“We are going to purify the mining titles,” the Colombian Minister of Mines told RFI

"We are going to purify the mining titles," the Colombian Minister of Mines told RFI

Philosopher, geographer, activist, environmentalist, expert in toxic waste, extractivism, racism and environmental violence, Irene Vélez seeks to transform Colombia’s mining-energy policy. The management of it generates stinging in some sectors. Radio France International spoke with her about decarbonization and its consequences, environmental justice and the new mining legislation.

RFI: President Gustavo Petro chose you as the head of the mining and energy portfolio of Colombia’s first left-wing government. His profile does not conform to that traditionally held by his predecessors, who, in general, were economists.

Irene Velez: That’s how it is. And in fact, 90% were men and, surely, the majority have been over 40, which is my age. So, it is an innovation in the way of doing government and a political decision to have an interdisciplinary and environmentalist approach in a portfolio where environmental conflicts have generally been generated.

RFI: Let’s talk about that portfolio that has generated panic in various sectors. Opposition voices and economists oppose the removal of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, under the argument of the contribution that these two fuels make to the national economy. How to ensure a smooth energy transition? What are the times and the framework in which this proposal is given?

We are interested in making our electrical matrix greener, that our vehicle fleet also migrate to more sustainable and less polluting technologies, that industries have better energy efficiency. But we are also holding on to what we believe is not only a legitimate, but an urgent fight against the climate crisis. And in that sense, we understand that there will be a global decarbonization of the economy. That means, in our case and from a perspective of the global south, diversifying and depending less and less on that extractivist model of coal and oil.

RFI: The decarbonization proposal championed by your government seems to be swimming against the current of the times. The war in Ukraine implied a return to coal and countries like Germany, for example, asked Colombia to increase its coal exports. How to combine this energy transition policy with a global demand that also contributes to the national economy?

There have been two moments. One, right after the war, which led to a new boom, especially in the consumption of coal and gas. And that also had a lot to do with the coming of the European winter. There, indeed, Germany knocked on the doors of the Government to ensure sufficient supply. However, that has been changing because what ended up happening is that Europe also decided to accelerate its own energy transition, that is, to depend less and less on energy sources that come from Russia or Colombia, particularly the coal that we export. We are dependent on coal to generate national royalties and there is less and less international appetite for this type of energy and this will continue to intensify once green hydrogen is closed commercially. I believe that this will happen very soon with the accelerated development of technologies.

RFI: Another flag of your government, environmental justice. How to guarantee environmental justice in the face of extractivist megaprojects that violate the fundamental, human and ethnic rights of communities, in addition to causing damage to the environment?

The accounting that has prevailed in our country is the accounting that comes via royalties. That is, how much does a sector contribute to the Gross Domestic Product without doing complete accounts. And these complete accounts necessarily go through reviewing how the damage generated by this type of mining and hydrocarbon exploitation is distributed unequally.

And in this accounting, what we have found is that there is a history of violations of many types, human rights violations where there are mining companies that have been shown to have participated in the violation of ethnic rights, for example, to through the dispossession of land generated by some of the mining companies. Something less discussed, but no less relevant, is that environmental rights intrinsically linked to the environmental health of populations and ecosystems have been violated. Faced with this, there is an incipient and scattered legislation. There is a lot of very good jurisprudence, but it has been very poorly followed by State institutions. In this new government, after eight months, we have the enormous challenge of finding how to make sense of that jurisprudence and of making the State and the Government responsible for the measures to repair these damages and to prevent them from continuing to happen. A central decision in this sense has to do with new mining legislation.

‘The first task that we have outlined is to purify mining titles’

RFI: Many of these mining titles are in the territory of ethnic communities that are demanding the restitution of their lands that were taken from them through massacres and displacement. What is your government’s position on land restitution processes for victims of just armed conflict in territories that overlap with large-scale mining projects?

The policy that existed at some point, known as the “mining locomotive”, generated an exaggerated and uncontrolled expansion of mining title requests and the awarding of mining titles without considering whether or not the titles overlapped in protected areas, in territories indigenous or Afro-descendant communities, in short, if they were in areas to exclude them from mining.

