Colombia miners brace for environmental crackdown

Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández. (Images: Wikimedia Commons.)

Miners operating in Colombia are bracing for tighter environmental rules as the two anti-establishment presidential candidates that made it to a runoff on June 19 have promised stricter environmental rules and controls over the industry.

After no candidates were able to reach on Sunday’s election more than the 50% of votes required to win outright, the South American nation will have to choose between Gustavo Petro, a leftist former guerrilla member and once mayor of Bogotá and Rodolfo Hernández, a business magnate viewed as a conservative, populist outsider.

Colombia, known for its vast reserves of coal, petroleum, emeralds, gold and copper, has seen its resources sector grow in the past decade.

Not only mining exports in the first three months of the year jumped 44% from the same period of 2021 to $3.75 billion, the best result in a decade. The industry is also on track to bring in a record 8.8 trillion pesos ($2.2 billion) in taxes and royalties during 2022, according to the Colombian Mining Association (ACM).

Assuming the new president doesn’t overhaul the sector, Colombia’s income from mining would jump 69% this year from the previous 2021 record of 5.2 trillion pesos, the association said last week, crediting rising prices for the projected increase.

Petro, the 62-year-old left-wing candidate, is running on a platform that proposes radical changes to the country’s economic model to combat one of the highest inequality rates in the world. 

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Petro has said that under his administration, coal and oil reserves will be left in the ground and new licences prohibited, while his government will search for ways to finance the country’s decarbonization agenda. He has also promised to ban large-scale open-pit mining, but hasn’t specified whether this would apply to new projects only.

Some of the open pit mines currently operating in Colombia include Glencore’s Cerrejón coal mine in La Guajira and South32’s Cerro Matoso nickel mine in Cordoba. B2Gold and AngloGold Ashanti are at the feasibility study stage at their Gramalote gold project in Antioquia.

The candidate, who be the first leftist president in Colombia’s history if he wins in June, wants the state to take control of all water basins used for energy generation and mining projects.

Community participation

Perhaps the most significant change under Petro, who obtained 40% of the votes, would be boosting people’s participation in decisions related to their territory, which will be binding.

Under the current rules, communities have a right to be consulted and to have a say in activities developed in their territories. They don’t, however, have an explicit or implied veto over mining projects.

Petro has also vowed to increase environmental, labor and tax controls on ongoing mining operations. He plans to create a fund for the country’s energy transition with resources from royalties and those from the elimination of some tax benefits for the hydrocarbons, coal mining and hydroelectric sectors.

He said he will protect artisanal and small-scale miners, while making big companies responsible for environmental liabilities, including land rehabilitation and water sources clean-up.

Petro’s rival in the runoff will be billionaire Hernández, the self-proclaimed “King of TikTok” who adopted a confrontational stance with traditional media, drawing comparisons to that of former US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Colombia’s artisanal gold miners now part of fully traceable global supply chain
Almost half of the artisanal miners active at El Chocó are women. (Image courtesy of Switzerland’s Better Gold Initiative (BGI).)

When it comes to mining, Hernández is less specific than Petro. The 77-year-old, who obtained 28% of the votes, has said he’ll hold multinationals accountable to the same standards they have to follow in their countries of origin. At the same time, he wants to attract investment in the sector with clear permitting rules that include strategic meeting with communities close to projects.

Hernández also wants to modify the Penal Code to include damages to the environment, including risks to public health, as a crime.

The candidate is from Santander, a department where several large-scale gold projects have been halted, including Eco Oro Minerals’ Angostura gold project a decade ago and Sociedad Minera de Santander’s (Minesa) Soto Norte gold project.

He proposes a special protection plan for the Colombian Amazon and the country’s biodiversity-rich areas, which today are affected by illegal extraction and deforestation.