Large mining companies are eager to secure extraction licenses in the Amazon once the government’s strategic mining plan comes into effect, which could be as early as 2014.
“The mining risk is there, and it’s definitely one of the most dangerous realities (facing this part of the Amazon)” says Silvia Gomez, the Director of Greenpeace Colombia.
But with a temporary block on mining until that time, indigenous groups and their allies have a crucial chance to establish new safeguards to protect areas of cultural and environmental significance that are under threat.
In this window of opportunity Gaia Amazonas and indigenous groups are doing everything they can to secure these safeguards – and there is a lot of work to be done. Not only is it a chance for experts to carry out proper cultural and environmental assessments and designate zoning areas before miners are granted more licenses– it is also an opportunity for indigenous groups to strengthen self governance and establish a solid framework to tackle the threat of mining head on, through political and legal channels.
“It is a joint effort inspired and spearheaded by the indigenous people. They are the ones who have produced the maps of the area, and the young people are very enthusiastic to learn about their traditions.”, says Gomez.
The goal is to empower indigenous groups so they have the confidence to participate actively and advocate strongly for their rights, thereby avoiding a one-way ‘consultation’ with government authorities. Instead, the idea is to be a part of effective ‘coordination’, working in tandem with authorities, where ethnic groups can set the agenda, rather than simply accepting the plans set out by mining interests.
Gaia Amazonas is collaborating closely with indigenous groups to bolster local leadership and cultural identity – aspects that form the key to self representation and autonomy. Local ethnic groups are undertaking their own rigorous research projects, documenting their collective history and shared heritage. This research process not only reinforces their culture and traditions, but also helps to build a tangible case for their conservation.
Development planning plays a large role in self governance. Indigenous groups, however, have tended to reject the idea of “development plans” in favour of the all-encompassing term of “life plan”, because they believe planning should incorporate all aspects of life, including agriculture, cultural traditions, religious beliefs and the inextricable link between cultural traditions and the natural environment. With proper planning in place, it is easier to identify the effects that mining would have on their livelihoods, such as environmental damage, health effects, a loss of identity and migration, as well as the benefits that mining might bring, such as economic gains and compensation. With these aspects properly defined, indigenous groups have the means to discuss, on an equal footing, the future of these areas with the government.
The mining moratorium also gives advocacy and ethnic groups the chance to press the government to ensure proper in-depth environmental and social impact statements are carried out. It also gives indigenous communities, together with Gaia Amazonas, the time to explore all Colombian and international legal avenues pertaining to indigenous rights, with the end goal to protect their invaluable intangible heritage.
Under Colombian law, The 2001 Mining Code allows authorities to remove environmental protection awarded to national forest reserves for the purposes of mining. So, in June of 2012 at the Río+20 summit, the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared some 17,000 hectares of the country as “strategic mining areas”, giving multinational miners the opportunity to bid openly for plots of land. Known as resolution 0045 of 2012, the new law affects great swathes of forested areas in the departments of Orinoquía and Amazonía, areas of the Amazon that are extremely rich in biodiversity and indigenous culture.
But just two months after this announcement, foreseeing the great threat resolution 0045 posed, the ministry for the environment made a counterweight resolution, 1518 of 2012. The law enacts the constitutional precautionary principle, effectively calling on the government to err on the side of caution:
“…when the risk of serious and irreversible damage exists; the lack of absolute scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone the adoption of effective measures to prevent the degradation of the environment.” (Law 99 of 1993).
Resolution 1518 suspended new mining in the Colombian Amazon for at least two years until thorough participative environmental and cultural planning of the region is carried out.
A major problem remains the lack of clear government policy on environmental protection. Despite the fact that President Santos in 2012 announced that Colombia would prioritize policies on sustainable development and the protection of the environment, mining has been declared a ‘public interest’ and therefore takes precedence over any other activity, according to the 2001 Mining Code.
There is still enough time to introduce proper environmental protection policies and a proper framework to protect the Amazon. Thankfully, with the help of the contributions of the Skoll, Swift and Moore foundations, Gaia Amazonas is equipped with the tools and resources to help indigenous groups achieve independent self governance and safeguard the Amazon.
– Francisco von Hildebrand