A Colossal Choice: Cajamarca prepares to decide whether to ban mining

The people of Cajamarca are preparing a popular consultation to decide whether to ban mining in their territory. The stakes are high for a town that would be severely impacted by one of the largest planned gold mines in Latin America.
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YLNM. Published 23 March 2017. 

On Sunday 26th March the people of Cajamarca, a town in the Department of Tolima, Colombia, will go to the polls to vote for or against allowing mining operations in their territory.

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(The town of Cajamarca and surrounding rural areas. Photo: Viviana Sanchez)

Located in a key food-producing region in the Andes Mountains, agriculture is Cajamarca’s source of wealth. Food growing activities in this farming region are nourished by clean water from highland paramo ecosystems that act as key water catchment areas for some of Colombia’s largest rivers.

The town is also the proposed site for what could be one of the largest gold mines in Latin America.


Popular consultations: Changing the landscape of resistance

The vote in Cajamarca will be the latest in a wave of popular consultations on mining across the Americas. Organised by the people, for the people, these consultations are enabling communities to wrest back democratic control over decisions made about their territories from the nexus of powerful extractive interests that usually decides the future of destructive projects.

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(Graphic: Diana Rodriguez, Dejusticia)

The outcomes of such consultations are never certain. But other towns and villages in Colombia, and elsewhere in Latin America, have successfully used this democratic tool to ban mining, protecting healthy ecosystems and livelihoods that rely on clean water, land and air.

On February 26th this year, the small Colombian municipality of Cabrera became the latest locality to ban mining and large hydropower projects on its lands. More than 97% of citizens who turned out voted to ban mining in the interests of protecting agricultural lands and water-rich paramos of this ‘bread-basket’ region.

This is what a real, democratic community participation and consent process looks like. And the companies and political interest groups invested in extractivism don’t like it one bit.

Mining companies and their governmental allies have challenged the constitutionality of popular consultations on mining in the Colombian courts, but their efforts to undermine local democracy have been unsuccessful.

Late last year the Colombian Constitutional Court declared that municipalities have a constitutional right to hold consultations on mining, setting the stage for many more consultations, like that in Cajamarca.


Cajamarca versus ‘The Colossus’

The outcome of the vote on mining in Cajamarca is of particular significance, because a vote to say no to mining would be a major blow to plans for one of the largest gold mines in Latin America- South-African mining company Anglo Gold Ashanti’s La Colosa mine.

The La Colosa project has been mired in controversy from its inception. Grassroots activists, farmers, scientists and NGOs have repeatedly pointed out that the negative economic, environmental and social impacts of a mine as big as La Colosa would be vast.

Members of the Comite Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida, the grassroots movement of organisations and communities working to protect Tolima’s ecosystems and livelihoods, recently explained some of their concerns to Peter Tibber, the UK’s Ambassador to Colombia.

The mine will convert fertile farmland and biodiverse ecosystems, including rare paramo moorlands, into a vast open pit mine.  Mining and processing operations are projected to use between 1.8 to 3.7 billion litres of water per month, much of which will be drawn in Cajamarca. This is more than the total monthly domestic water consumption of the entire Department of Tolima, with a population of 1.4 million people.

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(A farmer on his land in Cajamarca. Photo: Viviana Sanchez)

The possibilities of chronic and disastrous pollution of water systems resulting from La Colosa’s operations are also judged by many to be high.

Anglo Gold Ashanti is proposing to use vast amounts of toxic cyanide to separate the gold it extracts from ores known to contain high percentages of pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’. When exposed to air, as it often is in mine waste heaps, pyrite becomes sulphuric acid that can causes disastrous acid mine drainage. La Colosa will produce 100 million tonnes of ‘waste’ rock, that will be dumped into Tolima’s valleys.

The risks La Colosa poses to healthy land and clean, abundant water translates into grave risks to the health of Colombian citizens and the sustainable agricultural livelihoods of small campesino farmers throughout the Department of Tolima.

Cajamarca, where the planned mine’s main open pit will be located, and where Anglo Gold Ashanti has been holding exploration activities since 2009, stands to be particularly badly affected. And it is not the first locality to use popular consultations as a tool to try and stop La Colosa.

In 2013 the municipality of Piedras, 100km from Cajamarca as the crow flies, voted almost unanimously to reject Anglo Gold Ashanti’s plans to build its vast mine waste dam in the area. This dam would stand over 200 metres high and be required to hold more than a billion tonnes of toxic waste. In the first popular consultation of its kind in Colombia, of the 60% of the population who turned out to vote, 99% voted to ban mining and stop the dam from being built.

30km downriver from Cajamarca, the capital of Tolima, is also planning its own popular consultation on mining. In recent years the city has seen demonstrations of more than 50,000 people coming together from all walks of life to celebrate water, land and life, whilst denouncing plans for La Colosa’s sprawling operations and the mine’s potential impacts.

AngloGold Ashanti is now proposing to construct its tailings dam facilities in Cajamarca itself. This is despite warnings from geologists, who have pointed out that the combination of volcanic activity and seismic risk in the area place it at heightened risk of  a tailings dam collapse. Such a collapse would have terrible consequences for cities like Ibague, and towns and communities, from Coello to Baranquilla, that lie downstream of the mine.

Globally, ‘serious’ and ‘very serious’ failures of massive tailings storage facilities are happening with increased regularity. As concentrations of minerals and metals decrease due to overexploitation of resources worldwide, mines are producing more waste per unit of mineral and metal mined. This increasing burden of waste has to be stored and poorly designed dams managed irresponsibly, even criminally, are not equal to the task, as the tragic Samarco and Mount Polley mine waste disasters have shown.


