Salento mining ban overturned, but fight continues

By Annie Deri June 25, 2019
The wax palms of the Valle de Cocora, close to potential mining sites.
The wax palms of the Valle de Cocora. Photo: Annie Deri

Residents in Salento campaign against mining as activist accuses government of ‘trampling on the rights’ of those who live in affected territories.

Residents in the popular tourist destination of Salento will continue to fight to stop large scale mining activity in the area. Their latest legal attempt has been overturned, leading to widespread demonstrations in June with more planned for July.

July 6 will see local politicians, environmental organisations, and the local community come together for a concert and march to protest again against open cast mining in the region.

Visitors flock to Salento to enjoy the famous wax palms of the nearby Valle de Cocora, and the natural beauty of Los Nevados national park.

Locals argue that it is an agricultural and touristic area in which mining should not be allowed. Back in February, they signed a Municipal Agreement to that effect, which meant that the six active mining permissions in the area had to be put on hold.

The concern is that allowing industrial mining would damage the ecosystem – particularly the delicate Los Nevados páramo – and contaminate the water. The area supplies 70% of the water for Quindio’s capital, Armenia, as well as three other towns in the region.

Now locals are outraged because the Quindío Administrative Tribunal (TAQ) overturned the Municipal Agreement at the end of May. The agreement sought to ban mining activity in the region on the basis that it is the central government – and not a local authority – that should be making these decisions.

The verdict stated that, “The territorial entities do not have the authority to prohibit mining activity in their territory, given that the subsoil and nonrenewable natural resources belong to the state.”

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It is by no means a new debate, and Salento is not alone. Local authorities and communities in several other areas such as Caño Cristales and San Martín have taken action to prevent large scale mining, industry or fracking in their backyards.

“They are trampling on the rights of those who live in the territories and denying their right to participate in these decisions, that are going to affect their lives and their futures.”

– Néstor Ocampo, director of Cosmos de Calarcá

The big issue at play here is the country’s struggle to balance economic and environmental interests. But other factors, such as the balance of power between local authorities and central government, questions of land ownership, and the contrast between rural and urban Colombia also play a part.

In an interview with RCN radio, Carlos Osorio Buritacá, governor of Quindío, expressed his opposition to mining in Salento, but not to the actual verdict of the TAQ. He said, “I also want to make sure that Salento and the department [of Quindío] in general are protected from large-scale mining. But we have to comply with the law. It is simply not the function of the municipal council to make this decision.”

He also maintains that the verdict does not necessarily mean that large-scale mining has got the green light.

However many disagree, including Néstor Ocampo, environmental activist and director of Cosmos de Calarcá foundation, an ecological group that promotes the participation of the community in defending of their territory. He told us that the law is not as black and white as the TAQ makes out, arguing that this is a political rather than a legal move.

“The issue of who has the power to decide over nonrenewable natural resources and the subsoil is still a contention for debate,” he said. “In the high courts there are various concepts regarding this and it is not as concrete as the TAQ suggests.”

Ocampo continued, “Everything seems to point to the fact that the priority is to implement the policy of the national government, and impose mining here. They are trampling on the rights of those who live in the territories and denying their right to participate in these decisions, that are going to affect their lives and their futures.”

The area is rich in biodiversity and natural beauty. Photo: Annie Deri

Of the six active mining titles, two are currently suspended. If local people cannot find a new way to challenge them, the next step will be for the companies – including AngloGold and some Canadian companies – to begin various phases such as licensing and exploration which may take years.

In the meantime, all eyes are now on Salento to see if they can either challenge the TAQ decision or find another mechanism to prevent mining. They are certainly not going to give in without a fight, but what remains to be seen is how much of a say local residents actually have over their territories.