By Cecilia Zarate-Laun*
Last August 7 in his inaugural speech as President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos said : “We are a nation with one of the largest biological diversities in the world, and with a great supply of water. Therefore we are called upon to care for them for our own benefit and that of mankind...We will create the National Agency for Water Resources, in order to guarantee greater protection of our natural resources”. In another segment of his speech President Santos emphasized the need to create jobs in order to reduce the highest unemployment rate in Latin America and he specifically pointed out focus areas which are indispensable if Colombia is to move forward, naming agricultural development, infra-structure construction, build additional housing, mining development and technological innovation.
Based upon President Santos’ speech, the challenges he must meet include protecting bio-diversity, guaranteeing sources of potable water, and creating employment for Colombia’s millions of unemployed, while overseeing an increase in mining operations such as those planned for the Santurban area.
Deep in the eastern mountain range of the Colombian Andes there is a collection of mountains known as Santurban. This is a territory of “paramos”, a Spanish term that in pre-Roman times meant “desolation”. And the lands of the paramos are desolate, because they are found at an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 meters. Their vegetation and grasses are appropriate for such heights. They are in permanent action, retaining water vapor from the ever-present fog and transforming it into liquid water. The secret of this process is in the nature of their soils, which are of volcanic origin and contain organic material and aluminum. The organic material accumulates, due to the low temperature in the paramos, which slows the activity of microbes. Upon combining with the aluminum, particles are formed which are resistant to decomposition. It is in this way that the soil retains water for long periods of time. Water is freed slowly and continuously. The paramos do not produce water. It comes from rain, fog and snow from higher altitudes, which are above 5,000 meters and are snow-covered mountains. They collect water and regulate it. For this reason the Andean paramos are considered natural “factories” of potable water. In addition, because of the very nature of their soil, the Andean paramos store carbon from the atmosphere and thus help to control global warming. These mountains may be able to offer a response to global warming and to the shortage of water.
In the specific case of Santurban, its ecosystem shelters a high biodiversity, in addition to providing water to rivers and ponds. Santurban has 85 ponds, which give origin to a number of rivers and streams that sustain agricultural production and cattle-raising in the low zones, as well as supplying water for the 2.2 million inhabitants of the cities of Bucaramanga and Cucuta and 20 nearby municipalities.
The paramo of Santurban holds 457 species of plants, among which stand out the frailejon subshrub, Espeletia conglomerata, ferns, orchids, mosses, lichens and the oak tree called Quercus Humboldtii. Colombia is the country with the largest number of species of birds in the world, and of these 201 are endemic to Santurban. Many amphibians, such as frogs and lizards, and mammals, such as the Andean bear “Tremarcus Ornatus”, a threatened species, live there. Santurban also has a large expanse of swamps, called “turberas”, which act as sponges with a greater or lesser amount of water, depending upon the time of year.
As the Madrid daily newspaper El Pais reported on December 5, 2010, in an analysis of the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, “The priorities of Washington with respect to the South American subcontinent are clear: mines.” That seems also to be true for Canada, given that the Canada-based multinational Greystar sought permission to mine for gold in the area of Santurban, specifically near the stream of Angostura, from which the mining project takes its name. In the municipalities of Vetas and California the Spanish Crown took out gold beginning in 1513, in tunneled mines using artisan methods, to produce small amounts. Since that time this is how mining has been done in Santurban.
But the technology of that time is different from the type of technology which Greystar wishes to use .The company, using an open pit model, plans to excavate more than 2,700 acres and construct 2 piles of tailings and a dump at an altitude of 8,500 to 13,450 feet. The process uses heavy machinery to destroy the covering of vegetation for the purpose of exposing the soil, which will be removed with explosives. The hole which will be opened will be 656 feet deep and 1.075 billion tons of rock will be removed, of which 775 million tons will go to the dump and 300 million tons will go to the leaching water basins. A total of .25 kilograms of explosives will be used per ton of rock removed per hour. There will be two leaching water basins , one near the Angostura River and the other near a stream called Paez. The concentration of sodium cyanide used would be 500 milligrams per liter of water. The amount of sodium cyanide for each water basin would be 4,500 to 5,000 cubic meters per hour. The cycle would be 60 days long and the time of leaching would be 10 years. The amount of water used by the mine is calculated to be 250,000 liters per hour. Greystar plans to extract 11.5 million ounces of gold and 61 million ounces of silver over 15 years. When it leaves, it will leave behind the hole and the desert to remember it by.
This mine project generates many, many questions. What is going to happen to the 85 ponds? What is going to happen to the river basins of the Zulia and Lebrija Rivers, which are located in the mining zone? What is going to become of the Surata, Tona and Frio Rivers, which supply drinking water to Bucaramanga? Near the city a dam is being built to supply drinking water to the one million inhabitants of Bucaramanga. Given that the Angostura Project will affect the generation of water in the paramo, what is the dam for? The cyanide accumulated in the debris pile will degrade and go into the air, and therefore there is a risk of long-term contamination because it will originate acid rain. Imagine this in a region which is a peerless producer of water!