The first task that we have outlined is to purify the mining titles and see which of those titles need to be removed, since they overlap with environmentally strategic areas or with areas that must be returned to communities affected by the conflict. We have 50% of the titles reviewed, not without dilemmas and contradictions, because the mining owners, of course, want their apparent acquired rights to be respected. But our argument is that if it was done within the framework of the conflict through violent actions or over areas that are excludable from mining, then there are no constituted rights, since the titling should never have happened.

RFI: Right in areas where mining titles have been quickly approved, a miner’s strike took place a few weeks ago. I refer to Bajo Cauca in Antioquia and the south of Córdoba. In that strike, the artisanal miners demanded the formalization of their ancestral activity. And that strike revealed the area of ​​diffuse borders between those traditional miners, those who mutated to a larger productive scale without criminal motivation and who, voluntarily or by force, ended up working in criminal organizations that launder their money from drug trafficking with the mining of the gold. What is the government’s plan in this complex problem?

The borders are very blurry between a small mining and a medium mining. How do we differentiate whether the small miner is a traditional, legitimate miner from the territory, who tries to survive extracting gold to support his family, from others who are more clearly chained to armed actors? That requires a deep knowledge of the territory and there what we have said is first we need a socio-economic characterization of those miners.

The other complicated aspect in the specific case of Bajo Cauca, and which is another gray border, is whether it is environmentally plausible for mining to take place there. We managed to cross a cartography of the National Mining Agency (ANM) of the places where the operations are and the cartography of the Ministry of Environment. The terrible surprise is that, basically, all the areas where there is currently mining overlaps with conservation areas, strategic basins, water sources that supply aqueducts.

So, the great dilemma that arises is how to protect mining that may be artisanal, traditional, but that is operating in areas that ideally should be environmental protection. However, since they have been intensively exploiting gold for two and three decades, these areas are already degraded. So, if they are already degraded, which of these areas can we intervene from a perspective of productive diversification, staggering the amount of gold and the technologies with which it is extracted and encouraging other types of local economies, especially agriculture, handicrafts and a little livestock. For this, we are currently designing what we call the Mining District for productive diversification.

The principles of the new mining code

RFI: You have two powerful legal instruments for your management: the decision of the Council of State, considered revolutionary, by which Colombia will never again deliver a mining title where there is some type of environmental restriction and the new Code of Mines that is being elaborated to replace the one of 2001, which was so criticized for being considered the legal sanctuary of extractivism. Let’s talk about these two laws

Let’s start with the latest revolutionary ruling. This is a ruling from the State Council, which we popularly know as the “mining window” because what it tells us is that new titles cannot be granted and existing ones must be reviewed according to an environmental delimitation that allows us to protect strategic ecosystems. So, there, what are our strategic ecosystems? With what criteria are we going to define that they are so and how quickly can we do it? This ruling came at the beginning of the government of President Gustavo Petro, so it has really been an encouragement for how we can think about mining with environmental criteria.

The second element is the new mining law. We have five principles. The first has to do with how we protect and give rights to small-scale miners, artisanal miners and traditional miners. This is the mining sector that has been structurally excluded through the 2001 Mining Code. On the other hand, we need to think that mining includes exploration, exploitation and closure of mines. This is very important because it has been excluded from regulation and in the end that leaves us with very few legal instruments to act on. The third element is our commitment to environmental management, that is, the environment first, water first, and then the mine. The 4th element is geoscientific knowledge. That knowledge of the subsoil is focused not only on knowing where and what minerals, but also where and what water reserves exist and how mining could also affect other sectors. Because when this is not done, which is what happens a lot in artisanal mining, the soil layer is destroyed looking for the vein of gold, for example, without really being assertive. The 5th and last emphasis is how to move from merely extractivist processes to industrialization.

RFI: When will we have these new regulations?

For the second half of 2023. We are committed to making a prior, free and informed consultation of the law, because we believe that it is absolutely fundamental to be guarantors of ethnic rights and this is a fundamental one. With which, between finishing the articles, the convention and the consultation with the ethnic communities, in the second semester we will have this proposal.

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