We speak to the anthropologist Mariana Gomez about how citizens of her hometown of Doima, Colombia, are resisting Anglo Gold Ashanti’s plans to build a giant tailings dam in the country’s agricultural heartland.
Tell us about Doima, what is it like there?
Doima is a small farming town in the centre of Colombia. The town sits in the Magdalena River valley, between the eastern and central Andes mountain ranges.
Because a of a special ecosystem called Paramos in the Andes highlands which feeds the rivers, Doima is very rich in water. Many people call Tolima (the region in which Doima sits) ‘Colombia’s Pantry’ because we produce so much food there. The land is perfect for growing rice, maize, manioc and other crops.
What is your connection with Doima?
When I was young we lived in Bogota but we would drive four hours to Doima every weekend. My father has followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and his brother who started a rice farm right near the town.
I grew up there really, watching the rice fields change colour and the sunsets over the cordillera. I feel very close with the land.
You’ve been very involved in protecting Doima from Anglo Gold Ashanti’s (AGA) plans to build a tailings dam there. When did you first hear about what the company was planning?
I first realised when I went there for New Years (2012) and all the houses had signs up saying ‘no to mining!’ and ‘we prefer water to gold!’
The company tried to meet with the community at the end of 2012 to explore the possibility of using Doima as a place to build a tailings dam and process ore from the La Colosa gold mine, but the people said no. I knew I couldn’t just stand by, so since then I’ve been a bridge between the community and experts and researchers in Bogota and international allies.
Why did they choose Doima for processing and the dam?
They can’t build the dam or processing plant where the mine is in Cajamarca because the mountains are too steep. Because Doima is very rocky and has lots of river creeks it’s cheaper because they won’t have to dig or line the tailings pits. We also believe they want to use the water here. We have the rivers and underneath the area is one of the biggest aquifers in Colombia. If AGA want to process the ore here using cyanide and other chemicals, they’ll need about 530 litres of water per gram of gold.
I spoke with a geologist and he said there’s one creek that is a V-shape right near the town and we think they would choose that place. The dam would be huge, maybe the biggest in Colombia, and would hold 1,420 tonnes of toxic waste and be 250m high.
How might the dam damage the area?
The thing is, Doima is 100km in a straight line away from the actual La Colosa mine so AGA would have to build and use a giant conveyor belt or ‘mineroduct’ to transport all the rocks. That means cutting farmland in the plains in two, a lot of noise and disruption. How will the farmers move their cattle when there’s a conveyor a kilometre wide in the way?
We’re also worried about the water and the soils. The people here are farmers and they need clean water and soil to live. Around 4km from where the dam could be in Doima is Colombia’s most active tectonic fault, the Ibague fault. There’s a high seismic risk in the area and if the dam were to break the toxic waste would only have to travel 10km downstream to enter the Magdalena River. Then it could pollute water and farmland in the whole country.
We know tailings dams burst a lot even without earthquakes, like recently in Canada and Hungary, so we’re very worried about that.
You said the community in Doima rejected Anglo Gold Ashanti’s plans. How have they been resisting them?
People in Doima have a really strong relationship to their land. They’re very ecologically minded. In January (2013) they found out that the company were drilling into the aquifer in a river creek just past the town without asking. So they created a blockade on the only bridge in and out of the town.
At first it was mostly the women who went there and chained themselves to the bridge. Later the men joined them after they left the fields and in the end there were about 500 people by this small bridge.
They made a stall with all their messages on, they brought tents and chairs, a pot to cook, even a TV so they could watch their soap operas there! They practically went to live on the bridge for two weeks and the company’s people couldn’t get in or out.
Eventually they had to move though. AGA sued the Mayor of Piedras Municipality for restricting their right to free movement and riot police dispersed the people for blocking public property. Some people were injured but nothing too bad thankfully.
What happened after that? Has the community found different ways to resist or were they scared off?
The company has been trying to scare the people by sending legal letters and things like that, but it won’t work. Some of the farmers say this threat from mining has awoken the Pijaos in them. The Pijaos are an Indigenous group famous for being warriors. The farmers have awoken their courage, they’d die for their land.
After the blockade was broken the community changed their strategy. They can’t occupy the bridge all day so they’ve installed an alarm nearby so whenever they see the company coming they can ring it and all rush down to block the bridge again. So that they aren’t on public property they moved their stall on to someone’s patio right by the bridge.
We’ve also been working on a democratic way of saying no to mining. In our constitution it says we have a right to a popular consultation, which is like a local referendum that allows us to have an input on decisions like allowing AGA to build the processing plant, pits and a dam. We made a formal request to the local government of Piedras Municipality to hold this consultation and got support from the Mayor. At the same time we were out informing other parts of the municipality about the dam and its effects.
It was amazing, a real triumph for democracy. Of 5,105 people eligible to vote in Piedras 3,007 turned out and 2,971 voted against mining developments. In Colombia over 50% of people must turn out to vote and you have to achieve a majority of over 1/3 to make it obligatory for the municipal government to uphold the decision of the people. We acheived that, so in this case they are saying no to mining developments and yes to protecting the environment in the municipality.
So Piedras Municipality and Doima are now off limits to mining developments?
Unfortunately it’s not so simple. The central government is very pro-mining and before the popular consultation in Piedras could even happen they made a decree (decree 934) that removed municipal governments’ abilities to decide on mining in their region.
This new decree basically prevents popular consultations being held on mining, and means the national government won’t take our 2,971 ‘no’ voters into account in their final decision on the mine.
The central government say they’ve done this because mining is a matter of public and national interest. I don’t know exactly who the nation or the public are, if not the people, but that’s what they said.
Have the Doima community or anyone else opposed the Government’s decree?
Absolutely. Things are changing day by day. The latest exciting news for us is that in September the Constitutional Court of Colombia suspended the central government’s decree (934). They declared it unconstitutional because it restricts the autonomy and democratic decision-making of municipalities, which is part of our constitution. Now the central government will have to accept our local decision, so that is some justice and a victory for us.
That’s great news, how have the people of Doima reacted to that. What’s next?
There’s a lot to do. Community leaders from Doima are reaching out to other municipalities in Tolima to convince them to hold popular consultations on mining and democratise the process further.
In Piedras mayoral elections are round the corner and the people of Doima have asked one of their leaders, Julian, as candidate. They know that AGA will make its formal bid for a license to mine, build a processing plant and a dam in the next four years so they want a strong mayor who they can count on to say no and uphold the popular consultation.
What do you think the effect of the resistance has been so far on Doima and Colombia more broadly?
The people of Doima have been really empowered by their experiences in this whole process of resistance. It has shown them and the whole country how a community can pressure the government to recognise gaps in environmental and mining laws and act on this pressure, representing the people’s interests as it should.
In Doima we have this saying that resistance is like a fire, you must keep feeding it and never let it go out. The people really want democracy, agriculture, and to keep their heritage. We will keep fighting against mining.
Search the ‘Doima’ tag for more news and updates as this resistance process unfolds