Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cooperative coltan mining in Colombia

I have written in past posts about the mine proposed by Canadian company Greystar in Colombia's fragile Santurban paramo ecosystem. Recently the company announced it was withdrawing its application for an environmental license for the mine. Though the company used some weird language, saying it still wants to pursue the project, the Colombian government has effectively said it will honor the national laws regarding mining that prohibit mining in paramos. This is a great victory in favor of the rule of law and the prioritization of valuable ecosystems over short-term mining profits.

Anyway, it made me think of another hot mineral right now: coltan. Coltan is used for different electronic components. A few years ago it was found that a sizeable portion of the world's coltan was coming from warzones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and used to finance evil warlords.

It turns out that on the eastern plains of Colombia we also have deposits of coltan. To prevent both the environmentally-destructive practices of huge multinational mining conglomerates, and the socially-reprehensible dynamic of mining's funding illegal armed groups, I've long thought that Colombia should set up cooperatives of small miners to exploit coltan and all the other minerals that lie beneath our feet. I don't know if coltan can be mined on a small scale. I would imagine so, given the DRC experience of lots of small operators. Anyway, for coltan and other minerals like gold and coal, the Colombian government would do well to favor small, local miners over foreign companies (and of course over insurgent or criminal groups!). If the mineral is going to get mined and sold one way or another, why not make sure the proceeds stay within our country, and some value trickles down to the local people?

Mining, gold, and coltan are associated with a lot of bad things in the popular imagination, and indeed mining is an inherently extractive, destructive practice, even when practiced on a small scale and with the most benign methods available. But as with my idea of co-opting the sweatshop model so workers in Haiti can really benefit, it seems like the ugliest thing about coltan mining isn't the economic sector itself, but how it's practiced, and how its proceeds get distributed.

Unfortunately, I don't think this is the idea the Colombian government is pursuing. They have defined mining as one of the key sectors for our country's future economic development, but unfortunately the model of mining the government is pushing is huge megamines, with lots of outside shareholders. Small miners don't get much respect here. See for example the persecution of small-time coal miners in my state of Boyaca.

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