When South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) arrived in this central Colombian farming town ten years ago, it promised residents like Herver Oliveraula “rivers of milk and honey,” he recalls. The mining giant was set to extract an estimated 28 million ounces of gold from the La Colosa mine, buried under the northern Andes.
Mr. Oliveraula was skeptical, he says, but also wanted to trust that his community – and country – could benefit from the natural resources underfoot. It wasn’t until activists from the youth collective Cosajuca in 2012 showed him a geological map of his town that he changed his mind. It laid out mining concessions from the government, granting AGA rights to explore in nearly 80 percent of the municipality – including Oliveraula’s 6-hectare farm.
“How could some government [ministry] grant our farm to a multinational without ever coming to consult anyone who lived on it?” he asks.
Oliveraula joined local grass-roots activists, working with support from international and national non-government organizations, to resist the massive gold-mining project. Their basic proposition, that locals should have a say in what happens on their property, is a concept that has started gaining a global foothold in recent years. And in May 2016, a landmark case in Colombia’s Constitutional Court took the idea of first consulting locals a step further, giving communities here the right to close the door entirely to international mining efforts based on a local vote.
Mining and gas investment are vital to Colombia's economy. In 2013, nearly half of Colombia’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) went into the oil and mining sector. That share has shrunk in recent years, but industry lobbyists estimate oil and mining could deliver $1.5 billion in FDI annually over the next five years.
And there's a big reliance on mining and gas royalties to fund public spending. That includes vital programs linked to the 2016 Peace Accord, which ended more than 50 years of fighting between the government and Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
And although funding social programs to help demobilized guerrillas reintegrate into society or to develop rural infrastructure are paramount to creating a lasting peace, land rights are a central part of Colombia’s Peace Accord, too. Rural communities, like Oliveraula’s, suffered the brunt of the conflict's violence. Giving citizens a voice on how their community’s land is used was a central part of peace negotiations.
In 2016 – and in a series of similar rulings since – Colombia’s highest court struck down a 2001 mining law that granted the national government sole authority over mining permits. As communities start putting that ruling into action, the court’s decision has set the stage for a political struggle. How Colombia deals with the conflicting interests of the federal government and local communties could play a major part in the sustainability of its budding peace.
“The problem with the government’s plan [to promote mining as a way to boost the economy] is that they’ve never had a conversation with the municipal governments or local communities where mining takes place,” says Fabian Acuña Villarraga, a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá who studies the relationship between the federal government and municipalities on mining.
As these new legal standards become practice, rural communities are making waves. Already residents in Cajamarca voted by 98.8 percent to halt all mining activity – including AGA’s exploration projects – in their municipality. Nine other communities have launched landslide extractive-industry blocking votes, and another 44 municipalities are slated to vote on similar measures.
Cajamarca sits below impossibly steep slopes covered with plots of coffee, yucca, beans, and plantain trees. The verdant crops make the hillsides look like patchwork quilts in shades of green. The Pan American highway cuts through the middle of town, creating a bustling stream of semi-trucks and buses in this otherwise quiet farmland. The roads here are still largely unpaved, and education and healthcare are lacking, but residents say they are proud of their abundant water sources and the rich soil that have earned them the nickname of “Colombia’s agricultural dispensary.”
Municipalities are turning against mining, in part, because the community development promised by the government and companies haven’t materialized, Mr. Acuña says.
“When you look across Colombia, you see that not one mining municipality is rich,” says Acuña. “The way the municipalities see it, the money goes to the government and mining companies, while they get stuck with the social and environmental problems.”
In Cajamarca, the popular resistance that formed against AGA included youth activists, rural farmers, and religious leaders.
Catholic nun Nidia Alareón joined the campaign against mining to protect the community’s water. She fears La Colosa could compromise Cajamarca’s future as an agricultural center.
“Even though they come here trying to paint pictures of little golden birds, that’s not reality,” Sister Alareón says.
There’s also Colombia’s long history of armed groups and paramilitaries getting involved in or “protecting” extractive projects. Between 2001 and 2011, Peace Brigade International found that 80 percent of the human rights violations occurring in Colombia during that period were committed in mining and energy-producing regions.
At least three anti-mining activists have been killed in Cajamarca since 2013, says Robinson Mejia, a leader with Cosajuca, the youth movement. An estimated 33 Colombian environmental and land-rights activists have been killed so far this year nationwide, according to Global Witness, a London-based environmental and anti-corruption NGO.
Alareón recalls receiving a telephone call in the months leading up to the community's vote in March, 2017 where the unidentified voice on the other end of the line implied she was in danger if she continued to protest the mine. The 71-year-old nun continued her work, knocking on doors and speaking through a megaphone at rallies in order to spread anti-mining campaign messages, she says.
"We [the Dominicana nuns] are of the people," says Alareón. "So we lived with the threat because they weren't going to silence me, nor silence my people, we kept fighting."
What does 'the country need?'
The notion of consulting communities prior to launching invasive projects like mining is an increasingly common practice worldwide. In Colombia and many other Latin American countries, minority groups such as indigenous and Afro-descendent communities have laws granting them rights to prior consultation on significant land-use changes. However, the land-rights granted to citizens in other parts of Latin America have not been as far reaching as in Colombia following the recent court rulings.
Yet, despite Constitutional Court decisions, Cajamarca’s overwhelming vote to halt AGA’s exploration work doesn’t mean “case closed.”
AGA Colombia says it invested $360 million into the La Colosa project before it was halted by voters last March. The community decision pushed the mining company to “pause much of the current fieldwork around the project” while it “studies the impact” of the vote’s result on their future investment, according to a company statement emailed to The Christian Science Monitor.
The federal government is on alert.
"We promise to push Congress to legislate on the popular consultations. It can’t be that the interests of a very small minority, a municipal government, gets in the way of the needs of an entire society,” Colombia’s Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas said at a mining and energy conference in August.
“We have to arrange it so that there is a way to guarantee participation and that the projects are well socialized with the communities, but we can’t have actors with veto power over the projects that the country needs,” Mr. Cárdenas said.
Colombia’s High Council on Post-conflict, Human Rights, and Security estimates that enacting the peace agreement with former FARC rebels will cost the country around $42.5 billion over a 15-20 year period.
I don’t “expect the mining bans to stand through the end of the year,” says environmental lawyer Rodrigo Negrete, who foresees an increase in lawsuits fighting these nascent mining bans.
That’s a concern for people like Oliveraula. Sitting in his open-air kitchen he says he knows victory could be short-lived. He's willing to fight to maintain his family’s land, but he doesn’t want to return to the past.
“My only hope is that the decisions being made by the government right now [about mining and community choice] don’t drag us into more violence.”