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Best Practice Mining in Colombia

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Robert Goodland, independent environmental consultant for Ikv Pax Christi, “ Best Practice Mining in Colombia.” This paper, presented to Colombia’s Controlaría General de la República, details how application of international mining best-practice standards in Responsible Mining could improve the environmental and social performance of mining operations in Colombia.
Best Practice Mining in Colombia

Robert Goodland



This paper was originally presented at a Best Practice Mining forum sponsored by Ikv Pax Christi for Colombia’s Controlaria General de la Republica in December 2011.
Best Practice Mining in Colombia

The care and good management of the environment is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Colombia is a country privileged in terms of environment. There is great opportunity to advance towards sustainable development which generates employment and new openings into the long term.”

President Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia is at an ecological crossroads. The new government has to choose between guarding its unique ecosystems and boosting its economy with intensive mining. The decision could finally exhaust or simply recast Colombia's long, agonizing armed conflict.”


I have a very strong stance against mining in Colombia. I believe that large-scale mining operations in Colombia are very negative because there are no legal or social conditions for it. This does not mean that I am anti-mining. This is simply not the country I want for my children.”

Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, Former Minister of Environment (NSI, 2011).

Table of Contents

1. Global Principles for Best-Practice Mining 5

2. Perspective on Mining in Colombia 5

3. Environment and Regulatory Capacity 6

5. No-Go Zones for Mining 17

6. Environmental and Social Assessment 19

8. Conclusion: Environmental and Social Governance 28

Sources of Further Information and Literature Cited 30

1. Global Principles for Best-Practice Mining

Colombia’s most essential assets – social capital and natural capital – are chronically vulnerable after a half-century of conflict. In the continuing context of citizen insecurity, social cohesion and social trust remain fragile. Because social capital is both a prerequisite for development and poverty reduction, and an indicator of the quality of life, its protection should be a paramount consideration in all policies including those related to best-practice mining. Best-practice mining policies should be based on conserving and investing in natural and social capital and should pay particular attention to managing social and environmental risk.
Effective institutions are the key to implementing best-practice mining. In executing policies, institutions determine a country’s quality of economic development and natural resource management. If mining activity expands before effective institutions are in place, serious problems – corruption, conflict, and pollution – often emerge.

2. Perspective on Mining in Colombia

If the principles of conservation of natural and social capital, reducing risk, deepening democracy, and exercising caution are to be given priority, now might not be the best time to encourage investment in the mining sector. Further work needs to be done in three areas: (1) building environmental regulatory capacity, (2) building peaceful and democratic solutions to local conflicts, and (3) reducing poverty and ensuring that the economic benefits of mining actually accrue to the affected communities.
Under the slogan “Colombia: Mining Land,” Colombia’s National Mining Development Plan predicts that by 2019, Colombia will be the most important mining country in Latin America. Indeed, between 2001 and 2009 foreign investment in mining rose more than 500 percent. Colombia now exports about 75 million tons of coal annually, making it the world’s fourth largest coal exporter (after Australia, Indonesia, and Russia).1 Colombia’s coal is mainly for export; most of the country’s domestic energy is from hydropower. In 2010, the mining and oil sectors contributed 6 percent of GDP and provided almost 50 percent of the country’s total exports ($8 billion). By the end of the decade, mining is expected to account for nearly 13 percent of GDP. 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)—to about 4 percent of the national territory.
Because skyrocketing mineral prices have prompted a backlog of 20,000 unprocessed title requests, covering approximately 20 percent of Colombia, the Government of Colombia (GoC) is trying to tighten up on regulation. With the price of gold now pushing US$1,800 per ounce, the government will be pressured to permit more gold mining. Gold is Colombia’s most important metal. AngloGold Ashanti’s La Colosa mine near Cajamarca, Tolima has reserves of 12.9 million ounces. A price of US$1,800 per ounce makes lower-impact underground gold mining profitable. Gold miners should be forced to use the safer cyanide-leaching-in-tanks (CIL) method, or non-cyanide methods, rather than the inherently risky cyanide heap leach.
The drawback to the export of raw mineral and agricultural products such as coal, gold, coffee, oil, and electricity is that there is little scope for domestic processing and value added. Colombia is basically an exporter of raw materials: more than 81 percent of its exports are unbeneficiated primary natural resources requiring low inputs of technology. There is little scope for augmenting conversion of gold into jewelry, or converting coffee beans into instant coffee powder, for example. Multinational oil corporations do not favor domestic refining of crude oil into high-value petroleum products. The importers want to capture the domestic processing and value added benefits. Colombia imports gasoline.
The Cerrejón Coal mine opened in 1976 in the Guajira Peninsula. It has become the biggest mine in Colombia and the largest open pit mine in the world. It exports more than c.45 bn tons annually. BHP Billiton, Anglo American PLC and Glencore International AG, each own one third of the shares; Xstrata PLC bought Glencore's operations in 2006.

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