Páramos: Growth over sustainability

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Colombia was considered decades ago as a “failed state” due to several problems such as corruption, drug cartels, guerrillas and other several security and social problems. Nowadays with a population approaching 50 million inhabitants and a booming economy, it has become, over the last few years, one of the best touristic and business destinations in Latin America.

As part of its improvements regarding its international image, Colombia currently counts with several signed free trade agreements, among which those with the United States of America, the European Union and the Pacific Alliance. Moreover, as a positive consequence of these improvements, the international tourism has gained confidence in the country and is nowadays visited by more than 1.4 million international tourists each year including 52% from Europe, 23% from the Asia Pacific region, 16% from America and 9% from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, as a consequence of the great economic growth that characterizes Latin America today, the great Colombian macroeconomic stability, governance improvements and hopes for peace after decades of internal conflicts, many multinational companies have started to invest in the country. This situation has led to the fact that the mining sector is today one of the leading sectors of the Colombian economy whose share of GDP accounted for 7.3% in 2014.

Percentage change in Colombian GDP with mining GPD share (2001-2014) Source: Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadistica (DANE), 2015.
Percentage change in Colombian GDP with mining GPD share (2001-2014) Source: Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadistica (DANE), 2015.

Subsequently, the Colombian geography is perfect for mining multinational companies, which are looking for minerals and petroleum; since within the national frontiers Colombia has vast reserves of nickel, gold, silver, platinum, natural gas, petroleum not to mention the biggest coal reserves in Latin America. This situation has guided the arrival of Canadian, American, South African and some European mining companies in the national economic set-up.

Nature in Colombia

Due to its rough geography, Colombia has several ecosystems which position the country as one of the most mega-diverse countries in the world. Therefore, the country has established the National System of Protected Areas (SINAP – Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas) in which more than 11% (12.602.320,7 Ha.) of the continental territory is protected under the natural park concept. In these areas, no economic activity can be held, especially the polluting ones.

The moorlands, or as they are known in Colombia, the so-called Páramos, are among the most important ecosystems in Colombia because they provide fresh water to the major cities of the country, and also allow the production of clean hydroelectric energy. Nevertheless, under these areas, international mining companies have found huge reserves of minerals. As a result, they are operating under lobbying strategies to change the SINAP’s normativity.

The fuss

The lobbying was unveiled when a gold extraction company was working at the Páramo de Santurbán with some public authorizations. Even though they had all the corresponding permits, it was clear that there was an influence trafficking situation in which some governmental decisions were taken in an illegal frame. Thus, the national press started a fuss trying to determine responsibilities and consequences of this act. It ended up being a huge national controversy as people started asking themselves which were the real national interests: protecting the environment and developing a sustainable economy, or just having a constant economic growth without taking into account other factors.

In addition, the country is going through a phase of sustained economic growth after a long period of internal degradation, which limited the Colombian economy during decades. However, the wish to maintain this growth at any cost is taking the country to a forgetfulness process in which the environment is not a priority, leaving apart the sustainable development. This situation can lead to many negative consequences because the extraction of minerals in protected areas may result in contaminated water springs. This would affect not only the electricity production, but also the fresh water supply to the mayor cities of the country.

Although the issue is being forgotten by the national press, the subject remains relevant and requires both national and international attention because this problem could affect Colombia as well as the neighboring countries due to the fact that the environmental services provided by this ecosystems are in checkmate.

In the meantime, the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice has decided to strengthen the environmental policies in order to protect these areas, even though the international companies are still looking for legal tools that allow them to carry out their economic activity in these protected areas. Thus, put simply, the dilemma between sustainability and growth continues, without taking into account a small view of what the future might require.

Photo credit: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero http://aztlek.com, 2009

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