From the Secretariat: Reducing the distance between the bowl and the mouth

Around the holidays here in Norway, members of the staff will be sharing their stories and thoughts from their work at the EITI Secretariat. First out is Francisco Paris, Regional Director for Latin America, Caribbean, and Anglophone West Africa.

We have a saying in Latin America, del plato a la boca se derrama la sopa. It is a play on words which loosely translated means, from the bowl to the mouth the soup gets spilled. I used it earlier this month in Colombia when trying to illustrate the basic problem of the extractive industries: converting mineral wealth into sustainable development.

Mineral wealth, like the soup, is prone to spilling! The soup (minerals, oil, timber) from the bowl (mines and oil/gas fields) often does not reach the mouth (spending on public goods) because of spills (the so-called “resource curse”).

Colombia, like many resource-rich countries, suffers many spills. Miners in Bogota told me that gold is being extracted illegally and is probably used for money laundering. Curiously, customs declarations in Colombia show more exports of gold than official records show has been produced. Environmental degradation from illegal mining adds to the list of problems.

Royalties and taxes from oil and mining in Colombia have been growing for years. Yet, resource-rich areas are not getting the benefits. A recent government study confirmed that departments and municipalities that receive the greatest share of mining royalties remain among the poorest.  ‘Spills’ are everywhere. Corruption, bad project execution and other distortions prevent the money transferred to local governments from benefitting local communities.

People are angry and are starting to reject new mining projects up front. They blame mining companies and local politicians. The central government seems overwhelmed, unable to ensure that mining revenues are well spent.

The soup is spilled in so many places there aren’t enough napkins to clean it up.

When people hear that the EITI is a global standard for revenue transparency in mining, their expectations skyrocket. Different people want different things. The challenge for us is to show the EITI works for people in resource-rich places like Colombia while keeping them mindful that it is only one of many other things needed to stop the soup from spilling.

As they say: every long journey starts with one step. Ours is to help reduce the distance between the bowl and the mouth.