Protecting Colombia’s Santurbán Páramo

By Lainey Sidell, Communications Intern
By Lainey Sidell, Communications Intern

Colombia’s thirty-four páramos are unique, high-altitude wetland ecosystems that serve as vital sources of freshwater for nearby inhabitants’ survival. To those who don’t directly rely on a healthy páramo ecosystem for life, however, these highlands have a different draw: precious metals buried deep beneath the surface.

Therein lies the problem. In 1994, Greystar Resources Limited, now named Eco Oro Minerals Corp., acquired mining rights in the Páramo de Santurbán and has been carrying out mining exploration in the area ever since. During this time, former-President Alvaro Uribe granted hundreds of exploratory mining permits in an effort to generate economic growth. These permits allow for exploration but not extraction unless environmental permits are granted. Colombian law prohibits mining within páramo limits, but companies take advantage of its ambiguous delimitation to push forward with so-called “development” in the area.

On September 10, CIEL hosted a presentation given by a small delegation from the Committee for Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo. The discussion outlined their struggle to protect the páramo from mining and to highlight how the project threatens the water supply of more than two million Colombians.

Erwing Rodríguez-Salah hosts a presentation on the fragility of Colombia's unique páramos on September 10.
Erwing Rodríguez-Salah hosts a presentation on the fragility of Colombia’s unique páramos on September 10.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private investment division of the World Bank, backed the project in 2009 during its preliminary stages, buying $11 million in shares of the company and effectively becoming a shareholder in Eco Oro. But by trading irreplaceable ecosystems for the potential profits of extraction, the IFC and Colombian government take a disastrously short-sighted approach to economic development, in which the Colombian people, especially those nearest to the project site, get the short end of the stick.

By holding shares in Eco Oro’s project, the IFC has demonstrated that it, too, is willing to prioritize material gain over the rights of citizens and importance of the vital ecosystem.

Corp Power_paramo colombia wetlandThis mining project is in clear violation of IFC standards by not complying with Colombian Law or assessing the environmental implications and must be stopped all together to preserve the land, respect the rights of local communities, and to nourish the people of Colombia who depend on the health of the páramo for survival. New, more specific guidelines for mining are currently under review in Colombia and could successfully block current projects and prohibit new ventures from starting.

The main goal of the Committee’s visit to Washington, D.C. was to meet with IFC and World Bank Directors and staff to alert them of this project and the impending report by the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), which is the office in charge of responding to complaints from project-affected communities.

The CAO’s audit and report on the IFC’s investment in Eco Oro will hopefully shed more light on the IFC’s failure to comply with its established Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability. By alerting bank officials to this case, the Committee for Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo hopes to get support for a strong action plan that may help resolve the issue and protect the Santurban páramo once and for all.

Originally posted on November 6, 2014.