Julio Fierro is a geologist and professor at Colombia’s National University. After visiting the Chocó Base he participated in Más Arte Más Debate, where his critical stance on the impacts of mining in Colombia allowed the audience to understand the important questions we face in respect to mining.
The text Fierro wrote while visiting the Chocó Base is titled In paradise there is also a mining threat and it was published on the book Better Than.
His text for Better Than is accompanied by paintings by the artist Ana Patricia Palacios. The images are taken from her series Mines and Tarambana , which looks into the river that hides the promise of both gold and death.
There is also mining in paradise
By Julio Fierro
You don’t listen to the words of the shaman, you don’t believe what he says when he talks about Aluna, witira, rewina, kanoba, or Kwira, or when he refers to the worlds above and in the middle and below. Yet, you believe that other one who talks about Gondwana, vitrinite, kerogen, subtoxic concentrations or metabasalts and porphyries, the formation of mountain ranges, and hydro-geological cycles. But both are talking about matter and time and energy connections and transformations. Probably, if you are not a shaman, none these words make any sense to you and the stories of time and the forces of nature are equally strange and incomprehensible to you.
The earth is a self-regulating organism and nature finds a way of preserving life. But today, to ensure our comfort, we penetrate into the deepest layers of the planet, which formed over millions of years, and we are altering this capacity to self-regulate. The extraction of materials from the depths of the earth generates geo-chemical imbalances that release spirits hosted within the earth and affect the spirits of water, air, forest, and soil. The removal of large volumes from mountains and plains prevents the cycles of matter and energy from occurring and, what is even worse, it does away with geological elements that regulate, in the medium and long term (tens, hundreds and thousands of years) the life cycles of the waters in their ceaseless dance between surface and subsoil, between rivers and wetlands, between snows and seas. These removals release in a few centuries the energy and CO2 that have been kept stored over millions of years in geological objects, such as coal, which when burned contribute to global warming. At the same time, we interfere with the mechanism the planet has to respond to these phenomena, which consists in regulating temperature through the expansion of tropical and subtropical forests.
We must break away from the reductionist notion that the only possible world is the arrogant westernized world that draws us away from nature. We have a sedentary lifestyle in a hyper-connected world in which a large majority are confined to urban spaces, a world in which water comes out of taps and food from supermarkets. As human beings, we have been living on this planet for about 200 thousand years thanks to its mild climate and the fact that it has little solid water; and more recently, we also have been transforming it.
THE REFLECTION ON THE TIMES AND THE WORLDS
The dry worlds with sea coasts where the dinosaurs roamed sunk and compressed; these masses of earth were exposed to low heat over a prolonged period of time, and they stored the salt of this sea, these coasts and traces of the beings that inhabited them. The product of that long history began to be unearthed, exhumed, lifted from tens of kilometres deep up to the mountains of the present day Andes, up to the highlands and the low plains. Within the great mass of rock that makes up these ridges, the saline rocks rose like air bubbles trapped in honey. Quickly, in geological time, they provided salt to people who lived far from the sea. This salt was the only one available to those people who did not have the possibility of harnessing the power of the sun collected by plants or of the infinite power of carbon that was accumulated and stored as coal and petroleum of what was once part of prehistoric jungles and oceans. Before that power allowed us to shrink space and domesticate it.
We discovered a few centuries ago the power of fossil fuels, that is, of remnants from another time. However, we must not forget that fossils are also remnants of other worlds, which we have connected to this one as we have found ways to cross over to them through technology. This forced penetration is causing major imbalances, releasing the spirits and the energy saved during millions of years, freeing the powers of nature that cause diseases, not only to those who make decisions but also to thousands and even millions of people, as well as creating global imbalances such as climate change.
