By Carolina Ocampo
August 23rd, 2021
Colombia is recognized as a country with a mining vocation, whose resources have been exploited since pre-Columbian times. The wide availability of mining resources such as gold, iron, nickel, copper and coal, as well as hydrocarbons, has positioned Colombia as one of the five largest economies in Latin America and an important exporter of non-renewable resources worldwide. This abundance of resources has made mining a priority for the country's economic development, to such an extent that by 2019 80% of the country's royalties came from coal. And although this may sound like a great advantage for the economy and development, it has turned out to be an environmental and social disadvantage of tremendous proportions: Climate change and water pollution are among the main problems of coal exploitation and use, both in our country and in the nations buying the product. Moreover, violence linked to legal and illegal mining activities, as well as other extractive industries and hydroelectric projects, bleed both our water bodies and the rural communities that depend on them.
While entire populated centers are forced to be displaced by the violence derived from unsustainable extractivist projects, real solutions and open discussions on the subject are conspicuous by their absence. It seems clear that the value of the territory for the national government is higher due to its content of hydrocarbon and precious metals, rather than the people and biodiversity on its surface. For example, the permanence and spatial scale of illegal and artisanal mining, as well as the lack of control by environmental authorities, have made Colombia the third largest mercury polluter in the world1. The accumulation of mercury in fish from large Colombian rivers such as the Magdalena, San Jorge and Bogotá, has already been documented, as well as the negative consequences for the health of communities that depend on consuming such fish 2,3,4. Moreover, the presence of mining and other extractivist projects frequently exacerbates social problems in the surrounding population centers, including drug trafficking, common crime, human trafficking, prostitution and child labor.
Mining and extractive activities in Colombia are widely distributed throughout the country. Coal mining, for example, is concentrated in Guajira and Cesar; while gold mining mega-projects are mainly present in the western region of the country, including Antioquia, Caldas, Tolima, Cauca and especially Chocó. In these regions the mining territories coincide with indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, as well as with areas of high guerrilla and paramilitary presence. Moreover, a good part of the mining megaprojects over the Andean mountain range (current and in planning) occur in paramo areas, an endemic ecosystem of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Some of the best known and most controversial cases include AngloGold Ashanti's La Colosa megaproject -cancelled after a popular consultation in 2017- or the Santurbán paramo in Santander and Norte de Santander, where the Arab multinational Minesa planned to exploit gold. The latter project was finally rejected by the ANLA (National Environmental Licensing Authority) and shelved in January of this year. However, other projects with less media attention continue to operate in páramo areas, such as coal mining in the Pisba páramo in Boyacá.
The coincidence of extractivist projects with indigenous and Afro-descendant areas, as well as areas of intense armed conflict, has led to the organization of peasant communities and environmental activists to protest against them. This has resulted in a high increase in violence related to the extractivist industry. Attacks by unidentified armed actors on the infrastructure of these projects and especially against the civilian population of nearby towns have become a common denominator of mining projects in the country.
The situation here is also related to a problem of international scale, taking into account that in 2009 only 18% of the mining projects in the country were led by Colombian companies, while Canadian companies dominated 51% of the extractive projects and even today only five companies (mostly foreign) dominate more than half of the large mining projects in the country5. Facing this conflict of interests between local issues and international reputation, the national government's response has focused on intensifying security schemes for mining projects and the multinationals in charge of them, ignoring in the meantime the cries and needs of the civilian population. Even worse, the government has avoided detailed investigations of the clear connection between multinational companies and paramilitary groups that have massacred civilians. This was precisely the macabre case of Guamocó and the Río Sucio village in southern Bolívar, where paramilitary groups brutally murdered and exposed the bodies of local mining leaders in order to "return the mines to those who could properly exploit them”1.
Peace agreement and megaprojects
León Valencia, director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, Pares, estimates that between 2000 and 2016 at least 179 major disputes were generated in Colombia around extractivist projects. Few of these had been completely resolved by the date of the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP6. This high number is clearly related to the increase in mining titles between 2002 and 2010, which has continued to date as a result of the Mining Code implemented since the government of ex-president Álvaro Uribe Velez.
With the signing of the peace agreement, it was expected that many of these local conflicts would be resolved, with the possibility of a greater presence of the state and public forces in remote towns with mining activity. However, the problem has become much worse. On the one hand, the presence of other illegal armed actors has strengthened in the absence of the FARC, increasing the risk for local communities. On the other hand, the government is forcing small-scale miners to compete with large multinational mining companies for access to the resources on the ground. Thus, both illegal small-scale miners trying to formalize, as well as legal local miners, are forced to give up their work and independence to become workers for the multinationals. This, however, is also limited by the number of job openings offered by the multinationals to people from the region and the formal education required to access these positions. As a result, multiple forms of protests, including work stoppages and blockades, have been promoted in the face of the lack of opportunities offered by the state to solve these problems. However, solutions are conspicuous by their absence, forcing local leaders to decide between forced displacement or death.
According to our research based on information gathered by Indepaz, 36 environmental leaders involved in mining issues, water resource protection and other extractivist megaprojects were assassinated in Colombia between 2016 and 2020. These leaders were located in 15 departments and the killings increased from four in 2016 to 11 in 2020. Moreover, as shown in Figure 1, a large part of these regions coincide with areas recognized by the Centro de Memoria Histórica due to their high incidence of armed conflict by 20187, and reported by Indepaz due to the increased presence of narco-paramilitary groups after the signing between 2008 and 20218, with Antioquia being the department with the largest population involved in these criminal groups.
