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BOGOTA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Colombia will allow mining companies that already have licenses with environmental permits to keep working inside a newly-minted wilderness park in the country's northeast but no new projects will be allowed, the government said on Thursday.
The large wilderness park in the province of Santander is aimed at protecting an environmentally sensitive region that is rich in gold and silver.
Energy Minister Federico Renjifo said that companies already operating inside the park's boundaries will be able to continue as long as they have the right permits but those will not be renewed once they expire.
Exploration activity will be halted and no new licenses will be issued, he said.
"It preserves the rights of those who are exploiting and have an environmental license. They may finish performing the activity until the license expires," Renjifo told Reuters by telephone. "All those who are exploring in the park will not be able to continue exploring."
He did not explain which companies in the area would be affected by the decision, but said there are 25 mining titles there, some already in operation but others in the phase of exploration and the rest in construction.
Colombia has attracted a wave of foreign investors to exploit its oil and mineral resources even as environmentalists push for stricter controls. Government institutions, facing an influx of new oil and mining companies, have struggled at times to lay down rules and handle permits.
As in other commodity-producing countries, environmental concerns are rising but many Colombians want the jobs and infrastructure that new investment brings.
Canada's Eco Oro Minerals Corp, which is active in Santander province, said on Thursday that its Angostura gold and silver project "may be only marginally affected" by the declaration of the wilderness park.
"The company's initial assessment indicates that the officially declared boundaries do not impede development of the Angostura project," Eco Oro said in a statement.
It said the Angostura deposit, its main asset, covers a total area of 215 hectares and that about 90 percent of it lies outside the boundaries of the park.
Eco Oro has a total of 30,132 hectares of mineral rights in the region and said that 6,394 hectares lie inside the park boundaries. "To the extent the company is unable to make use of these assets, it will seek compensation," it said.