What we know as coal is solar energy, carbon (the chemical skeleton of most life on the planet) and it was oxygen at some earlier stage, in the past. Sunlight is expressed as life on this rock, which is to a large extent incandescent, that we call Earth. It is the product of a world that had higher temperatures and higher content of CO2 than the world we live in today. It was a world of coastal jungles, where energy transformed into matter, jungles of great extension and animals of sizes we would find unbelievable today, turtles the size of cars and boas up to 10 times larger than those of today, giant trees and coconut palms. In that world of extraordinary vegetation, there were no human beings and mammals were just beginning their successful colonization of the world. The dinosaurs have disappeared, but other large reptiles persist. Recent scientific discoveries suggest that excess CO2 along with high temperatures scenarios are not necessarily harmful to life, but on the contrary, that they might have been the necessary ingredients for life to explode into many different shapes and sizes; such an explosion could occur particularly in tropical rainforests, which expanded more and more.
Oil, in turn, comes from a world of seabeds, of darkness and little oxygen, but lots of life. This is a realm of microscopic forms that live in the seas, die, and are deposited in marine platforms. It is also life streaming from the con- tinents into the oceans in the dance of the rivers penetrating the sea in the large river deltas. The rivers are water, sediment but also life flowing into the sea and transforming itself, life that is buried, pressured, transformed, compacted and hardened by successive fluxes of sediment that accumulate over time. Part of the water of the sea is also saved and we can figure out today the composition of the seas of yesterday. There are also mobile and diffuse balances in the chemical forms in which carbon, the fundamental element of coal and oil, is deposited and transformed.
The way we penetrate the subsoil in present times entails that we unleash energies of the past. The salt mines of Zipaquirá, located at 8,200 feet above sea level, gives a peek into a world that was perhaps similar to the marine beaches of La Guajira desert. The differences are clear in sensory terms: heat, moisture, smell, and taste, and all of this can be expressed in physicochemical terms: temperature, pH, salinity, conductivity.
Nowadays, the coal that was collected in lowland and humid rain forests is to be found in very low dry or semi-desert areas (such as Cesar and La Guajira in Colombia) or in upland areas that are also humid. Coal is formed in low-oxygen environments form and when we extract it and expose it to the air – that is, to oxygen-, we produce transformations, such as the possibility of burning it. These transformations also occur in the slate that accompanies coal and contains toxic chemical species, in low amounts, but if they are extracted and large amounts are exposed, they can produce large imbalances. Even in relatively small mines, such as those in the high wetlands of Boyacá, imbalances in water sources have produced noticeable pollution in the water supply of peasant communities.
Continental oil exploitation draws out salty marine waters, which are released in freshwater, maybe slightly acidic, areas. These waters are returning to the surface as “produced water”, which can potentially disturb the surface water, the groundwater, or the soil that absorbs it.
I have discussed what happens with fossil fuels, but the origin of materials such as gold, silver, copper or nickel is even more alien to the world in which we live. These metals are not formed in any environment related to life; they come from a much deeper world. They are windows to the world of the incandescent rock of which the largest part of the planet is formed. They are exhumations of telluric forces, of a world made of molten rock, which, once it emerges and cools down, forms the outer skeleton, the foundations of the thin planetary crust we inhabit. Perhaps these spirits are more powerful; they have been removed from the lower depths of the earth and placed in a world where they are scarce, where they are precious. Life needs little from them, and nature has dosed them in the outside world through a process called erosion. Rivers erode their rocky streambeds by some millimetres or centimetres each year. However, with our mechanical monsters and with the power of the explosives developed for war we have also found the possibility of scratching with more power than any river, and thus we have released in little time quantities of spirits that would take nature tens of thousands of years to unleash. Perhaps volcanoes are an exception, but they spread out in a large area these spirits of nature, which are then transformed into soil loaded with nutrients that flow into our food. We, instead, concentrate them as “mine dumps” or as “drill cuttings” and thereby disturbing the waters for undefined periods of time and ruining the soil where they are discarded.
To delve into the underworld, the worlds of yesterday, has a price, as well as serious consequences of which we should be aware. We ought to be concerned about the flows of matter and energy and their relationship with different times. Nature has certain rhythms, but the activities we carry out involving the power of fossil fuels create imbalances. Future generations will have to pick up the tab for our comfort and luxuries.