What will happen to the biodiversity and to species on the way to extinction which live in the paramo of Santurban? What will happen to the millions of tons of earth impregnated with cyanide which the multinational is going to leave behind? What will happen to the soils left sterile by the mining operation?
Some more questions come to mind. How is the ground water going to be affected? By using so much water in the mine, the ground water currents will be weakened and the subsurface water will lose its potential, at the same time as the soils which capture water are being removed. The ponds of water containing cyanide could break because of an excess of rain or an earthquake or tremor - so frequent in these mountains- and this could lead to the presence of cyanide in the rivers which come from the high areas of the paramo and which supply water to the populations and cities below. The transporation of cyanide, especially in the higher reaches of the mountains, is risky given the very nature of the mountain land, the insecure climatic conditions, and the primitive construction of the roads.
Before he left office as President, Alvaro Uribe signed mining concessions in most of the Colombian paramos.The political web page La Silla Vacia reports that at the end of his presidential term the number of hectares with mining concessions increased from 1.13 million to 8.53 million, 6.3 per cent of which are in the paramos. Remarkably, all of this happened after the Colombian Congress had passed a reform in the Mining Code forbidding mining on paramos. Uribe delayed signing the legislation for eight months; meanwhile, his administration granted numerous mining permits to multinational mining companies.
The 1991 Colombian Constitution orders the protection of areas of ecological importance and of natural resources. In fact, Law 1382 of 2010 expressely amended Article 34 of the Mining Code to forbid mining in paramos.
Colombian leaders will do anything except solving the structural problems of injustice. If developing the economy brings with it the destruction of the great bio-diversity of the country, so be it.There is no hurry to find other forms of development that do not include mining. To give the paramos to the rapacious multinational corporations, which are only interested in extracting the mineral wealth, knowing that mining always brings environmental consequences in a country like Colombia, is as suicidal as if Saudi Arabia would decide to burn its oil fields.
And, as far as creating employment is concerned, experience in other Colombian mining operations shows that the permanent positions created are quite few in number. According to George Pierce, a truck mechanic from the US who worked for several years at a Drummond coal mine in Colombia, after the infrastructure of the mine has been set up, much of the permanent employment goes to experienced workers from abroad.
There is a new element in this case in relation to Greystar. The Colombian Constitution provides that the local population must be consulted before mining may start and only with local permission can work start. Greystar has assured the local people that its presence will bring benefits, such as giving scholarships for the children and taking them on field trips, building greenhouses to grow endemic plants for reforestation and of course creating jobs. It is true there will be new jobs while the mine site is being prepared, but after that, most jobs will be for technical personnel coming from outside. The locals are really enthusiastic and support the coming of the mining company. This is different from what mining companies have done in Southern Bolivar state, where they have used paramilitaries to displace the local population. Worthy of note is the participation of the World Bank, which often presents itself as defending the environment, because it has investments in Greystar through its International Finance Corporation. See www.ifc.org/
The Colombian government ought to suspend the concession of mining rights in the zones which are producers of water. Its responsibility is not only to Colombia, but also to the planet itself. Santurban should be declared to be a national park and the small-scale local and informal mining in the lower areas should be regulated. Instead, ecological tourism could offer an excellent alternative. It is time for the government of Colombia to put aside the insanity of exploiting the natural resources of the country at the service of the highest bidder. It should begin to think about the benefit to the people of Colombia, who deserve a future of respect and wellbeing for all, and not to place itself at the service of the greed of foreign investors.
President Santos must take seriously his promise of defending Colombia’s immense bio-diversity and its water resources, by making creative proposals which respect the environment. If he has the courage to do so, he will have an important place in Colombia’s history.
Take action! http://colombiasupport.blogspot.com/
*Cecilia Zarate-Laun is Program Director, Colombia Support Network in Madison, Wisconsin.
Reproduced from www.colombiareports.com
Dan Kovalik, a prominent U.S. labor and human rights lawyer, lays out his reasons why Washington should not ratify a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, and why he thinks President Obama will not do so.
Kovalik, who serves as assistant general counsel to the United Steelworkers (USW), believes that President Obama's mention of the Colombian free trade agreement in his State of the Union address does not indicate his commitment to passing it.
"In his final debate with John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama himself stated that he opposed the FTA because the unionists were being killed and because the Colombian government was doing little to stop this," he explains. So what has changed now that we are in 2011?
"The fact is that the grave situation of anti-union violence has not changed since President Obama made those statements." Where 51 unionists were killed in 2008, Kovalik notes that 2009 witnessed the murder of 47 unionists, while "at least 47" endured the same fate in 2010.
