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Colombia’s Mining Deaths Won’t Be Solved by More Regulation

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - May 26, 2015, 8:00 am

EspañolEarlier this month, 16 people died after a tunnel in an unauthorized Colombian gold mine flooded and drowned those inside.

The tragedy, as usual, sparked public outrage — albeit brief — with many blaming the lack of regulation and the mine itself. According to the popular view, if the mine had been authorized by the government, the accident would have been avoided.

However, appearances can be deceiving. An accident is almost always an accident, yet this case has become a war where both parties blame each other. The mine’s owners have accused the local energy company of shutting down the power supply. The company in turn says the mine was illegally hooked up to the power network, while media outlets, and even President Juan Manuel Santos, pointed the finger at the mine’s dangerous practices.

If any of these allegations were true, it’s possible this accident could have been avoided, but that’s not always the case.

They’re called accidents for a reason. Pointing fingers is a way of exorcising the pain and the doubt, but it won’t make the feelings of guilt go away.

While the blame could eventually be fixed on someone, the argument that had the mine only been authorized by the government, the accident would have been avoided, must be addressed.

It’s not that the owners were operating illegally. They had requested a permit and, according to President Santos, complied with the law’s demands. The only delay for green-lighting the mine was the regulator’s backup of applications and the excessive amount of regulations they need to check.

Consequently, if the mine was already complying with basic regulations and was just waiting for the official permit, there’s no reason to think that if authorization had been issued, the accident wouldn’t have happened.

Furthermore, even though the regulator’s report does not distinguish between accidents occurred in authorized mines and those in the process of obtaining a permit, the truth is that these kind of accidents have been taking place for years.

The recent increase of reported accidents may be due to one or two causes which require further academic inquiry. The first potential cause is the Colombian government’s recent decision to encourage extractive ventures above all other economic sectors as a tool for growth. This move may have encouraged firms to exploit mines more aggressively before the political tide turns to focus on another sector and withdraws the currently allocated benefits.

The second factor could be that Colombian society, as voiced by the mass media, has become less tolerant of such tragedies. Even though this may be the reason for the increased visibility of mine accidents, it doesn’t mean they are not happening at an alarming rate, to say the least.

Therefore, the discussion should center on why these disasters are so commonplace, and seek means of reducing them. After all, accidents by their very nature cannot be completely eliminated, especially in a country where state intervention has created the incentives for exploiting exhausted mineshafts with scant precautions.

Since there is no evidence that leads us to think the frequency of accidents can be controlled through more state intervention or by regulating existing mines, what could we try differently? For instance, Colombia has never entertained the possibility of extending property rights to the underground.

This solution would result in a huge shift to the owner’s time frame and incentives. He would no longer hasten to exploit the land before his temporary permit ran out. More measured and careful extraction would improve conditions for workers. It follows from pure entrepreneurial logic, which reigns when property rights are clearly defined.

If we don’t dare to try it, then the accidents will keep happening. The government’s response — punishing private firms over what often simply can’t be avoided — will continue to fail to prevent deaths.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.