When a bunch of residents in a small town of Tolima, Colombia decided to take a vote on whether they wanted a mega gold mining project in their backyard, it did not mean much – at first – to the AngloGold Ashanti (AGA), a multinational company famous for its mega-projects. After a decade-long exploration phase, AGA was just waiting for a couple of remaining environmental concessions before starting to dig the Cajamarcan Mountains in pursuit of gold.
But things didn’t go as planned… after the local authorities acknowledged the democratic and sovereign decision of those potential mega-project victims who voted NO, AGA – the world’s third-largest gold producer – is now packing to leave the area, empty-handed but full of hollow threats to divest its investments in Colombia.
Colombia’s natural resource abundance is world-famous, but it is also associated with the so-called ‘resource curse‘ due to high levels of corruption, recurrent human rights violations and escalating civil conflicts. There are more than 120 documented civil conflicts concerning various environmental justice issues. Among these, conflicts related to mining activities dominate. In a similar vein, one underlying reason for so many conflicts is distinguishing; within the various levels of government, ‘closing deals with multinationals behind closed doors’ has sadly become a common practice. This is fundamentally unlawful, because Colombia is a signatory to the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (aka Convention 169, or C169) since 1991 and also ratified it, meaning that, by law, any project regarding Indigenous lands or rights must be consulted about with community leaders and get public consent before launching. All that being absent, the government has run into multiple conflicts with the communities so far.
Amid such conflicts, several multinational companies including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Drummond are operating large-scale extraction plants. Many of them have even obtained highly contested fracking concessions. A couple of months ago public concern reached its peak when 43 new fracking concessions were unveiled. Right now, even the Colombian Ministry of Environment is publicly opposing the National Hydrocarbon Agency and advising the government to refrain from handing out additional fracking permits. In terms of policy and regulations, the mining frenzy is fuelled by the 2001 Mining Code, which opened Colombia’s doors to the world of mega-mining whilst severely lacking in rigorous rules and restrictions that would protect the environment from the impacts of large-scale mining. Colombian ‘laissez faire’ has (arguably) permitted a mining frenzy.
Locals have been protesting and calling for environmental justice – the resistance, mostly non-violent, has ranged from road blockades to collaborating with environmental NGOs and signing an open letter calling on President Juan Manuel Santos to take action on particular issues, such as declaring a moratorium on fracking. However, none of these actions, top date, has been enough to convince the Government to reconsider its liberal and regulation-free economic policies, many of which are causing environmental injustices.
It is against this backdrop that one community recently won its battle against AGA. Cajamarca, an agricultural town in central Tolima, went to the ballot box and 6,165 out of 6,296 voters said “No” to all exploration and excavation activities. As a result, the municipality has legally banned all mining activities within its boundaries. Naturally the main concerns were over land and and water pollution, and over the irreversible destruction of lush forests that ‘La Colosa’ might cause.
“[The project will] disappear mountains, contaminate soils, water, air and put at risk collective rights for a clean environment for present and future generations, affect the food production of this region and to completely terminate the dynamics of the ecosystem.” says Renzo García, a biologist at the University of Tolima. On top of environmental concerns, locals also expressed their fear from cultural identity loss that is most likely to follow the environmental destruction. In the words of a local activist, Camila Méndez: “Dignity has no price; a farming culture won’t be sold because of pressures by the Government and foreign companies.”
In fact, popular vote is nothing new to the residents of Tolima. The same story happened before, in July 2013, when the first ever popular vote on a large-scale mining project was held in another town of Tolima. Then too, residents interrupted AGA’s plans to build a processing plant. In the end, plans for the processing plant only changed location, to Cajamarca.
When the result of the popular vote was announced in Cajamarca, the central government backed the mining company, not its citizens with the Mining Minister, German Arce, stating: “The licenses have already been granted and referendum decisions do not apply retroactively. That’s why exploration licenses retain their validity. Residents’ referendum holds no legal weight and not legally binding.”
The Minister even accused the locals of exaggerating the environmental impacts and risks of gold mining. At the end, the referendum result puts a clear end to the project. Remarkably, AGA then cancelled the whole project stating: “Diverse reasons which range from the institutional, the political and particularly the social, with the recent referendum, oblige us to take the unfortunate decision to stop all project activities and with it all employment and investment, until there’s certainty about mining activity in the country and in Tolima.”
That decision was the result of strong community opposition and legal wrangling over environmental regulations, which have now prompted the Environment Minister Arce to promise new legislation, (albeit half-heartedly), that will reconcile existing mining permits with judicial authorities and local bodies.
‘La Colosa’ is a historic victory against transnational mining giants, since the Constitutional Court (for the very first time) overturned the central government’s sole authority by allowing provincial governors and mayors to challenge exploration permits. In fact, the ‘La Colosa’ victory has already inspired Colombians in the same situation that will now be voting against mining interests on their lands.
In any case, this is a clear message to the powers-that-be – especially to the Central Government – signaling that Colombia will continue to embrace; call it a “butterfly effect”, “ripple effect” or simply a “copycat effect” of a more peaceful but still effective way of implementing environmental action.
Burag Gurden is a postgraduate student at Lund University. He is also a freelance writer and contributor to the British ‘International Development Journal‘, Turkish ‘Dunya Gazetesi‘ and the international ‘Words in the Bucket‘ community. Currently he is working at the EnvJustice project