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Project December 15, 2010

Colombia: Mining Fever in Paradise

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A miner in Colombia. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, 2010.
A miner in Colombia. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, 2010.

Colombia hosts an El Dorado of natural riches. For decades, the conflict between narco-guerrillas and the Colombian government kept development at bay, with the unforeseen benefit of preserving the country's unique ecosystems. But as the political environment stabilizes, will a new government under Juan Manuel Santos recognize the ecological value of the land, or will it choose a quick economic fix by selling the rights to extract coal, oil and gold at the expense of healthy forests and drinking water supplies?

Oil and mining are of increasing importance to the Colombian government. Since 2002, the extent of mining property increased nearly eight times in area and more international investors are lining up to take part.

Mining impacts the environment, with forests withering and the vegetation changing in the "Paramos." These fragile sponge-like moorlands represent two percent of the country, but provide drinking water for 70 percent of all Colombians.

The mining boom has also turned into a national security issue. With gold prices soaring, armed groups are moving from coca crops to the mining business. The state is weak in controlling illegal miners, especially in vast and far-flung areas of forests and highlands. With new sources of income, the armed conflict could gain new steam. Will the Colombian government be able to successfully juggle these three thorny issues: encouraging mining, protecting the environment, and finally, ending once and for all, the armed conflict?

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