Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has appointed Mauricio Cardenas as the country’s new mining and energy minister, a crucial position for Colombia’s future.
As the price of coal and minerals keeps rising, the Colombian mining industry has prospered immensely, and Colombian miners are digging faster and deeper than ever before to bring cheap energy, gold and platinum to the world market.
Between 2002 and 2010, Colombian became South America’s largest exporter of coal, with areas for mining expanding more than seven-fold. Last year, President Santos named mining a pillar for the Colombian economy. Coal now comprises 25 percent of the country’s exports.
In spite of economic growth, it is not at all an easy job Cardenas is taking. The Colombian mining sector is posing big risks for miners, neighboring communities and the environment.
Last year, 173 Colombians were killed in the mining sector, three times more than in 2009. With the recent methane explosion at the El Diamante coal mine in Boyaca, northern Colombia, which killed seven miners, the death toll is now above 40 this year.
In 2010, then-president Alvaro Uribe announced immediate mining sector reforms, but little has happened. This spring, just 16 government inspectors (along with about 50 outsourced workers) were in charge of safety enforcement in the country’s more than 6,000 mines. The figure counts only the legal mines that report to Ingeominas, the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, which is in charge of overseeing safety regulations and granting mining titles. The government estimates that another 3,000 illegal mines are scattered around the country.
The situation is further complicated by corruption scandals within Ingeominas. In June, press reports showed that the institute had been giving out large numbers of mining permits to both multinational companies and to individuals without the mandatory requirements being met. The “feast” in mining licenses led to a blackmarket for permits sold at high prices to investors and mining companies.
Colombia has a history of small scale mining, where the work is often handed down from father to son, and with the rise in mineral and coal prices, more and more “folk mines” are opening up.
Another problem is that armed rebels groups, such as the FARC, are moving from coca into mining to finance their activities. It is virtually impossible for the government to distinguish between small-scale family run mines and miners pushed into the business by paramilitary groups. In an attempt to tackle this problem, the government has involved the police and army, which often creates massive unrest in mining communities. In January, more than 5,000 peasants marched to the town of Anorí, Antioquia, to protest military operations against gold mining and coca cultivation. In Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, similar policies have led to violent clashes between the police and local miners.
Finally, the long-term consequences of mining could cost 70 percent of Colombians their water supply. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but as mining moves in on the so-called páramos, high-moor wetlands atop the Andes mountains, and the humedales, a similar system of wetlands found in moorlands, swamps, and mangroves, Colombia is rapidly losing species and the source of drinking water for the three major cities in the Andes mountains.
The average Colombian is only now waking up to the problem. In February, 30,000 people protested in the streets of Bucaramanga, Colombia’s fifth largest city. They objected to plans that would allow the Canadian mining company Greystar to mine for gold in the Santurban páramos — the main freshwater source for at least two million Colombians.
The government has said that it will revoke all mining titles that threaten water reserves, but given the nature of mining in Colombia, the task is daunting. Cardenas, the new mining and energy minister, should at least have an idea of what he is getting into since he has previously held roles of minister of economic development, minister of transportation and director of national planning in Colombia.
President Santos seems to have faith in him, introducing him to the post by saying, "He is a person who knows the matters of the state better than anyone.”
Published October 18, 2011 by Pulitzer Center