A miner in Colombia. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

Political institutions tend to respond slowly in adapting to challenges. Longstanding problems typically arise and evolve long before policymakers and government officials are able to identify them. And when they do, they are generally ill-equipped to devise proposals to solving these problems. One of the more telling examples is happening in Colombia—where not only the mining industry is impacted but strategic assets like water are being put at risk.

Colombia is the largest coal producer in Latin America, and after Venezuela and Brazil, the third-largest for crude oil. The exploitation of gold, silver and rare earth minerals such as coltan (a combination of columbite and tantalite) is growing exponentially. Must of this activity is driven by foreign direct investment (FDI); between 2008 and 2009 alone, the percentage of investments in mining projects out of all FDI skyrocketed from 17 percent to 43 percent—from $1.8 billion to $3.1 billion. The figure is expected to further increase in 2010.

But environmentalists are concerned about the booming mining sector. "Mining is a high-risk industry growing in Colombia at an exorbitant rate while national environmental institutions that are meant to regulate it are in their weakest shape in 15 years," notes Guillermo Rudas, a researcher at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. Rudas' study maps the evolution of land with mining titles and land requested for mining in the last 20 years. He notes that from 2002-2010 areas with mining titles boomed from 2.8 million acres to 21 million acres. Despite this trend, Rudas notes that the budget relative to GDP for Colombia's environmental agencies was three times larger in 1994 than in 2010.

This fiscal disconnect takes a serious and unique toll. Despite its relatively small size, Colombia is ranked among the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Its rich ecosystems range from tropical rainforests to high-altitude moorlands to the open sabana valley of ponds and wetlands. This means that the success of the mining industry has a lasting imprint on Colombia's ecology. Mining involves heavy machinery, extensive soil removal and tree removal, massive use of toxic chemicals, and opening new roads in naturally-projected areas. It also poses unprecedented health risks to workers and local populations.

Colombia needs clear legal frameworks, reliable information, strong regulations, and well-financed environmental institutions. But none of these seem to be happening.

Project

A miner in Colombia. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, 2010.
The government in Colombia has to choose between guarding its unique ecosystems or boosting its economy with mining. The decision could exhaust or recast Colombia’s long, agonizing armed conflict.

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