The progressive Colombian government of Gustavo Petro is drafting legislation that, if enacted, will require mining companies to obtain environmental licenses for mineral exploration. Currently, Colombia only requires environmental licenses for the extraction and production phases of mining.
The administration is also in the process of drafting a bill that would establish a new national mining policy different from the one described in Colombia’s current Mining Code, which was partly drafted by a Canadian aid agency working with a Calgary-based industry think tank.
Francisco Ramirez, the president of Colombia’s State Mine Workers Union who has survived several assassination attempts by right-wing paramilitaries, called the Canadian-drafted Mining Code a “Canadian manipulation to benefit foreign companies to the detriment of Colombians.”
Colombia plans environmental licences for mining exploration https://t.co/dbnRubcpl3— FT Energy (@ftenergy) September 12, 2022
Petro has said that his government’s mining policy “will have an environmental focus and that local communities should be at the centre of all relevant civil, military and police operations that are carried out to combat illegal mining.”
During the election campaign, he described his country’s main industrial exports as “poisons” and centred the agricultural rather than extractive sector as the key to Colombia’s future economic success. He compared the adverse social and environmental impacts of coal to cocaine, prompting the Colombian Mining Association to call him “irresponsible and above all disrespectful.”
Petro’s agricultural proposals are promising in many ways, but they also fall short of the demands of many campesino (peasant farmer) organizations. Nevertheless, Gabe Levine-Drizin and Margarita Martínez-Osorio stress that:
Petro wants to ‘democratize’ land use, end Colombian foreign dependence, and turn it into a global leader of agricultural production. By raising taxes to disincentivize the unproductive use of lands by latifundistas in key areas, Petro hopes to use the state to eventually purchase and redistribute land to rural communities.
Many industry figures bit their nails as Petro neared victory, a stark contrast to their open embrace of his predecessor, the far-right Iván Duque. One industry source told Reuters that extractive operations under Petro “are going to suffer serious slow-downs, serious setbacks that really scare the investors.”
As president, Petro has promised to commit the Colombian government to an agenda of decarbonization. He said that his government would not exploit coal and oil reserves due to their harmful ecological impacts and vowed to ban large-scale open-pit mining. The latter proposal would halt an ongoing project of the Canadian company B2Gold, which is currently undertaking a feasibility study of an open-pit mine in Antioquia.
Petro has promised to enforce the right to prior consultation with local communities on lands targeted for resource extraction and to protect artisanal and small-scale miners working in “the popular economy.”
He has vowed to take state control of Colombia’s water basins, presumably to preclude a situation like the one that exists in Chile, where large mining companies such as Canada’s Placer Dome, later acquired by Barrick Gold, were granted free property rights to water basins in areas that are increasingly impacted by droughts (a slogan of the 2019 Chilean uprising was “it’s not drought, it’s theft”).
Petro also vowed to increase export taxes on oil, coal, and gold, but ultimately withdrew the gold tax proposal.
Cecilia Jamasmie of the pro-industry website Mining.com has characterized Petro’s reformist program as an “environmental crackdown.” Prominent figures in the oil and mining industries have also launched attacks on Petro’s proposals. At a meeting of the right-wing Democratic Center Party of former president Duque, the director of the Colombian Petroleum Association stated that Petro’s vision “puts at risk the viability of many exploration and production projects in Colombia.” The head of the Colombian Mining Association asserted that the new president’s tax plan “compromises job creation, it compromises investment.” Regarding Petro’s proposed environmental license for exploration, an industry source told Reuters that “An environmental license would… de-stimulate key investment.”
While Petro faces opposition from leading industry figures, he is also struggling against the counterproductive actions of his predecessor. As president, Duque signed 69 exploration and production contracts with extractive companies. Petro’s arms are essentially tied on many of these concessions.
Even so, many of the new president’s proposals related to the extractive industry and agriculture are encouraging. Amidst backlash from the mining companies, it remains to be seen whether his administration will be able to make good on its promises.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.