NUQUÍ, COQUÍ, AND JOVÍ: PARADISE
The mountains descend into the sea, which washes them away and covers them. The jungle covers the mountains and there is a green tapestry in the continent that appears to enter into the sea and stain it. Here, far from the parcelled-out mountains of Nariño, the greenery has many tones, from deep green in jungle areas and pale green in the family plots and farms to the emerald green of the sea, the immense ocean that the Europeans called the Pacific. Most of the rocks, basalts, and meta-basalts that bear witness to shocks of tectonic plates that produced the stacking of material products of the output of the mantle to the surface. Other rocks are black, which may have an even more profound, a source far toward the inside of the planet.
The small streams of translucent water descending from the mountains to the sea probably carry small traces of the spirits of nature that the greedy, exploitative companies have been releasing. I tasted these waters and they taste of life, they only smell of dampness and life. And I measured their basic physicochemical parameters and that is why I believe that they already have traces of certain elements such as iron, which have economic value, and I can say this without any qualms because I am sure that I am not revealing anything that they don’t know already.
We need a serious discussion on what kind of mining is absolutely necessary. I saw that the locals collect stones from stony beaches, which are then transported in sacks to Nuquí or tiny villages such as Coquí or Joví. But the presence of a large transnational company such as the Brazilian Votorantim poses an unacceptable threat both to the local inhabitants and to the environment. Votorantim has submitted twenty-three applications for authorization to extract diverse metallic elements in an extension of 45 thousand hectares. The area in which the extraction is meant to take place and where the company already has a mining title corresponds to territories of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The planned activities would also affect forest reserve areas, which have been created to preserve the rain forest in different parts of Colombia. This same Brazilian corporation was granted a mining title on 23 July 2012 for a two thousand-hectare area in the headwaters of the San Juan River, Municipality of Pizarro.
Paradise is also threatened by mining. I look at the palm trees and the trees, I can smell the salt and I can hear the birds singing and the sound of the energy from the sea. I know that Votorantim has applied for licenses to extract nickel, copper and iron in the municipality of Nuquí. People here are happy with their small vegetable plots and the sea; they go fishing, they sing, they play their drums.
Can we consider that people who can eat the delicious food I enjoyed for a few days over there are poor? Is someone who can eat once or twice a week red snapper or certain kinds of tuna fish poor? Is someone who can have clean fresh water on a daily basis poor? Is someone who can enjoy the sight of these mountains that crawl into the ocean poor? Or is someone who can enjoy these pristine beaches, almost entirely free of plastic and other kinds of waste, a poor person?
It is important to clarify why I consider that large-scale iron and nickel mining pose a real threat. In Colombia, we already have a project called Cerro Matoso, operated by an Australian company, BHP Billiton, in the municipality of Montelibano (Córdoba), perhaps the most violent province in the country. I will not discuss the fact that this company has not complied with royalty payments for iron and that it still owes Colombians large amounts of money for their nickel operations; I will only address the limited data we have about the chemical elements they are releasing, which are toxic to most plants and animals.
BHP Billiton has submitted information to the Colombian environmental and mining authorities in which it acknowledges, through the analyses of the quality of surface water that it has carried out, that at some points within its mine there are excess amounts of mercury, nickel, iron, and manganese, and that downstream cadmium, lead, copper, and zinc have been released. In all the samples of rocks and soils that were analysed by the company, the results of which were published in a scientific article in 2004, there were elements that pose a toxicity risk, such as cobalt, nickel, and scandium, and in many of the samples vanadium, chromium, strontium, barium, and zircon have also been detected. On the other hand, although no detailed studies have been carried out by the operator regarding the ground waters that may have been affected by their mining activities, it is known that the level of these waters has been deepened and that fractured rocks that allow the infiltration and flows from the upper parts toward the low ones have disap- peared due to mining activity.
The struggle of these communities begins here. How can they ensure that the many promises of development and of riches to come do not turn into the destruction of their tranquillity, of their peace, of the happiness they enjoy, of the tasty food they obtain from clean rivers and seas and a healthy soil that provides bananas, yuccas, canes, and lulos? How may the way of life of these human beings, whose generous smiles serve as the prelude to each phrase, be preserved?
In paradise there are also mining interests and preserving this piece of paradise will be an ethical responsibility for those of us who have the privilege of seeing it.