May Day mining disaster in Colombia

An unknown number of miners—perhaps as many as 40—were buried alive as an illegal gold mine collapsed late on the night of April 30 at El Palmar, in Colombia's southern department of Cauca. Local campesinos spent May Day volunteering with Santander de Quilichao municipal brigades in a desperate effort to unearth the victims—none of whom are believed to survive. Thus far, only three bodies have been recovered, according to local Red Cross workers. Local residents said the "owners" of the mine were able to escape, but it is still unlcear exactly who they are.

Gold, coltan and tungsten are among the minerals mined illegally in 25 of Colombia's 32 departments, according to authorities. "Illegal gold mining is prevalent in about 340 of Colombia’s 1,102 municipalities," said Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón in a mining industry conference in Bogotá last year. "The FARC is involved in 87 of those 340, the ELN in 30, and the BACRIMs in a further 118." The FARC and ELN are Colombia's two leftist guerilla groups, while BACRIM, or "criminal gangs," is official jargon for remnant right-wing paramilitary groups. (World Bulletin, May 2; Pueblos en Camino, May 1)

But legal mining projects are also subject to such abuses. On April 29, Amnesty International and Canada's Assembly of First Nations joined to hold a joint press conference in the House of Commons in Ottawa to urge the Canadian government to address the human rights emergencies facing indigenous Colombians and others who live in areas affected by Canadian mining operations. The leaders pointed out that many indigenous Colombian peoples are facing extinction and that "the imposition of mining projects without human rights guarantees is a key factor in this emergency."

"One significant consequence of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is greater access to Colombia for Canadian extractives companies," stated AI in its press release. "To date annual human rights reports prepared by the Canadian government, as required by the trade deal, have failed to say anything about the human rights situation for Indigenous Peoples or to examine the record of Canadian resource extraction companies in Colombia."

This joint effort comes after publication of a report, "The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada's Responsibility," by the Mining and Human Rights in Latin America Working Group (MHRLAG), a group of seven Latin American non-governmental organizations that came together in 2010. (ICTMY, May 2)

The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2008, despite concerns about human rights.