Colombia's national mining agency (ANM) cancelled 32 mining concessions between January and February this year, after an audit found serious violations to the country’s technical, environmental, safety and economic standards.

In a press release (in Spanish) the mining authority said in 85% of the cases, resource companies lost their licenses due to something as basic as failing to fulfill their lease-related obligations and payments.

At least 70% of the licenses nullified were coal projects, said the agency adding that firms with a revoked license must suspend all mining activity in the concession area and begin the decommissioning and environmental remediation activities leading to closure.

Since 2002 Colombia has tried hard to stimulate its mining industry, which currently accounts for only 2% of the country's economy. To this end, the government has increased the distribution of mining permits. Yet, it is estimated that nearly half of all mining in the South American nation is illegal, or conducted by small-scale mines without formal permits.

Authorities have vowed to make it easier for explorers to acquire legal permits, but there are still at least 6,000 mines in Colombia currently considered illegal, as shows a recent report by Insight Crime.

Last November President Juan Manuel Santos presented a package of measures, including a proposed bill before the Congress, aimed to make illegal mining a crime punished by the country’s Penal Code.

Apart from the bill, Colombia’s government will issue two executive decrees aimed at defining the concept of illegal mining.

If the proposed reforms become a law, it would grant miners the means to report extortion without fearing terrorist or legal consequences.

Colombia’s economy, Latin America’s fifth largest, has grown four times faster than Canada’s in recent years, with foreign investment quadrupling between 2002 and 2008.

The country holds vast and, until now, untapped natural resources of coal, gold, silver and oil.  The government has been taking a number of measures to boost the sector.