Colombia: Illegal mining concerns government
By Dialogo April 11, 2012
BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Coltan, tungsten and cocaine – these are the three biggest threats to the ecosystem of Puinawai national reserve, located in the department of Guainía, in the Colombian Amazonia.
Coltan, also known as tantalite, is a mixture of mineral ores used to make advanced electronic device capacitors.
“A ton of coltan can be sold illegally for around US$500,000,” said Fabio Forero, a professor at De La Salle University in Colombia.
Tungsten, meanwhile, is best known for its use in light bulb filament, but according to Universidad de los Andes historian Santiago Martínez, “the reason that groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are interested in tungsten is because the product is essential in the making of ground-to-air missiles and projectiles capable of breaching plated armor.”
The illegal mining by narco-traffickers and terrorist groups concerns the Colombian government.
“We have found sophisticated narco-trafficking organizations are increasingly involved in the trafficking of minerals from the Puinawai national reserve,” said Naval Infantry Col. Alfredo de Videro, who commands the military in the region where the park is located.
The Colombian media has reported the profits generated by illegal mining operations nationwide can reach $1.6 billion pesos (US$837,915). The government hasn’t released its data.
“We’re doing all we can to avoid the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the country,” said Environmental Minister Frank Pearl, adding the ministry lacks the resources to monitor the country’s 56 natural parks 24 hours a day. “Some entities are not able to reach the farthest corners of the parks. Thus, it is important to have citizens and the media involved in notifying authorities if they see illegal mining taking place. Colombia is a very large country, which makes eliminating illegal exploitation very challenging.”
The government has taken steps to crack down on the mining of natural resources, including revoking 37 mining licenses – some of which were counterfeit to begin with – nationwide, including in the mining-rich departments of Guanía, Vaupés and Guaviare.
“We must make it clear that several of the permits revoked were illegal because they were forged. It’s illegal to mine in natural parks,” said Julia Miranda, director of National Natural Parks, an organization under the Ministry of the Environment.”We will not grant any request for permits to mine within the parks and those previously issued are cancelled.”
The Colombian National Directorate of Natural Parks has rejected 400 mining permits in the past five months.
The biggest problem for the government in terms of illegal mining is determining the extent of the crime, said Gustavo Wilches Chaux, an environmentalist specializing in risk assessment.
“There are no real numbers on how far this business actually reaches,” he said.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the country’s new mining code – expected to go into effect in the second half of 2012 – will reform the mining industry and provide training and financial support to those entering the field.
Wilches applauds the government’s efforts.
“The government is focused on formalizing this business and this is an important step,” he said. “It’s still missing some details, but it’s on the right track. However, the exploitation of these inaccessible areas is something authorities will have to deal with constantly, because controlling exploitation all around is virtually impossible – the jungle takes up 10% of the national territory. There aren’t a lot of roads that go into the park, so monitoring the national parks is not easy. The job often resembles that of finding a needle in a haystack.”