FIGURE 1: Number of environmental leaders related to extractivist projects murdered in each region of Colombia between 2016-2020. Information derived from Indepaz reports. Crossed guns indicate the presence of illegal armed groups after the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP, according to the reports from PARES (2019).
So, what to do with the extractive industry in Colombia?
The availability of mining resources in Colombia, as well as other natural resources, makes the disappearance of the mining and extractive industry in the country unthinkable. However, it should be developed with a clear focus on the maximum benefit for Colombians and especially for rural communities in the area of impact. Based on multiple publications on extractivism and post-agreement in Colombia5,8,9, we propose four areas of focus in the development and monitoring of extractivist projects in the country:
The clear message of the multiple problems with megaprojects in the country is that there is no universal solution. The natural, social and cultural diversity of our country makes it necessary that in each area of impact, both of current and future extractivist projects, there is an independent analysis of the current situation of rural communities in the area (including peasant, indigenous and Afro communities), possible conflicts between different actors in the region, as well as the history of violence and the current presence of armed actors and the national government.
In each case, it should be established what kind of work needs to be done before, during and after an extractivist megaproject. This includes, for example, the strengthening of protection mechanisms for civil society and coordination between legal and non-armed actors in conflict. There must be clear and measurable guarantees of how the security of local communities and their empowerment will be ensured through the project. This brings us directly to the second area of focus.
2. Inclusion and balance of opportunities
As mentioned above, the failure or emergence of conflicts arising from extractivist projects is due in many cases to the ignorance of the national government's about, or its active disdain for, local communities already engaged in extractivist activities (both formally and informally). When these people are sidelined, the greatest result of extractivist projects is an increase in inequality. Informal mining activities, for example, are extremely high in the country, with the percentage reaching 80% in Antioquia and up to 99% in Chocó in 2011. Despite these informal individuals and organizations making an effort to enter into legality, more than 80% of their formalization requests were excluded in 2010, according to the Ombudsman's Office10.
It is unrealistic to expect that small-scale artisanal miners, with a long mining tradition but without any training in current legal mining regulations, can meet the standards proposed by a government that takes large multinationals as a reference. It is imperative that there be a transitional integration mechanism that allows small-scale miners to formalize, with support for compliance with current regulations. This includes, among others, a clear regulation and socialization of the legal mechanisms for the purchase and sale of mercury and other substances that are highly hazardous to the environment; instruction in occupational safety issues; and support in obtaining the documents required for the legalization of their activity. Without this assistance, it is clear that the Colombian government has a clear preference for extractive multinationals over small-scale national miners, who are forced to pay high costs to illegal actors to serve as intermediaries in the process of legalizing their activity10.
3. Ethnic and gender approach
As mentioned above, the improvement of extractivist activities in the country requires taking into account the diversity that it holds. This includes at its core its ethnic diversity, which marks clear differences in the expectations and management given to extractivist projects and in general to natural resources. It is essential that the Colombian government respects the traditions of indigenous and Afro groups, and above all the territories that correspond to these groups. It is unthinkable that situations like the one that occurred in La Toma, Cauca, where the public forces forcibly evacuated the Afro population present in a territory assigned by the Government (without prior consultation with the locals) to a mining megaproject (Box 1)10 occur again.
It is even more urgent that the extractive industry has a perspective of inclusion for women of different ages. While traditional mining activity has also been carried out by women, the current extractivist industry segregates them, limiting their activity to, for example, acts of "mercy" by multinationals, which allow local women to go through the debris of their mining activity in search of metal and precious stone waste, which generates earnings of less than COP 20,000 per day6 . In contrast, the percentage of women employed in coal mining in Colombia was only 19.2% in 200611. A realistic gender approach requires taking into account the differences in access to educational training for rural men and women in Colombia. It also requires a clear perspective on the role of women in the maintenance of rural families and their vulnerability to the increase in sexual crimes linked to the arrival of extractivist megaprojects in their territories12. The national government should include in the regulations imposed on extractivist projects a clear component regarding the fair and equitable inclusion of women in the short and long term benefits derived from such projects.
4. Social and environmental sustainability
It is often said that Colombia has some of the best environmental legislation in Latin America and even worldwide. The requirements for environmental impact studies, for example, are detailed and clear, including the need for a mitigation plan for environmental and social impacts. However, the monitoring of the implementation of impact mitigation and prevention plans, as well as prior consultation processes with local communities, do not seem to be of the same quality. Because of this, many extractivist projects acquire a "helicopter visit" policy, in which they take advantage of the natural resources of the area and modify the dynamics of life of the communities present in the area, without leaving a lasting improvement in the quality of life of these inhabitants after their departure. On the contrary, the harmful consequences, including the contamination of water resources and land, as well as the depletion of food sources such as fish and non-timber resources in the forests, are a common denominator. It is imperative to require extractive companies to implement mitigation plans and projects that will improve the quality of life of local communities in the long term. These activities should be documented in detail and the information should be open and available for inspection and oversight by all citizens of the country.
The four focus centers we have proposed can significantly improve the environmental and social sustainability of extractivist projects in Colombia. However, this does not solve the current situation of rural communities that are in areas of impact of current or past projects. In these cases, it is urgent that regional and national governments provide guarantees to solve first of all the security problems faced by rural communities due to illegal armed groups in the area. An agrarian and extractivist reform that allows peasants to carry out their activities legally is one of the greatest priorities and challenges at present.
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