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Illegal Gold Mining Threatens Colombia’s Santurbán Moor

Drug Cartel Exploits Protected Area, Governor Raises Alarm

by Ikeoluwa Ogungbangbe

A concerning problem has surfaced in Santander, Colombia’s lush and green areas, according to Governor Juvenal Díaz. The area, which is well-known for its ecological value and natural beauty, is currently under severe threat from illicit activity. One of the biggest drug cartels in the nation, the Gulf Clan, commonly referred to as the Gaitanista Army of Colombia (EGC), is a neo-paramilitary organization that has penetrated the protected Santurbán moor in order to exert control over illegal gold mining operations.

In a recent interview with local media, Governor Díaz—a retired army officer who has since entered politics—disclosed this concerning development. Díaz’s disclosures emphasize an increasing apprehension regarding the deterioration of the environment and harm to society resulting from these illicit mining operations. The governor made it clear that offenders are not just illegally extracting gold but are also causing significant pollution to the area’s vital water sources.

Governor Díaz has called for increased intervention from the National Army to curb these activities and stressed the importance of community involvement in reporting irregular activities. “We don’t want to see the mines become centers of death and displacement,” Díaz expressed, reflecting his commitment to safeguarding the region and its residents.

Santurbán, a protected moorland in Colombia’s central-northwest, is an important natural resource. Situated beneath the permanent snow level but above the continuous tree line, the Andes mountains are home to its distinctive subalpine forests. A key ecological role is played by the moor, which naturally stores water during the rainy season and releases it during the dry periods, preserving the local water cycle that sustains populations of both people and wildlife.

The $1.2-billion Soto Norte gold project, which was put on hold, is linked to the scandal surrounding illicit mining in Santurbán. Proposed by the Abu Dhabi government’s investment arm, Mubadala Investment Company, Sociedad Minera de Santander (Minesa) put this project on hold in 2020. The National Environmental Authority of Colombia stopped the project, citing numerous unresolved issues in the environmental impact assessment provided by Minesa. The decision was also influenced by the need to reevaluate the boundaries of the Santurbán moor following directives from Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which demanded a transparent consultation process with local communities—a process crucial to ensuring their rights to a healthy environment and clean water.

This delay in properly setting the boundaries of Santurbán, as noted by both the Attorney General’s Office and the Ombudsman’s Office, has been without official explanation, leading to a persistence of small-scale, largely unregulated mining operations. These activities not only pose a risk to the environment but also to the social setting of the area, creating a complex challenge for local governance and national authorities trying to manage the region’s natural resources responsibly.

Recognizing the difficulties, Governor Díaz reaffirmed his commitment to safeguarding Santander’s moors and water sources. The interconnected challenges of unlawful mining, environmental preservation, and community rights are putting his electoral promise to prioritize the environment in line with human well-being to the test.

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