Against the odds…

On the 26th Cajamarca will become the largest Colombian municipality to take mining to public vote so far. And, as Anglo Gold Ashanti’s chosen location for La Colosa’s main operations, a vote to ban mining in Cajamarca could spell the end for this controversial project.

If the people of Cajamarca do vote to ban mining, it will be because of a heroic effort by civil society groups to inform and mobilise voters against the odds, as pro-mining interest groups seek to disrupt the consultation.


(Thousands have mobilised across Tolima to oppose La Colosa. Photo: El Espectador)

Administrative and local governmental groups involved with the organisation of the vote have allegedly conspired to make citizen participation as difficult as possible.

In a move that has limited civil society’s ability to mobilise effectively, after the Administrative Court of Tolima approved the consultation, Cajamarca’s mayor announced the final date for the vote with just twenty days to spare.

Meanwhile, the national registration agency, the body in charge of arranging the physical aspects of the vote, has announced it is reducing the number of voting tables from an initial 35 to just 18. Supporters of the popular consultation believe that with this few voting stations it will be nearly impossible to achieve the voting threshold required (5,438 votes) for the outcome of the popular consultation to be constitutionally valid. With the current arrangements in place, organisers calculate that each citizen will have less than one minute to cast their vote.

Pro-mining interest groups have also been making concerted efforts to reduce voter turnout and stigmatise those who might choose to vote no to mining.

Local activists have reported alleged intimidation by representatives of Anglo Gold Ashanti and other pro-mining groups. They report that these pro-mining interest groups have been offering citizens paid field trips to theme parks in the region on the date of the consultation, promoting voter abstention.

Allegedly, attempts have also been made by some members of the municipal council to brand the popular consultation as a political initiative by left wing parties, declaring that a vote against mining is a vote for communism and, by extension, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

These tactics, allegedly employed to undermine the consultation process, are not without precedent in Cajamarca or Colombia at large. Last year Cajamarca’s mayor made a similar attempt to organise the popular consultation in a way that would have prevented civil society activists having time to effectively organise for the consultation.

Across Colombia, community activists and leaders are regularly persecuted, intimidated and even killed due in part to their opposition to destructive megaprojects like La Colosa and the threat they pose to the vested interests behind them.

In 2013, campesino leader and opponent of the La Colosa project Cesar Garcia was assassinated. In a statement following Garica’s assasination, the Network of Environmental and Campesino Communities of Tolima wrote:

“This horrendous crime was preceded by other violations of human rights, massacres, murders, torture, arbitrary arrests, and forced displacements… there is a clear and systematic strategy of persecution of the people, of their leaders, and of their organizations in many of the areas where promoters are trying to establish large-scale mining and where the people in those areas are opposed to that.”

Non-governmental organisation Programa Somos Defensores reports that 68 human rights and environmental defenders were murdered in Colombia in 2016.


Mobilising for a mine-free future

To overcome the major obstacles they face, civil society groups in Cajamarca have been mobilising as widely as possible for the two weeks sine the consultation was announced. Visiting schools, businesses and peasant organisations, they are working to sensitise citizens to the risks the La Colosa project poses to the region, especially in relation to food production and water.

Statements of solidarity and support for the groups organising the popular consultation, including Yes to Life, No to Mining member group Comite Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida, have flooded in from around the world.

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(Yes to Life, No to Mining’s Regional Coordinators stand in solidarity with Cajamarca. Photo: Natalie Lowrey)

On the day of the consultation, committees will set up information points around the municipality to inform the public and transportation will be arranged to bring rural voters in to Cajamarca town.

Watch: Global support for the people of Cajamarca, Colombia saying Yes to Life, No to Mining

“If Cajamarca decides to ban mining it will send a strong message about the presence of these type of corporations in our country, especially in terms of how they affect the peace that we are striving to achieve in Colombia”, says Mariana Gomez, YLNM’s Coordinator for Latin America and a key organizer in the Cajamarca consultation process.

“Even here in Tolima, civil society groups and human rights defenders have been targeted by far-right paramilitaries warning people not to oppose La Colosa. A victory against the La Colosa project would be a call to justice in Colombia and worldwide. The town’s actions will help inspire other communities to resist mining through peaceful democratic action”, Says Gomez.

A victory in Cajamarca could add to the emerging ‘ripple effect’ of popular consultations emerging in Colombia. It would also further discredit Colombia’s extractivist policies and the dominant public narrative that mining is done for development and ‘in the national interest’.

Making people’s voices heard and providing spaces for popular education on the impacts of mining before-the-fact, popular consultations like those in Cabrera and Piedras demonstrate that when communities empower themselves to take direct, democratic decisions regarding their territories, they choose paths of care and stewardship, not exploitation.

On the 26th of March we will see if, against all odds, Cajamarca follows suit.



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One Reader Comment

  1. Diana says:

    Hola, ya votaron en Colombia y los campesinos nos demostraron nuevamente que ellos si saben que el oro no se come. http://www.eltiempo.com/colombia/otras-ciudades/cajamarca-voto-no-a-proyecto-minero-71774

    tengo sustico que esto no sea suficiente porque los intereses econimos son muy grandes y la estupidez humana de los que no conocemos del campo es infinita. No saquemos este tema del spotlight hasta que The AngloGold Ashanti no se large de Tolima, please!!

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