"Colombia remains 'the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists,'" he says, citing the International Trade Union Confederation's (ITUC) most recent world survey.
"Impunity for such killings is still around 96%," while Colombia's "draconian labor laws" mean that only "about 1% of Colombian workers are covered by a labor agreement."
Kovalik is certainly well-versed to discuss the situation of trade unionists in Colombia, having helped work on the 2001 case brought against Coca-Cola by Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, over the supposed murder of over 4,000 of their members since 1986.
Yet if Obama was committed to Colombia labor union rights before his election in 2008, and if the situation has remained much the same, he has been far from outspoken over human rights in Colombia since assuming the presidency. In this respect, as Kovalik concedes, it appears that American strategic interests dictate the U.S. government's stance on human rights.
"Usually, U.S. administrations, and the Obama administration is no exception, are more apt to criticize the human rights policies of the U.S.'s rivals than those of countries it perceives as its friends - even when the human rights practices of the latter are far worse than the former."
Colombia, in other words, is considered a key strategic ally in the region, and although "the U.S. is forever criticizing Cuba and Venezuela for their human rights policies, any objective observer would have to conclude that Colombia's human rights policies over the last 15 years, which have included the wholesale murder of its own population, is many times worse."
Indeed, where foreign policy may determine the U.S.'s inclination to speak out about human rights, it is domestic politics that may now shape the future of the Colombian FTA.
Republican control of the House, since November 2010, "is obviously critical on this issue." Many Republicans have long been advocates of the FTA and Kovalik accepts that if it were to be introduced by Obama, "it would be very difficult to stop its passage."
"For those of us opposing the Colombia FTA, the key is to prevail upon President Obama to refrain from introducing [it] in the first place."
The Pittsburgh-based lawyer also points to the Economic Policy Institute's conclusion in a 2010 report that the Colombian FTA "would in fact cost 55,000 net U.S. jobs by 2015," although he asserts that both his objections and those of American labor unions are "first and foremost" due to "principled concerns regarding anti-union violence in Colombia."
It is for this reason that Kovalik argues in favor of "creating a fund for the victims, which the U.S. should help support financially given its complicity in the state violence in Colombia," even if this is just "the first step towards justice."
Ultimately, however, the problem lies with the "continued human rights abuses by illegal armed groups," and the failure of the Peace and Justice process in ensuring that the demobilized "stay demobilized."
If the Colombian FTA has languished primarily during former President Uribe's controversial rule, perhaps Kovalik perceives a change in direction under incumbent President Santos.
Santos has "certainly expressed good intentions," accepts Kovalik, but unfortunately "there appears to be no difference in the actual results of his policies."
As Human Rights Watch recently stated, quotes Kovalik, there was still a "'spike in massacres committed in 2010, which surpassed all annual totals since 2005.'"
"Until President Santos' professed good intentions translate into a reversal of such horrific trends, Colombia should be denied the Free Trade Agreement."
The U.S.-Colombia FTA was signed by former Presidents George W. Bush and Alvaro Uribe in 2006, but was never ratified by U.S. Congress. Despite ongoing Colombian lobbying to have the pact approved, the Obama administration has not yet put the deal up for a congressional vote.
The Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWG) and the U.S. Office on
Colombia (USOC) released a new report today
the Silence: In Search of Colombia’s Disappeared revealing official figures that
more than 50,000 people have been disappeared in Colombia and telling the stories of the victims’ families’ search
for truth and justice.
Once again, detailed research continues to uncover the connections between SOA/ WHINSEC graduates and instructors with extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations.
The researchers selected an important graph from the report that depicts extrajudicial killings in Colombia from 2002 to 2009 attributed to brigade divisions in the Colombian military, and matched the brigades with SOA-trained commanders. The results are startling, showing a high level of extrajudicial executions in areas under the command of SOA graduates. While the data focuses on those in command and is not entirely inclusive of all the soldiers in each unit, at a minimum this research demonstrates the failed efforts of the curriculum at the SOA/ WHINSEC to prevent human rights violations.
