Colombia: peasants sue over mining contamination

Indigenous and Black communities in Colombia's Chocó department filed a lawsuit this week, claiming 37 of their children died after drinking water contaminated with mercury by nearby mining operations over the past three years. The suit was brought before Colombia's Constitutional Court, which has ordered a thorough test of the water quality in the Riosucio and Andagueda rivers, which merge to form the Río Atrato. The affected Embera Katío and Afro-Colombian communities depend on these rivers for fishing and agriculture as well as direct consumption of water. The plaintiffs, represented by the Greater Community Council of the Popular Campesino Organization of the Upper Atrato (COCOMOPOCA), charge that unchecked gold mining in the zone has caused an "environmental crisis, which has had a devastating effect and cost the lives of the indigenous and Afro-descendant children." The Constitutional Court, in addition to asking the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for assistance in the water quality tests, also called on the University of Cartagena to prepare a report on the health impacts of mercury and cyanide contamination. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 4; El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Colombiano, Feb. 3)

Mining impacts on local waters is a grave issue across much of rural Colombia. The Integration Committee of the Colombian Massif (CIMA), a peasant organization in Cauca department, reports that the local Río Sambingo is now entirely dry due deforestation of the watershed by both legal and illegal mining. The organization's leader Wilder Meneses rejected government claims that the river's disappearance is due entirely to this year's dramatic El Niño phenomenon. (Contagio Radio, Feb. 1)

The government is meanwhile preparing to give a freer hand to the mining industry. The left-opposition Polo Democrática has brought a case before the Constitutional Court challenging provisions of the government's new National Development Plan that would relax restrictions on mining within the boundaries of páramos, the high alpine meadows that protect watersheds. (Vanguardia, Feb. 3)

Last month, Colombia's cabinet, the Council of State, issued a decision extending operations at the Drummond coal mine at La Loma in Cesar department. The decision did impose new conditions on Drummond, demanding better remediation of social and environmental impacts. (El Colombiano, Jan. 22)

There is growing pressure on Colombia's governmet to bring the mining sector under greater corporate control. Following last month's eviction of informal miners from their camps in Buriticá, Antioquia, the Canadian company with a formal lease in the area, Continental Gold, protested that the informal operations were producing 10 times more gold than the company's licensed operations—60,000 ounces per year compared to 6,000. "It is not ancestral nor artisanal," said the company's president León Teicher. "It is criminal mining on a grand scale, carried out by people foreign to the region, under criminal business enterprises that are destroying the environment." (El Colombiano, Jan. 22; El Tiempo, Jan. 21)

  1. Colombia: high court rules on illegal mining

    Ruling in a case brought on behalf of local residents by the Tierra Digna organization, Colombia Constitutional Court ordered the government to take measures to protect the Río Atrato from illegal mining operations. (El Tiempo, May 2)