If economic forecasters are correct, boom years are ahead for Colombia. Private and official analysts predict the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by an average of 5 percent per year over the next decade. Much of the forecast, though, is based on the assumption that the country will experience an upsurge in mining and oil investment and revenue.
But the rapid expansion of mining concessions also directly threatens the territorial rights—and economic health—of the country’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, who make up 30.5 percent of Colombia’s population, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Future investment and expansion of mining will directly affect Colombia’s more vulnerable populations, since many of the sought-after concessions affect Indigenous lands—or resguardos—and other protected territories. Resguardos make up approximately 74 million acres (30 million hectares) of Colombian territory, while 17 million acres (7 million hectares) are Afro-Colombian lands. Under Colombia’s constitution, this territory belongs to the respective communities, although the state retains sub-soil rights for mining and oil exploitation.
There is no question that mining is a fundamental driver of Colombia’s economy. The mining and oil sectors contributed 6 percent of GDP and provided almost 50 percent of the country’s total exports ($8 billion) in 2010. Mining should account for nearly 13 percent of GDP by the end of the decade, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. During the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe, the number of acres with mining concessions increased eightfold, from 2.79 million to 21.08 million (1.13 million to 8.53 million hectares)—or about 4 percent of the national territory. Today, there is a backlog of 20,000 unprocessed title requests, covering approximately 20 percent of Colombia.
Since taking office, President Juan Manuel Santos has continued to focus on expanding mining, touting it as one of the “locomotives” of the country’s economic development. At the same time, after passing the Colombian Congress last year, the newest Mining Code reform (known as Law 1382) was struck down by the Constitutional Court in May 2011. The reform threatened to apply even more pressure to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian lands—and by implication their inhabitants—in areas such as the Amazon rainforest. It was deemed unconstitutional due to the lack of prior consultation with Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples who live on the land—a constitutionally guaranteed right.
While Law 1382 did recognize the need to strike a balance between development and the protection of Indigenous rights, it opened up some worrying loopholes. The reform contained new environmental restrictions, such as a ban on mining in the fragile highland ecosystems; but it also favored applications from companies with economic and technical advantages. For example, it allowed Special Reserve Zones (protected environmental or ethnic territories) to be developed for major strategic mineral projects when Colombia’s Mines and Energy Planning Unit and the Ministry’s Mining Institute (Ingeominas) identified such projects as critical for potential mining investment. These would have most likely been large-scale projects aimed at polymetallic deposits that contain gold, copper, nickel, molybdenum, and coal.
Overall, the focus on large-scale mining favors multinationals over local mining companies. But large mining developments displace the subsistence artisanal mining practiced by large numbers of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations by excluding them from the larger concession zones.
With the reform struck down, the Colombian government then published a proposed, amended mining code in August that does not differ substantially from the previous edition. This time around, the government will consult with Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples before presenting the reform to Congress, as required by the Constitutional Court. While it will pass constitutional muster, it is not clear that these revisions will address the risk to Amazon communities posed by the mining boom.
Another challenge for these Amazon communities is that, despite the legal protection of ancestral lands, many areas of the Colombian Amazon have yet to be titled. In many of these places, conflicts over land not only involve communities, but also often result in violent speculation and conflict among paramilitaries, private investors, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and the military. Areas with weak state presence attract speculators and illegal armed groups in a Wild West environment, with traffickers increasingly interested in gold as a way of laundering drug trafficking money. Consequently, members of the communities are often threatened with expulsion and violence if they resist encroachment on their lands.
As the mining push proceeds, Colombia’s environmental framework remains in limbo. Santos still has not named an environment minister and the country continues to view environmental and social safeguards as an impediment to mining.
As a result, the expansion of mining investment is putting at risk a long-standing conservation model that combines protected areas and Indigenous territories. The risk is compounded by bureaucratic inefficiency in the Ministry of Mines and Energy where, by its own admission, without a working centralized database, hardly anyone knows what titles have been issued. “State institutions in charge of mining issues are totally overburdened by the growth of mining requests,” according to Carlos Rodado, the mining minister. In response, in July, the ministry extended a moratorium on mining-concession requests until at least February 2012.
The push to expand mining activity is critical for economic growth; but ignoring the social and environmental costs will take a huge toll. The new version of the mining code must take this into account. The government also should carefully consider and reconcile the legitimate worries of the mining sector and civil society in its reform plans. Everyone can benefit from the mining boom. But this must be done without adversely affecting the environment and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.