Colombia bans mining in country’s vast moorlands

Colombia has officially banned all mining activities in its paramo regions (moorlands) after the country’s Constitutional Court revoked Monday a regulation that had allowed mineral exploitation in the area.

Mining in the paramo — the area of the Andes mountains covered with subalpine forests above the continuous tree line, but below the permanent snow mark — had been prohibited since 2011, but concessions granted before such ban had continued to date.

The court said such exemption was invalid and ordered all extraction activities to be suspended, which will affect about 347 mining concessions, local paper El País reported (in Spanish).

It argued that mining for gold and oil in the fragile ecosystem could cause irreversible damage.

Mining in the area of the Andes mountains right above the continuous tree line, but below the permanent snow mark had been prohibited since 2011, but concessions granted before such ban had continued to date.

The "paramos" are mainly found between an altitude of 3,000m (9,850ft) and 5,000m. Covered by grass and shrubs, they act like massive sponges, storing water in the rainy season and releasing it in the dry season.

The ruling is good news for Colombia’s major cities, which rely on paramos as a source of water. These areas are believed to store water for around 70% the country's population. The Chingaza paramo alone, located just outside of Bogota, serves around 20% of Colombians, El Espectador reports.

The same court dealt another blow to the development plan of President Juan Manuel Santos, abolishing a law that had allowed projects of “strategic interest” to supersede the rights of the those dispossessed of their lands.

Previously, evicted landholders were given plots of lands outside areas deemed to be of strategic interest.

But the Constitutional Court said the rights of victims of land dispossession must be respected, and that their claims to their lands will have to be honoured.

In the past year, Colombia has worked on improving the country’s mining standards. Authorities have adopted a “zero tolerance” stance when it comes to illegal mining and taken steps to expedite permit approvals. They have also tightened regulations to establish a project's area of influence in order to improve mitigation of environmental and social risks.

Other than gold and coal, Colombia holds vast and untapped reserves of emeralds, silver and oil.