Protecting the Colombian Páramo from Eco Oro Mining

CIEL works with the Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo, a Colombian grassroots coalition, SOMO and MiningWatch Canada to protect the páramo and question the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) investment in a harmful mining project. We filed a complaint that successfully challenged whether Eco Oro met IFC environmental standards, and then campaigned for the IFC to divest, which it did at the end of 2016.

The breathtakingly beautiful high-altitude wetland found in Colombia’s Santander region, known as the páramo, exists in few other locations across the globe. Like the unique variety of plant and animal species that have adapted to live in it, millions of Colombians have also shaped their lives around the páramos’ rare and fragile ecosystem and depend on it as a vital source of water. Together, the series of páramos provide water for over 70% of Colombians. The páramos are also a major carbon sink and one of most important ecosystems to combat climate change. Nearly three million people could be impacted by mining in the Santurbán páramo.

Unfortunately, in 1994, Canadian mining company Greystar Resources Ltd., now Eco Oro Minerals Corp (Eco Oro), initiated actions to exploit the region’s gold deposits.

Eco Oro’s initial interest in the Angostura mine project came in the midst of then-President Alvaro Uribe’s decision to grant foreign companies limited exploratory mining permits. Though Colombian law prohibits extracting material from within páramo boundaries, the permits reference exceptions via special environmental licenses; many companies have attempted to exploit this ambiguous language to carry out harmful mining projects.

The World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), backed Eco Oro in 2009, investing $11 million in company shares before an environmental and social impact assessment had been done.

CIEL Supports a Complaint at the CAO

Since 2010, the Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo (the Committee), a diverse civic coalition composed of 40 groups, has opposed the mining project. Through marches and petitions, upwards of 80,000 residents have repeatedly expressed opposition to the Angostura project.

In June 2012, CIEL teamed up with AIDA and MiningWatch Canada to aide community groups in filing a case with the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the IFC’s independent grievance mechanism. The CAO audit investigated the allegations that the IFC had violated its own Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability by investing in Eco Oro.

The complaint documented concerns about the legality of the project and its impacts on water and biodiversity. It also included concerns about the physical safety of community members and the obstruction of their right to freedom of expression.

In September 2014, CIEL accompanied members from the Committee in several meetings with representatives from the World Bank, the CAO, and the IFC.

It took the CAO four years to publish its report, but in August 2016, the CAO found that IFC performance standards had not been met. The CAO reported that the company did not complete the required studies, such as an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, a biodiversity baseline study, and critical habitat assessments. The IFC also failed to assess the impacts of the entire mining project. The CAO stated that the “IFC has not pursued a remedy, but has made subsequent investments in the company.”

Eco Oro Sues Colombia; Organizations Call for IFC Divestment

The CAO’s findings added to a growing list of obstacles for the mine’s operation. Colombian courts had ruled that mining in the páramo was illegal, and the project has been halted for some time.

Frustrated with its inability to move forward, Eco Oro announced in 2016 that it was planning to sue Colombia using the Canada-Colombia trade agreement in the World Bank’s investment court, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

Meanwhile, community mobilization to oppose the project has been ongoing. After the CAO report, community leaders, together with an international NGO coalition, coordinated a series of letters, press releases, public petitions, and actions to highlight the decision and to urge the IFC to divest.

In November 2016, Colombian partners again visited DC, and CIEL accompanied them to meetings with Bank officials to push for divestment, delivering a petition signed by thousands of supporters. The coalition argued that Eco Oro’s value was no longer linked to a mine, but instead to a lawsuit against the Colombian State for protecting its citizens.

As Eco Oro shareholders, including the IFC, prepared to vote on how to finance the arbitration, CIEL and partners coordinated a synchronized protest in front of IFC offices in DC and Bogotá.

In December 2016, the IFC quietly announced it had divested from Eco Oro. CIEL and partners are now monitoring the arbitration filed at the World Bank’s ICSID.

Updated February 2017