Recent headlines from Colombia have focused on the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the largest guerrilla group, the FARC, which are expected to end this year. There is a wide range of challenges both for the successful culmination of the peace process and for the implementation of the agreements once they are signed. One of the most serious challenges to the “post-conflict,” as it has been called in Colombia, will be how to guarantee that demobilized guerrillas don’t move on to another type of illicit endeavor. Interestingly, while in the past the obvious field where these men and women would have moved is coca cultivation or processing, a new, profitable, and less risky illegal activity looks like the most likely destination: mining. Once the FARC demobilizes power structures will need to be reorganized in those areas where the state has been traditionally absent, and where rebel groups have operated as a de facto local power. These regions frequently overlap with areas where mining takes place, thus making this activity likely to be a magnet for demobilized soldiers for this coming period.

Mining of all kinds (particularly coal, gold, platinum, and silver), in fact, has become one of the most polarized and contentious issues in Colombia, very much along the lines of what has happened in Peru and many other nations in the region. The environmental degradation happening in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world is certainly cause for concern. Similarly, the increasing number of social protests from communities opposed to mining in their territory has raised alarm. On the other hand, the government argues that not using the mineral riches to improve the quality of life of its citizens would be foolish, pointing to international examples (such as Australia, Norway, or Canada), where mining has been done in a manner that supports development, respects the population, and minimizes its environmental impact.

“A window for the country to have an informed conversation about how it envisions mining should be part of its future.”

Interestingly, the agitated debate around mining continues despite Colombia not being, at least for now, a mining country. Mining only represents around 2 percent of the national GDP, and it is unlikely that this industry will soon have the dominant role that it has in countries such as Chile. While surprising, this is in fact an important opportunity: because Colombia is one of those rare countries where the public debate is taking place before the industry actually becomes of significant importance. The hopeful conclusion to the lengthy civil conflict marks a particularly crucial moment in Colombian history, opening a window for the country to have an informed conversation about how it envisions mining should be part of its future, and for policies to be planned according to this vision.

Understanding that it is urgent that Colombia engages in a meaningful and inclusive process of reflection on mining, the SSRC, with the support of the Ford Foundation, has for the last two years led the Working Group on Mining in Colombia (Grupo de Diálogo sobre Minería en Colombia, GDIAM); a project that brings together a number of important stakeholders to set forward a series of policy proposals on best practices for mining in this country. GDIAM, which recently made public its final report, brings together diverse actors, ranging from people closely associated with the big mining industry, to members of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, prominent academics and members of civil society. Its starting premise is that opposing the existence of mining in Colombia (as many activists suggest) is futile: mining has existed and will continue to exist, and thus efforts should be focused on determining how this activity should be taking place.

Needless to say, Colombia’s history of violent conflict and state weakness serves as a complicated background for the development of mining practices that are both conducive to making mining a strong contributor to the economic growth of the country, and at the same time follow all legal procedures, engage in a productive and fair manner with the local communities directly affected by the projects, respect international standards on issues ranging from labor practices to protection of the environment, and further develop mining in a way that is coherent with local agricultural practices and other uses of land.

Recently, several factors have contributed to the increasingly acrimonious and polarized tone of the debate on mining. First, President Juan Manuel Santos included mining as one of the “locomotors” that would drive the national economy in his first National Development Plan (2010-2014). While previous governments, in particular Alvaro Uribe’s, had liberally extended mining exploration licenses and concessions, Santos placed mining for the first time at the core of the government’s strategy for development. Second, recent years have also seen an exponential growth of illegal mining. Colombia has a history of community-driven mining; often in indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, but also by peasant groups that combine mining and agricultural activities. These types of mining, known as artisanal, ancestral, and informal mining, have been historically conducted without licenses and often using antiquated and dangerous instruments, and serve mainly for the subsistence of these families. Because of the absence of the state from these territories, many of these communities have traditionally mined in the margins of legal frameworks, but most of them would like to formalize their activities.

Recently, however, two new types of unlawful mining have surged. On one hand, mining that is conducted without licenses and permits by people who have no intention of legalizing their business and who often engage in illegal behavior (such as threats, forced displacement, and even murder) to secure their work. On the other, already existing criminal actors (such as the guerrilla groups, organized crime structures, and criminal bands with links to the former paramilitary forces known as BACRIM) have also been using mining as a way to raise income that supports their criminal activities and organizations. The surge of illegal mining has been such that, while hard data is hard to find, experts affirm that its proceeds compete with the money produced by coca growth. The ease of commercializing minerals, in comparison with the difficulties processing and selling illicit drugs, has made illegal mining a strong competitor to coca crops.

