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Angostura mine: Colombia tries to cash in on gold

Extracting gold can involve moving mountains. Some believe it's worth the cost.

The Angostura gold mining site. (John Otis / GlobalPost)
A Greystar worker with a map of the Angostura site. (John Otis / GlobalPost)

ANGOSTURA, Colombia — Plans for a massive open-pit gold mine in the upper reaches of the Andes Mountains have sparked visions of El Dorado — and fears of environmental havoc.

Vancouver-based Greystar Resources estimates there may be 10 million troy ounces of gold in Angostura, a wind-swept patch of the Andes near the tree line some 10,000 feet high. Angostura is one of several Colombian gold projects that could soon begin production if they overcome environmental hurdles.

“Colombia is poised to do exactly what Chile did 20 years ago: use mining as a locomotive for economic growth,” Greystar President Steve Kesler said in an interview. “This area could become one of the most important gold-mining districts in the world.”

But opponents call the Angostura project, which has received funding from the World Bank, dangerous and illegal. They have organized street protests, created anti-Greystar Facebook pages and demanded public hearings.

That’s because Greystar’s mine would be located in and around the vast Santurban paramo in northeast Colombia. Paramos are unique, cloud-shrouded zones covered with peat bogs, grasslands and shrubs which together act as mountaintop sponges and serve as vital sources of water for many parts of Colombia. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s paramos are located in Colombia.

Critics fear Greystar’s project could permanently damage the Santurban paramo and that an accident could contaminate rivers with cyanide.

“It’s not worth the risk,” said Erwing Rodriguez-Salah, president of FENALCO, the main business association in Bucaramanga, a city of 600,000 located about 30 miles down the mountain from Angostura.

Some high-tech gold mines have good safety and environmental records. But cyanide spills, landslides and other problems have plagued a number of sites in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where most of the world’s gold is being mined.

Because most gold is microscopic, extracting it can literally involve moving mountains. To produce just one ounce of the shiny mineral at an open-pit mine, tons of rock must be excavated and crushed then sprinkled with a diluted cyanide solution, which dissolves the gold so it can then be separated and smelted.

All this leaves an extra-large footprint. In neighboring Peru, for example, residents living near Yanacocha — one of the world’s largest open-pit gold mines — complain that the operation has desecrated the Andean landscape and provided them with few benefits.

Still, there’s a huge motive for mining companies to keep digging even in the most remote and inhospitable climes: In the past decade, the price of gold has jumped from $300 an ounce to more than $1,300.

(Read: Why the world's love affair with gold is dangerous.)

“At that price, it’s worth the effort,” said Arturo Quiroz, president of Asomineros, a mining industry group in Bogota.

High prices have led to a surge of interest in Colombia, which is underexplored. For years, mining companies avoided Colombia due to the long-running guerrilla war. Greystar arrived here in 1995 but was forced to suspend operations for three years due to rebel attacks.