Colombian court bans oil, gas and mining operations in paramos (David Hill / Andes to Amazon / The Guardian)
Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled against a controversial legal loophole permitting oil, gas and mining operations in the country’s paramos - high altitude eco-systems. Colombia’s paramos are the most extensive on earth and supply more than 70% of the country’s population with water, according to the Bogota-based Alexander von Humboldt Institute.
The loophole is in a June 2015 law implementing Colombia’s “National Development Plan 2014-2018.” The law prohibits “agricultural activities” and the “exploration for or exploitation of non-renewable natural resources”, as well as the “construction of oil and gas refineries”, in paramos, but then states that mining operations which have contracts and environmental licenses dating to before 9 February 2010, or oil and gas operations with contracts and licenses dating to before 16 June 2011, are exempted.
This was challenged by four congressmen, three lawyers and 12 representatives from a coalition called the Cumbre Agraria, Campesina, Étnica y Popular, who argued that the loophole violates rights to the environment, water and Colombia’s patrimony because of the impacts oil, gas and mining operations would have on the paramos’ vegetation, soil, sub-soil and water. On 8 February the court’s ruling, which was made public on Thursday, deemed three paragraphs relating to the loophole in the June 2015 law “unconstitutional” - or “inexequible” in Colombian Spanish.
“Paramo eco-systems exist in very few places in the world and Colombia is privileged to be the country that has the highest number of paramos globally,” senator Alberto Castillo, one of the plaintiffs, told the Guardian.“Because of this, we believe that the absolute ban on natural resource extraction that we now have in Colombia is of great magnitude and should delight the world.”
“It’s a ruling that will make history,” says senator Iván Cepeda, another plaintiff. “The court went further than we hoped, without a doubt. [Mining and oil and gas operations in the paramos] is a serious abuse against natural resources, especially the fundamental right to water.”
“The court’s ruling is a major advance in environmental matters,” Viviana Tacha, another plaintiff and an adviser to senator Castillo, told the Guardian. “No doubt about it, it’s a victory for the entire country and for the communities resisting the imposition of a development model based on natural resource extraction which fails to take into account the environment and local people. Given global concern about climate change, the protection of the paramos by the court is one of the most important recent decisions on environmental matters.”
According to a communiqué by the court issued on 8 February, the offending three paragraphs “ignore the constitutional duty to protect areas of special ecological importance [and] put at risk the fundamental rights of the entire population to access good quality water.”
The communiqué says the court arrived at its decision after “analyzing the state’s power to intervene in the economy and its duty to protect areas of special ecological importance, weighing them up against economic freedom and the rights of individuals to exploit the state’s resources.” It concluded that, in this case, the former overrides the latter for three reasons: 1) the current lack of protection of paramos; 2) the “fundamental role” played by paramos in regulating the country’s drinking water cycle and providing cheap, high-quality water to 70% of the population; and 3) the particular vulnerability of paramos due to their “relative isolation”, low temperatures and low oxygen levels. [...]