-million-hectare strip running north-south through central-west Colombia and passing through 10 departments, Tolima among them.

The area holds important water resources, with 160 headwaters and the Coello River basin, as well as the ecosystems that sustain them: high plateaus, cloud forests and protective and productive forest areas, according to the department's top environmental agency, the Tolima Autonomous Regional Corporation, Cortolima.

In the last decade, the company obtained permits to explore 27 areas of Tolima, 15 in rural Cajamarca. The authorizations came from the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, a division of the Ministry of Mines and Energy. In 2006, AngloGold Ashanti discovered the gold deposit.

In December 2007, the corporation announced that the site in La Colosa – initially estimated at 12.3 million ounces of gold – would be one of the world's 10 biggest gold deposits.

The firm hired 400 workers in January 2008 and stepped up exploration, taking water and soil samples with 74 perforations that were “up to 700 meters deep,” said Evelio Campos, coordinator of the NGO Ecotierra de Cajamarca.

In February 2008, Cortolima director Carmen Sofía Bonilla requested the intervention of the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Development to order a freeze on the mining project.

By law, the Ministry of Environment must grant a permit for economic activities in protected zones. This allows for delimiting an area where there is only grass and stubble, but it is intended for basic works that do not affect protected species, Bonilla explained.

The company had not requested that permit, so Bonilla's petition for a freeze was accepted.

“In February 2008, the mining work was suspended by order of the ministry,” economics student Cristian Frasser, of the University of Tolima and member of the NGO Environmental Awareness, told Tierramérica.

But in May of last year, the company formalized a request to operate on 515 hectares in order to determine the project's economic and environmental viability, and the Ministry of Environment gave the green light, but only for 6.4 hectares.

Hiring has been cut to no more than 30 workers, but it is impossible to obtain precise figures because information about the mining project is restricted and the army guards access to the mining site itself.

La Colosa is located 5.5 kilometers from the town limits of Cajamarca and 35 km west of Ibagué, the departmental capital.

The population of Cajamarca is about 25,000; mostly farm workers. A few are merchants, with shops around the central square, a required stop when traveling between Colombia's central and western regions due to its proximity to the Pan-American Highway.

The rural portion of Cajamarca municipality is approximately 500 square km that includes a range of mountain altitudes, where a variety of crops are grown, depending on the temperature: coffee, fruit and vegetables like arracacha (Arracacia xanthorriza), a tuber cultivated in colder soils.

Critics warn that agricultural development of the area is in danger if the authorities give the go-ahead to mining activities.

The Catholic organization Pax Christi Netherlands, lawmakers from across the political spectrum, the Attorney General's Office and the Ibagué environmental prosecutor Diego Alvarado have all joined in the campaign against mining in La Colosa.

At a public hearing held in February, Alvarado argued that “the gold of La Colosa is dispersed in the rocks, in concentrations of just a few grams per ton, which would require intensive, open-pit mining, with serious consequences for the region.”

That mode of production requires extracting an enormous volume of rock, which then undergoes a chemical process of lixiviation to separate out the gold metal from the rest of the minerals.

“For the lixiviation they will use cyanide, which makes it impossible to believe that this activity could be compatible with soil use in areas that are forest preserve, if cyanide contaminates the groundwater,” noted Alvarado.

A study conducted by U.S. hydrogeologist Robert Moran, hired by Pax Christi, estimated that the operation would need “one cubic meter of water per ton of ore processed per second” in order to separate out the gold.

According to Moran's report, if an estimated 20 to 30 million tons of ore is processed per year, it would require 630 to 950 million cubic meters of water annually, or 9 to 24 billion cubic meters of water over the life of the mine, which is projected to be 15 to 25 years.

That level of consumption would exhaust the water supplies that feed “the aqueduct for crops, with 400 kilometers of canals that irrigate rise, sorghum and cotton in the central and south of the department, and which supplies water to five municipal aqueducts,” activist Paola Robayo, a forest engineering student at the University of Tolima, told Tierramérica.

The authorities will have to decide whether to cancel the exploration permit, and thus close off future exploration, or to change the status of the forest preserve in order to lift the environmental restrictions.

“We know the influence that AngloGold Ashanti has in highly corrupt countries like Colombia, which is why we wouldn't be surprised if they end up changing the legislation,” said activist Campos.

Last month, Rafael Hertz, chair of the company's Colombia affiliate, told the press that the ministry's decision is expected in July.

Meanwhile, the company has invested in community development projects. “They are painting houses, paving streets and making donations to schools,” said Campos. The firm also sponsored the Folkloric Festival of Ibagué, held annually during two weeks in June.

In an ironic twist, the popular festival also provided a venue for critics of the mining project to distribute pamphlets and to display banners of protest against the company.

 
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