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ENVIRONMENT-COLOMBIA: Coal Mine Hurts Highlands Lake, Farms

Helda Martínez

SUESCA, Colombia, Jun 5 2009 (IPS) - Protests by indigenous farmers in the Colombian village of Cuayá, 75 km north of Bogotá, have failed to bring to a halt the unregulated extraction of coal, which has had disastrous environmental effects on Lake Suesca, 3,000 metres above sea level.

"Three decades ago, Lake Suesca was 14 kilometres in diameter, but now it’s only around three," Vicente Castillo, a local farmer who has witnessed enormous environmental degradation caused by the mining industry over his 53 years of life, tells IPS.

The highlands lake is a popular day-trip destination from the capital, drawing rock climbers to the surrounding cliffs, as well as hikers and trout fishers.

"The mining is destroying the sources of rivers, drying up mountain streams, and causing erosion that is killing the native forest," says Castillo, adding that many of the dirt roads in the area today were previously riverbeds and mountain streams, which is evident by the color and size of the gravel and rocks.

He personally remembers some of the streams and rivers – and how they dried up.

That is why the local community has been trying to close down the La Esperanza mine, where coal has been extracted intermittently since 2002, and activity has been stepped up since mid-2008.

The mine is located in a canyon between the villages of Cuayá and Hatillo, in the municipality of Suesca. Most of the 15,000 people of the municipality are indigenous farmers with smallholdings dedicated to growing vegetables and producing milk, whose small-scale agricultural activities have been hurt by the coal mining.

"You can see how the land has eroded and sunk in places next to mines that are already closed," Germán Gómez, a 42-year-old Suesca native, comments to IPS.

"Where the earth used to be flat and suitable for farming or grazing, it is all uneven now, it has shifted, and although the roots of the trees help hold it up for a while, they end up falling down. That is happening at the base of the mining galleries," he says.

"It’s a serious problem, because it takes a long time – centuries! – to recuperate the land," says Gómez, while Castillo compares the situation with "cutting the veins of the human body."

The veins of a region with "natural characteristics like an ‘inverse’ geological fault, which means it is very rich in underground water," Gloria Umaña, who moved here from Bogotá seven years ago to work for the preservation of the environment, tells IPS.

Two years ago, Umaña launched the Backtoeden project, which has planted more than 1,000 trees, and in recent months has studied the damages caused by the mining industry in a region where people go "two weeks or a month without receiving running water from their faucets."

The mine, meanwhile, squanders the water extracted from the underground water table, she says. "It is an environmental crime to treat water as garbage that is dumped and allowed to run and stagnate, ending up as mud.

"When the galleries or tunnels are emptied out, they stop pumping, and the water floods the mines again, where it has a chemical reaction to the metal sulfides used in the mining process, producing sulfuric acid that pollutes lakes, rivers and other water sources. This is what is known as acid mine drainage," says Umaña.

According to estimates, two pumps in one single pithead extract 72 cubic metres of water a day.

"This terrible deforestation is being caused by dehydration," complains Umaña.

"We can’t imagine what will happen here in 10 or 15 years," says Castillo, who hopes his grandchildren will be able to enjoy at least part of the land that he knows and loves so well.

The problems they are talking about are caused by a mine that has no environmental permit to operate. The environmental regulatory body (procuraduría ambiental) told the local farmers that the mine’s paperwork was not in order when it applied for a permit.

"We have a lot of evidence to cite to defend our rights, in a peaceful manner of course," says Castillo.

For example, the mine does not have proper ventilation holes or the required internal and external signs, and tunnels have been dug outside of the area authorised by the company’s contract.

"You can’t go out for a peaceful walk at night like you could before, because you’re at risk of falling into one of the holes," says Gómez.

The title to the mine is in the name of four contractors, whose visible head is José Joaquín Medellín, apparently a former member of the Colombian army, although IPS was unable to confirm this.

The name that figures on the documents as the mine’s legal representative is Miryam Briceño, who IPS attempted to contact at the telephone number provided. But the people who answered the phone said they did not know her.

There are suspicions that Medellín and the other people who appear on the documents do not really own the mine, and are merely front men.

At a meeting requested by Suesca residents last August to discuss the problems caused by the mine, Medellín accused them of being guerrillas and "gamines", the term used in this country to refer to street children – accusations and insults that sound especially threatening in the Colombia of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe’s "democratic security" policies.

After the meeting, several of the participants in fact pulled out of the effort to defend the local environment, some admitting they were frightened and others saying the situation wasn’t so bad after all.

But those who are still determined to defend the environment continue sending constant letters and requests to local, provincial and national government offices, like the Suesca municipal government, the regional environmental regulatory body, the Cundinamarca provincial government, the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Cundinamarca (CAR – a regional public-sector environmental entity), and the Environment Ministry.

Demanding a response, the rural activists have invoked the constitutional right to petition, and have sought a meeting with Suesca Mayor Oscar Barrera, who IPS phoned.

But Barrera, after listening to the reason for the call, said "what mine are you talking about," and the line was cut off.

When IPS called back, the mayor said he was in a basement and that his cell-phone was having a hard time picking up the signal. After that, the answering service kicked in every time IPS phoned.

The sources who talked to IPS said Barrera has dismissed the problem, and that in his responses he has argued that it would be useless to fight with the owners of the mine because they have many prominent lawyers.

He also maintains that the exploration work began before he became mayor in January 2008, and that the mine’s operating license was granted at the start of the decade by the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining (INGEOMINAS), a state body.

But according to Castillo, the license was issued "without taking into consideration the environmental damages and without consulting with the local community, who are the ones who suffer, because the others cause the damages and then leave."

A clear example of that, he says, is "Lake Suesca, where they dug tunnels 200 metres underground, which has virtually destroyed the lake."

And if the environmental damages were not enough, there is "the noise that we have to live with 24 hours a day, Monday through Sunday, caused by the machines, the chainsaws cutting down trees, the shouts of the workers from the shafts to the pithead all night long, and the barking of the dogs," says Umaña.

The noise is so bad that it interrupts classes in the local school, which is attended by 40 children. "We can’t always hear the teacher," 11-year-old Héctor Javier Gómez, a shy but attentive fifth grade student, tells IPS as he stands by, listening to his elders.

There is also the line of electricity poles that now cuts across the area.

And the only possible benefit that the mine could have brought the community – jobs – was a non-starter, as many of the miners come from the eastern province of Boyacá, which has a strong coal-mining tradition.

One of the workers agreed to speak with IPS, but did not want to give his name, to avoid being fired if the contractors found out.

The 26-year-old father of two says he wasn’t aware of the environmental damages caused by the mine, and that in any case he has no other work option: "What kind of a job can you find if you’ve only finished fifth grade?"

His income depends on how much coal he extracts, and ranges between 300 and 350 dollars every two weeks, 12 percent of which goes towards health insurance and 16 percent towards his pension. He works on a piece-rate basis, without any direct link with the contractors.

The official minimum wage is currently around 300 dollars a month, which means the miners from Boyacá are earning relatively well, although they face a high risk of accidents and health problems.

The government oversight bodies have been informed of the environmental problems and have responded, but have failed to provide any solutions.

"The state would appear to have lost its ability to enforce the laws, because the damages are obvious and visible," Umaña says despairingly, pointing out that lately the noise has gotten worse because work on new infrastructure has begun.

"They tell us they’re going to study the situation, and in the meantime the devastation continues right before our eyes," says Castillo. The farmer adds that they will not stop working to defend their rights, "at a time when the world is going on and on about global warming."

Jun. 5 is International Environment Day.

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