When residents in a small town of Tolima department in Colombia decided to vote whether they wanted a mega gold mining project in their backyard, first it did not mean much to the AngloGold Ashanti (AGA), a multinational company famous for its mega-projects. After a decade long exploration phase, AGA was only 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 potential mega-project victims. Now, AGA is packing to leave the area with empty hands but a mouth full of hollow threats to divest its investments in Colombia.
AngloGold Ashanti’s Dark History
The South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti is the world’s third-largest gold producer. It has been developing a flagship mining project in Colombia, with a potential investment of $2 billion, called ‘La Colosa’. The project has given rise to endless public debates about its environmental impact from day one.
AGA has also a dark history of doing business; in 2011, it has been ‘branded’ with the Public Eye Award, an ironic award given by a worldwide NGO-Coalition to the most “purely profit-oriented” multinational company, that is accused for the most human rights abuses and with the largest negative environmental impact.
Colombia’s natural resource abundance is world-famous, but it is also associated with the so-called ‘resource curse’ due to high 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 are by far dominating. 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 it is also ratified, meaning that, by law, any project regarding indigenous lands or rights must be consulted to the community leaders and get the 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 even obtained highly contested fracking concessions.
Colombian ‘laissez faire’ arguably entailed a mining frenzy. Locals have been protesting and calling for environmental justice whenever a contended mega-project was causing an ecological distribution conflict. 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 the actions sufficed to convince the government to reconsider its liberal – regulation-free – economic policies, of which many were leading to core environmental injustices.
A Success Story
It is against this backdrop that one community recently won their 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 concern was again land and water pollution, and irreversible destruction of lush forests that ‘La Colosa’ might cause.
“[The project will make] 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 first reaction came from the central government ruling out the result which would stop AGA from further operations in the area. The main argument of the Mining Minister German Arce was:
“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 blamed the locals for exaggerating the environmental impacts and risks of gold mining. In the end, the referendum result put a clear end to the project. Remarkably, right after the collective outbreaks of happiness in Tolima, AGA announced the cancellation of the whole project:
“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.”
The decision came amid strong community opposition and legal wrangling over environmental regulations, which even prompted the Minister Arce to promise a new law, albeit half-heartedly, to reconcile existing mining permits with judicial authorities and local bodies.
The popular vote in the ‘La Colosa’ case is clearly a landmark for local sovereignty and for environmental participation. It would build momentum towards more environmental justice regarding similar cases, where the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people are traded-off in favor of shady mega-projects. The call for a popular vote is a perfect fit in this case since it is in line with land rights and also backed by the Colombian Constitutional Court, which has lately been supporting communities to decide the fate of their ancestral lands.
‘La Colosa’ is a historic victory against transnational mining giants, since the Constitutional Court for the first time overturned the central government’s sole authority by allowing provincial governors and mayors to challenge exploration permits, to the delight of environmentally concerned community groups and a minority of politicians.
In fact, ‘La Colosa’ victory must have already inspired Colombians in the same situation as the number of popular votes has hiked ever since, says Santiago Angel, director of the Colombian Mining Association:
“There are currently 39 popular votes all over Colombia.”
For now, most of them are queued to be elevated to the judicial ground. Nonetheless, one has already captured the headlines; as such locals in Cumaral also announced their triumph against extractivism by the Chinese multinational Mansarovar Energy in their territory.
In any case, these are clear messages to the powers, especially to the central government, signalling that Colombia will continue to embrace, call it a “butterfly effect”, “ripple effect” or simply a “copycat effect” of peaceful environmentalism including democratic actions against injustice generating projects, unless the government genuinely introduces rigorous environmental regulations for the industry.