Colombia's Constitutional Court on Feb. 7 revoked all licenses granted to companies that sought to carry out mining activities on páramos, the high alpine meadows that protect watersheds. The ruling overturns Article 173 of the government's new National Development Plan (PND), which allowed 347 existing licenses in the alpine zones to move ahead, although barring the issuing of new ones. The ruling also struck down provisions of the PND that barred victims of the country's armed conflict from reclaiming usurped lands that had been converted into so-called "Projects of Strategic National Interest" (PINE). Additionally, the court overturned a third article that allowed the government to forcibly expropriate privately-owned land for mega-projects. The decision is seen as a blow to the ambitions of Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, mastermind of the PND. The case was brought by the left-opposition Polo Democrática. (Colombia Reports, El Tiempo, Equilibrio Informativo, El Heraldo, Barranquilla, Feb. 9; El Espectador, RCN Radio, Feb. 8; Silla Vacía, Feb. 7)
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)
Colombia is suffering especially grave effects from this year's off-the-scale El Niño phenomenon. The national disaster response agency UNGRD is struggling to respond to a devastating drought, dispatching tanker-trucks of water to communities across the country where taps have gone dry. Juan Manuel Santos said this month that this is the second worst El Niño in the history of the country, and the worst impacts "are still to come." A few days of rain at the start of the year gave some residents hope, but Santos warned it would have "minimal effect, practically none," given the gravity of the situation. (El Espectador, Jan. 10; El Tiempo, Jan. 6; El Espectador, Jan. 4) The country's principal river, the Magdalena, is now so low that it is no longer navigable at several points, virtually shutting down Puertos Wilches and other cities that rely on the riverine trade. (El Espectador, Jan. 3) Most hard-hit is the north of the country, entire harvests could be lost. But the south is affected too, with huge forest fires threatening the city of Cali. Wildfires have engulfed more than 100,000 hectares of land nationwide. This is usually the rainy season in Colombia, but rains are 65% lower than usual, and temperatures 2.3 degrees Centrigrade higher. (El Tiempo, Jan. 21; El Tiempo, El Tiempo, Jan. 17; Xinhua, Dec. 30)
The UN Climate Change Conference, officially the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, closed its 14-day meeting in Lima, Peru, late Dec. 14, two days after its scheduled end. The 196 parties to the UNFCCC approved a draft of a new treaty, to be formally approved next year in Paris, and to take effect by 2020. An earlier draft was rejected by developing nations, who accused rich bations of dodging their responsibilities to fight climate change and pay for its impacts. Peru's environment minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who chaired the summit, told reporters: "As a text it's not perfect, but it includes the positions of the parties." Friends of the Earth's Asad Rehman took a darker view: "The only thing these talks have achieved is to reduce the chances of a fair and effective agreement to tackle climate change in Paris next year. Once again poorer nations have been bullied by the industrialized world into accepting an outcome which leaves many of their citizens facing the grim prospect of catastrophic climate change." (BBC News, ENS, Dec. 14)
Greenpeace Chile announced on March 5 that it had established a new country in the glacial regions of southern Chile, the "Glacier Republic." The group said the country will remain independent until the Chilean government passes laws to protect Chile's glaciers. Greenpeace based its claim to the territory on a loophole in Chile's laws, which include no claim to sovereignty over the glaciers. In the past the loophole has made the glacial regions vulnerable to environmental damage by mining companies, but Greenpeace now hopes to use it as a way of bringing attention to projects such as the mammoth Pascua Lama mine that the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation has been building high the mountains on both sides of the border with Argentina. Greenpeace is also targeting what it calls "an even greater danger"—the Andina 244 project of the state-owned copper company Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile (Codelco), which Greenpeace says "provides for the destruction of 5,000 hectares of glaciers, directly affecting water reserves for Chile's entire central zone."
The Páramo de Santurbán Water Defense Committee, made up of local residents in high Andean communities straddling the Colombian departments of Santander and Norte de Santander, announced Jan. 11 that they are walking out of talks with the national Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development aimed at securing consent for gold-mining operations in the high-altitude zone. The statement said the government failed to provide "clarity" on the proposed projects, or "security guarantees" for those participating in the dialogue. The Páramo de Santurbán, an alpine plain above the timber line, protects the headwaters of several local rivers, and the Defense Committee says mining there could impact access to clean water for up to three million people in northern Colombia. The Ministry is currently demarcating the limits of watershed for supposed protection as a new Santurbán Regional Natural Park, with Vancouver-based gold company Eco Oro (formerly Greystar) awaiting the results to proceed with mining operations outside the protected zone. (Vanguardia Liberal, Bucaramanga, Jan. 11; Dinero.com, Bogotá, Dec. 30)
On July 14 the three-member Appeals Court of Copiapó province in Chile's northern Atacama region unanimously upheld its April 10 order suspending work at Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation's Pascua Lama mine until the company has adopted measures to repair current damage to the environment and to prevent further damage in the future. The court found that in its responses to the previous order the company "repeatedly" displayed "an obstinate attitude" and that it "doesn't provide information on time and in proper form." Pascua Lama is an open-pit gold, silver and copper mine under construction in the Andes on both sides of the border between Argentina and Chile. Five indigenous Diaguita communities had filed a complaint against the mine, charging that the construction had damaged glaciers near the site that provide water for area residents. The mine is also subject to a May 24 suspension ordered by Chile's environmental regulator, Juan Carlos Monckeberg. (Associated Press, July 15, via Terra, Peru)
On May 24 Chile's environmental regulator, Juan Carlos Monckeberg, ordered a suspension of construction at the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation's giant Pascua Lama mine because of violations of environmental laws. He also fined the company $16 million, the largest penalty Chile has ever imposed for an environmental violation. Monckeberg told the Reuters wire service on May 30 that the company would probably require one to two years to make the repairs that would allow it to resume construction.