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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.

Absent major international firms, most gold extraction has been carried out by Colombian miners who dig tunnels or dredge rivers. Some projects are controlled by drug traffickers and guerrillas and many use large amounts of mercury that often gets dumped into rivers.

A recent United Nations report listed Colombia as the world’s No. 1 mercury polluter per capita due mainly to unregulated mining. A mere 16 government inspectors are in charge of monitoring 3,000 mines. Last year 155 miners were killed while 26 have already died this year in explosions and tunnel collapses.

Quiroz, of Asomineros, said the way out of this chaos is to support legitimate companies such as Greystar. “We need to promote legal mining,” he said. “If we don’t, the illegal miners will take over.”

During a recent visit, the Angostura site was a picture of order. Men in hard hats drilled for rock samples. Engineers sat in pre-fabricated offices typing on laptop computers. Nearby, workers tended a nursery where hairy-leafed Freilejons plants, the iconic flora of the paramos, were starting to sprout.

“The landscape is going to change a bit,” said German Diaz, a Greystar engineer. “But we’re going to put all the vegetation back.”

Indeed, Greystar officials claim that for every acre the project affects, the company will reforest six acres of the Santurban paramo. That’s one reason why the International Finance Corporation, the profit-making arm of the World Bank, has invested $12 million dollars in Angostura.

“This project has the potential to set new environmental and social standards for mining in Colombia,” William Bulmer, the corporation’s global head of mining, said when the agreement was announced in 2009.

However, independent mining consultant Guillermo Rudas points out that the Wolrd Bank has also gotten involved in controversial mining ventures, such as Yanacocha and a gold mine in Guyana, where a 1995 accident sent a torrent of cyanide-laced water into a tributary to the Essequibo River, the South American country’s main water source.

After sinking $150 million into exploring Angostura, Greystar was gearing up for gold production when the Colombian government abruptly changed its mining code last year to prohibit mineral extraction in paramos. But that’s only made things more confusing.

Not only had the government already granted hundreds of exploration permits in paramos, but it turns out that the legal definition of what constitutes a paramo is unclear.

Greystar argued that many paramos are no longer pristine ecosystems because they have been populated by peasant farmers and prospectors. In fact, the lower areas of Angostura have been scarred with tunnels and roads by miners, who have been extracting gold here for hundreds of years. “The paramo’s lakes and waterfalls are all lovely but that’s not where the project is located,” said Kesler, Greystar's president.

The government recently declared that licenses for mining in the paramos would be decided on a case-by-case basis. Its ruling on Greystar is expected next month.

As the deadline looms, opponents warn that there’s no prior example of returning damaged paramo to its previous state.

Gonzalo Pena, an engineer in Bucaramanga who has studied the Angostura project, said Greystar can try to cover up its tracks with Freilejons but the plants grow just one centimeter per year. Thus, to reach the height of 1 meter, he says “it will take 100 years."