Thousands rally in Colombia against Minesa’s gold project

About 50,000 people rallied this week in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga to express their opposition to the Soto Norte gold project.

The $1.2-billion project, proposed by Sociedad Minera de Santander or Minesa, is located in the north-central Santander department, just outside the Páramo de Santurbán, an area of the Andes mountains covered with subalpine forests above the continuous tree line but below the permanent snow mark, where water is naturally stored during the rainy season and released during the dry season. Mining in the páramo has been banned since 2011.

If approved, Minesa's underground operation would produce 400,000 ounces of gold per year and create 1,000 direct and 4,000 indirect jobs.

The company applied for an environmental licence to operate back in January, however, in order for it to be greenlighted, the boundaries of the Páramo need to be reviewed and the deadline to do so is July 16, 2019. According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, there wasn’t a clear and transparent consultation process with local communities when the boundaries were established.

Given that this application process is ongoing, Bucaramanga residents led by the Committee for the Defense of the Water and the Páramo de Santurbán are asking for it to be halted. They say they are worried because the gold project sits just above the mouth of the metropolitan aqueduct, which supplies fresh water to more than 2 million people.

Area of the Soto Norte gold project. Photo by Minesa.

According to local media, the 50,000 people gathered this week at the Plaza Cívica Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento were asking for Minesa to leave Santander. The provincial government gave public employees the day off so that they could take part in the protest and also issued a communiqué expressing its opposition to the project.

Talking to Diario El Tiempo, Heidy Ovalle, Minesa’s manager of corporate relations, said that the company respects people’s right to express their views and opinions. However, she said that the miner has been acting rightfully and is being rigorous when it comes to complying with laws and regulations.

Minesa has also vowed to respect the limits of the Páramo de Santurbán and mine without using mercury and cyanide.

Yet, less than a month ago, a leaked video was circulated on social media and it shows the firm's CEO Santiago Urdinola talking about a plan to get the environmental permit approved. The executive says that the only perceptions that matter are those of regulators in Bogotá, not local communities’, and that it it doesn’t matter if thousands oppose his company’s project as long as “Bogotá feels it’s fine.”

He goes on to say that the best way to minimize the possible effects of those voicing concerns about the project is “to develop a narrative that portraits protesters as activists linked to Colombia’s current administration’s opposition.”

Following the release of the video, the National Authority of Environmental Licences requested Minesa’s application to be reviewed by its officers together with colleagues from the Transparency Secretariat.