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Mining And Oil Boom Propel Investment In Colombia

Both projects have run into regulatory hurdles, however, as people who live near the gold deposits object to the planned use of cyanide in open pit operations in both La Colosa and Angostura. They fear contamination of local water supplies.

"Colombia has to weigh the long term, maintaining the country's biodiversity and vast water resources, with the short term, which is the issue of mining," said Manuel Rodriguez, Colombia's first environment minister from 1994-98.

La Colosa alone would require the removal of 600,000 tons of earth daily to extract the gold fragments dispersed underneath the surface â¿¿ meaning 90,000 tons of cyanide and 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water per hour to distill the precious metal.

Still, it's never been a better time to be in the gold business. The precious metal's price has reached unprecedented heights, now selling for more than $1,200 an ounce.

What Colombia's investment boosters don't like to dwell on, however, are questions of security.

The country's nearly half-century-old conflict with leftist rebels still simmers and sometimes boils over, especially in rural areas where mining and energy exploration tend to occur.

Historically, Colombia's illegal armed groups have exacted "war taxes" from mining and oil producers. Those that refused were attacked.

In 2001 alone, the 480-mile Cano Limon pipeline was hit by 170 acts of sabotage blamed on rebels. The attacks were curbed beginning in 2002 under Uribe, when Colombian military units began guarding the pipeline, said Mauricio Tellez, spokesman for state-owned Ecopetrol, which operates the pipeline.

But not all the protection is by legally constituted forces.

"The recent mining boom â¿¿ exploration and exploitation activities â¿¿ has been accompanied by the arrival of illegal security groups," said Ariel Avila, a researcher at the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank.

Avila said he's found in field studies over the last two years that illegal armed groups linked to far-right militias and leftist rebels are providing security for oil companies in several regions, especially in the southeastern states of Meta and Guaviare.

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