“It is the quality and diversity of its members that gives GDIAM’s work a voice of authority and legitimacy.”

It is in this context that GDIAM produced its report Proposals for a Shared Vision on Mining in Colombia. One of the reasons the recently launched report has been so well received in Colombia is because of its—sadly rare—methodology: bringing together people from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, with very different interests and opinions on mining, and producing a consensual document that brings forward an important number of proposals. This process was by no means easy, and it meant that every single member of the group had to be willing to be flexible—often regarding deeply held positions—in order to find a happy medium. It is, without doubt, the quality and diversity of its members that gives GDIAM’s work a voice of authority and legitimacy.

The report can be found in its entirety online (in Spanish) and, while it’s targeted towards a rather specialized audience, many of its general recommendations will be of wider interest. GDIAM insists, for example, on the importance of designing public policies that target specifically the different kinds of mining that exist in Colombia. For instance, the challenges posed by big scale mining, often in the hands of multinational companies, differ significantly from those posed by a small ethnic community that has traditionally exploited nearby mines. To facilitate this task, the report presents a typology of mining that includes: formal mining, ancestral and artisanal mining, informal mining, illegal mining, and criminal extractive activities.

“The three major principles that should characterize mining in Colombia: it should be inclusive, resilient and competitive.”

The report is anchored in the three major principles that should characterize mining in Colombia: it should be inclusive, resilient, and competitive. For it to be inclusive, it must comply with two key characteristics: it must respect the right to prior consultation that indigenous communities are entitled to thanks to the ILO Convention of 1969, and it must respect the citizens’ participation rights that the Constitution affords to all Colombians. In Colombia, as opposed to the US, the nation is the owner of the subsoil, it is the right of the state to either exploit the natural resources found there, or to give titles to miners to do so. This right, however, is limited by the rights of indigenous communities, who must be consulted in a timely manner about the development projects that will directly affect their communities. In order to facilitate dialogue between the ethnic communities, GDIAM has proposed the creation of a Specialized Agency for Intercultural Dialogue. Similarly, it calls for a clear and effective policy to promote citizen participation in those regions where mining projects will be developed. In order to assure that the gains from mining benefit all citizens, the report calls for a simplification of the tax code and a flexible royalty rate that benefits the country when commodities are high, but doesn’t overwhelm the industry when commodity prices are down.

For mining to be resilient, GDIAM states that the extractive activities must leave a net positive impact-benefit balance in the social and environmental systems in which it intervenes, and throughout the entirety of the life cycle of the project—from exploration to closing of the mine. This means that the negative impact of the mining activity (immediate and future) must be prevented, mitigated,  and/or compensated for. In order for this to be possible, it is indispensable that Colombia systematizes its laws regarding the use of territory, and clearly determines where it is prohibited for mining to take place. Similarly, resilient mining can only take place if international standards or good practices are respected, and this should be the bar that all miners hope to reach.

Finally, for Colombia to be competitive, mining must be profitable in economic, social, and environmental terms. For this, not only is it indispensable that the industry respects the international standards aforementioned, but Colombia must work to improve structural conditions such as physical and judicial security, strong institutions, efficient, and stable normative frameworks, an effective use of scarce resources (especially water), and the construction of a competitive and coherent capital market. The document also emphasizes the need to strengthen productive linkages around this industry that can support economic growth of markets related to the mining activity and production.

“An opportunity like this might not come around again for decades, and Colombia cannot afford to ignore it.”

GDIAM has set forth a guide, addressed to the state, industry, civil society, academia and communities. GDIAM understands that each public policy must not only be designed with the specific kind of mining activity in mind, but that it is unreasonable to expect a small informal peasant miner could fulfill the same requirements, in the same time frame, as a big multinational mining company. It also understands that many of its proposals will not be easy to accomplish, and that it will be necessary to prioritize those that are indispensable in order to achieve the vision of an inclusive, resilient, and competitive mining sector. But it also acknowledges that the singular political moment in Colombia now opens an important window of opportunity to consolidate a positive link between mining and the kind of development that will support the process of peacebuilding that is taking place in this country. An opportunity like this might not come around again for decades, and Colombia cannot afford to ignore it.

Posted on May 17, 2016