The report isolates the specific role of SOA/ WHINSEC attendees as part of their research, noting that in 2009, “30 of 33 brigade and division commanders who could be identified attended one or more courses at the School” and that “it is significant that the United States has trained virtually the entire class of Colombian Army commanders.” One of the cornerstones of the report (high numbers of reported killings after receiving U.S. military assistance, despite reports of killings before military assistance was approved) is also connected with training at the SOA/ WHINSEC, a form of U.S. military assistance. (page 12)
According to the research, of the 33 brigade and division commanders who could be identified, only the commanders of the Second, Fifth and 13th brigades did not attend SOA/ WHINSEC. All seven division commanders attended the school. Here are summaries of a few of the unit studies in the report, with human rights violations attributed to units commanded by U.S.-trained Colombian officers:
- Codazzi Battalion (operating as part of the Third Brigade): In 2004, CINEP reported on the killings, reportedly by members of the Codazzi Battalion, of Carlos Rodrigo Largo in Corinto, Cauca on June 16 and of Claudia Patricia Morales in Palmira, Valle, on March 14. The killing of Largo was part of a village raid in which Codazzi troops reportedly threatened, robbed and beat villagers. In 2007 the Codazzi Battalion was identified as the author of ten civilian killings, and the same number again in 2008. Although the Third Brigade has 12 battalions, the Codazzi was reportedly responsible for 22 out of 53 executions attributed to the brigade. (page 18)
- Ninth Brigade: The brigade’s commander from at least September 2006 to November 2007 was Colonel Jaime Alfonso Lasprilla Villamizar. In 2002‐03, then‐Lt. Col. Lasprilla served as an instructor at WHINSEC, after also being trained at the school as a cadet. During his term as Ninth Brigade commander, at least 49 civilian killings were reportedly committed by thearmy in the brigade’s jurisdiction, 31 of them attributed by witnesses directly to NinthBrigade soldiers. Lasprilla was subsequently promoted to the rank of brigadier general andcommander of the U.S.‐supported Task Force Omega. (page 19)
- Sixth Brigade: During 2000 to 2005, 50 civilian killings by the military were reported in the brigade’s jurisdiction, including the well known Cajamarca massacre of five people in April 2004. A high percentage – 87.5% – of the 42 civilian killings in Tolima attributed to a unit were reportedly carried out by members of the Sixth Brigade. In 2008‐09, and again this year, the United States has been fully assisting a brigade in whose jurisdiction the Army reportedly killed 124 civilians since 2002, in clear violation of the Leahy Law. (pages 19-20)
- Eighteenth Brigade: This brigade operates in the conflictive and oil‐producing Arauca Department, on the border with Venezuela. The 18th Brigade became a prominent focus of human rights and labor groups and the U.S. Embassy in 2004, when troops killed three trade unionists. The previous year, eight killings were attributed to the brigade, including a massacre of four indigenous persons and the rape of four teenaged girls on May 5, 2003, allegedly committed by members of the ‘Navas Pardo’ Engineering Battalion dressed in paramilitary uniforms. Most – 75% – of the 44 civilian killings in Arauca attributed to a unit were reportedly carried out by members of the 18th Brigade. (pages 21-22)
- Fourth Brigade: This brigade has been a powerhouse of the army, with several of its commanders rising to leadership of the military in recent years. Extrajudicial killings by the army in the brigade’s jurisdiction also outnumber by far those of any other brigade – 608 since 2002, with more than 100 a year from 2004 through 2007. The current commander, Brigadier General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, trained and studied for several years in U.S. military institutions, including the SOA/ WHINSEC; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; the Army War College; and the Naval Postgraduate School. (pages 22-23)
- Seventh Brigade: A total of 256 civilian killings by the army have been reported in the brigade’s jurisdiction since 2002; of these, 81 were attributed either to the Seventh Brigade or one of the mobile brigades. Officers of the Seventh Brigade and its Joaquin Paris Battalion were implicated in the Mapiripán massacre in 1997, in which paramilitaries massacred or disappeared 49 residents over the course of five days. There were 12 killings attributed to the 12th Mobile Brigade, at the time commanded by Colonel Carlos Hugo Ramírez Zuluaga, who took the Cadet Orientation at the SOA/ WHINSEC in November 1980. Colonel Zuluaga was named in the 1994 book Terrorismo de Estado de Colombia as a paramilitary death squad collaborator. In April 2006, according to CINEP, soldiers from the 12th Mobile Brigade opened fire on a civilian dwelling in San Juan de Arama, and continued shooting even after people fleeing the dwelling shouted to stop and the wounded were heard crying out. The soldiers killed 10 people, including three children. (pages 24-25)
These unit studies are likely the tip of the iceberg. Given the Department of Defense refuses to disclose who has trained or instructed at WHINSEC since 2004, there is a high probability even more graduates are connected to human rights violations in light of the fact that thousands of Colombians have moved through SOA/ WHINSEC programs without any oversight.
Important reports like the one described above are essential resources for Congress and Administration officials making decisions about foreign military training. Despite the value of transparency, openness, and the public’s right to know, the Obama Administration made a clear decision to value secrecy instead, and to prevent further exposure of the negative impact the SOA/ WHINSEC has in Colombia and the rest of Latin America.
Click here to take action and urge the State Department not to certify Colombia’s human rights record in August 2010
Note on summary above: the content of these summaries was taken from the FOR/ U.S. Office on Colombia report entitled Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications
. In some cases, footnotes, graphs and other documentation in the original report will provide additional background to the information you read here.