Colossal Result in Cajamarca, Colombia Regarding Mining: building on the debate

A Colossal Result

Last Sunday, the inhabitants of Cajamarca (Tolima), a small town carved into the Central Cordillera, on the steep Central Andes Mountain Range in Colombia, voted No against mining in order to block a massive gold mine: “La Colosa”. This civil society initiative took 6,241 voters to the poll, of which only 76 voted in favor of mining, and 6,165 voted against mining. With the devastating result of 97,92%, the Popular Consultation against mining met the threshold of 5,438 of an electoral universe of 16,312 possible voters, in order to become a mandate for the local government.

This victory wasn’t easy. When the former Mayor of the municipality passed away, the Popular Consultation was to take place, leaving less than 25 days for the organization and mobilization required for it to happen. The official Registraduria Nacional, in charge of any democratic election in the country, as well as the civil society activists, had to run against time in order to have everything ready. The strategy of the pro-mining groups was to promote abstention from voting by offering trips to religious sites and theme parks on that weekend, and stigmatizing the Popular Consultation as politicized and manipulated by left wing political parties. They even sent out messages on the night before saying that because of bad weather, the popular consultation was canceled.  In spite of these obstacles, the display of the pro-life anti-mining groups was astonishing, holding educational and awareness raising brigades on the days previous to the vote, printing material and information points on the final date.



This historic happening resembles the story of Piedras, Tolima in 2013, the first Municipality in the country to take mining to public vote, when of 3,008 votes 2,971 voted against mining in order to block the construction of the tailings dam of this same project in their territory. This case opened a national debate which has pressured the legislation and mining regulation laws to evolve. Back then, local governments could not prohibit mining in their territories, the regulation of the use of the subsoil was considered to be in the hands of the national government. Today, and under a law put forward in 2015, it is recognized that any activity to take place in the subsoil affects the soil, therefore municipalities have the right to participate in the regulation of the use of the soil and of mining in their territory.

Pro-miner´s arguments that fail to scale

 As it was to be expected, the company and pro-mining groups have spoken out in their defense after the unanimous decision, using arguments that are being used to confuse the national and international public opinion. Of course, AngloGold Ashanti, the third largest gold production multinational company in the world, will try anything in their hands to continue to carry out what could be the largest gold mining project in South America estimated to be worth $35 billion dollars represented in 28 million ounces of gold.  They say that they have invested 370 million dollars since they arrived to the region, of which they claim to have invested 19 million dollars in community programs for the inhabitants of this municipality.

A huge effort must be done to nurture the debate with informed arguments building on a critical mass instead of contributing to the collective confusion about this topic. Clarifying these misused arguments will allow this case to become an international reference for the fight against extractive industries and the jurisprudence that enables them.

“Popular Consultations are not binding”: This argument fails to be true, for the Constitutional Court published a ruling last year (C-271/16) which states that the article in the Mining Code, which established that it was prohibited for Municipalities to exclude mining from their territories was recognized as unconstitutional. Law 136 of 1994 states that when a project attempts to modify the use of the soil of a municipality significantly, a Popular Consultation must be held. Laws 134 of 1994 and 1757 of 2015 state that when held, and the threshold is met, the decision taken by civil society will be obligatory. For these reasons, the newspaper headings stating that “the popular consultation held in Cajamarca will not change the law” does not make sense, for there is no attempt to change the law, rather than to apply it.

“The company´s acquired rights must be respected”: The mining title issued in Colombia for a company to start the exploration phase is not considered to imply acquired rights, for the company will have to obtain an environmental license granted by the governmental regulation agencies before starting to exploit. For this reason, the company´s argument regarding the “retroactivity” of the Popular Consultation, meaning this one will only affect projects in the future and not existing exploitation contracts is a misinterpretation. “The current existence of a concession contract like the one AngloGold holds today does not stop the government from limiting, conditioning or prohibiting this activity” states Diana Rodriguez, lawyer from Dejusticia, a legal research institute that has studied the case.

Perhaps the most dangerous argument being used by politicians, pro-mining groups and media is that by saying no to mining through the popular consultation and excluding legal mining from their territory, the inhabitants of Cajamarca are opening the door to illegal mining. In spite of the strong issue that illegal mining represents in other regions of the country like Chocó in the Pacific Coast, or the Amazon region, this argument is technically mistaken in the case of the Andes highlands. In La Colosa, the gold is not alluvial, therefore it is not possible to obtain it by installing a backhoe in the river´s bedrock to pump the water and agglomerate it with mercury, like it is done by illegal mining operations. The gold in Cajamarca is disseminated, and the only way to obtain it will be by using large amounts of dynamite for it is estimated that there is one gram of gold per ton of rock. After all this rock is removed, along with other dangerous mineral substances, the dispersed gold will have to be agglomerated in huge cyanide pools. Therefore, the only way of achieving a profit will be by implementing a huge industrial process like the one envisioned for La Colosa. No illegal miner will be able to run this activity, or will it achieve to do so without being identified by the law because of the scale required for the exploitation. This argument stigmatizes local leaders and environmentalists as promoters of illegal activities with particular interests, associated to criminality.

Awakening the Lion

 The victory held last Sunday is not at all a final result. People involved are aware that this is just one battle of many, and that their struggle must continue. As many state, this event may have only “awakened the lion”. This case could unfold an AngloGold Ashanti vs. Colombia case, and pursue a lawsuit against the nation, as has happened recently with other cases like the Santurbán paramo and Yaigojé-Apaporis National Park.

Since 2001, mining companies have requested mining titles covering 20% of Colombia’s national territory through some 20,000 exploration and exploitation requests, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism CIPER in 2011. While “the government of Alvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) granted 9,000 of these titles, reportedly in disregard of obligatory environmental regulations and local approval, the current government of Juan Manuel Santos defined mining as “the engine” of Colombia’s economy until 2014 when commodity prices dropped and the peso collapsed” as stated by Colombian Reports in a recent article. Since then, several municipalities have taken legal action against oil and mining licenses. A domino effect of Sunday’s vote in Cajamarca is possible. While mining has been profitable for the fossil fuel industry, Colombia´s national government and foreign investors, in most of the areas where mining has taken place there are more losses than gains. It has been proven that local communities are left poor and with irreversible environmental impacts.

What gold really is

 The Gold Global Council recently confirmed that only 7% of the gold extracted is used for electronic devices and tooth implants. Less than a tenth of it has industrial value and could be replaced by other alloys. 45% of the extraction is kept in vaults as treasures in the form of ingots and coins, and the remaining 47% is used to make jewelry and kept inside the night tables of mothers, wives and all types of women around the world. It seems that we still are in the times of pirates, and the value we give gold is really attributed by our imagined value. We are missing the point, the real valuables are water, soil and air, healthy ecosystems that sustain healthy people. Is it really worth to take the guts out of the Earth and put her through all that distress and pain, for a golden ring? Perhaps what gold really represents is the materialization of our confusion as a society.

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