Ibagué is a city carved into the Andes Mountains. It is the capital city of Tolima, one of the principal regions for food production in Colombia, with abundant water resources and pristine cloud forests.
Eight years ago, a huge gold mining company arrived to the region, threatening the wellbeing of its inhabitants by proposing to build one of the largest open-pit gold mines in South America. We are a group of citizens who are campaigning for the right to take part in decisions that will affect our future, in particular, about mining in our territory. After a long journey of raising awareness in defence of the land, we are a few steps away from making of Ibagué the first city in the World to decide if mining is the common future we dream for our region. This is our story…
Where is Ibagué?
Ibagué is located in the Combeima River Canyon, which comes down from the snow peaks of the Andes Mountains, and the páramos, high-mountain ecosystems, which have been dubbed “water factories”. Ibagué is known as a food production hub for its location in the Andes, with climates ranging from perennial snow to hot plains, is an ideal place for agro-biodiversity.
(Highland Paramos in the Nevada Tolima.)
A great percentage of Ibagué’s population is rural, living from the land, producing food for themselves and for the rest of the country. For this reason, both campesinos and city dwellers value the water resources and hold a close relationship with their rivers and creeks. Dense cloud forests surround the city as if it was some kind of Avatar movie setting. In Ibagué, nature and society are not opposing forces; they are, on the contrary, in continuous dialogue, in a city where the limit between the rural and urban merges in a dance in which rivers, forests, crops and people relate at all levels on a daily basis.
What threatens our livelihoods?
The Andes are rich in gold and other minerals, but in this geological formation, wherever there is gold there is also pyrite, or “fool’s gold”. Indeed, it has been said there is between 20.000 and 100.000 times more pyrite than gold. When pyrite is removed from beneath the ground, it becomes sulphuric acid when it makes contact with oxygen (02) and water (H2O), causing acid drainage, leading to widespread downstream contamination. In the past, this has not been an issue for Ibagué, because people had never considered taking the gold, or pyrite, out of the ground, until a rumour started to spread 8 years ago about a multinational company’s interest in building South America’s largest gold mine in the region (between 12.9 and 35 million ounces (Moz), equivalent to 22.000 – 60.000 million of dollars). This would turn watersheds toxic and farmlands would be lost. People would lose the possibility of growing their own staple foods and selling the surplus to earn a living. The region would lose its agricultural vocation and water, air and soil would be polluted.
(An example of acid mine drainage in Spain. Photo: Wikipedia)
There are currently 100 mining titles in Ibagué. Almost 29% of its total area has been destined to extractive industries, amounting to an area almost four times more than the city of Paris. If these mining activities were to be developed, the environmental balance of the water, forests and crop systems would be threatened, and environmental services offered by these key ecosystems would be lost. Large-scale mining uses tremendous amounts of water (nearly 1000 litres of water per gram of gold are required) that are mixed with toxic chemicals like cyanide. Indeed, it has been estimated that the mine will produce between 2000 and 3500 millions of tonnes of toxic waste. Large scale mining would also lead to extensive deforestation, as the proposed pit would be at least 650 meters deep, given that for each gram of gold 4 tonnes of rock will be removed. Our fertile soils would be ruined, our rivers contaminated, threatening our collective right to a healthy environment.
What can be done?
This region has been characterized by having one of the first and strongest environmental movements in the country. Its people are straightforward and perseverant. People from all walks of life have come together to raise awareness regarding mining risks and impacts, and extending their knowledge about these topics to nearby regions that will also be affected. In 2013, when the possibility of placing the tailings dam of the mine in a nearby town called Piedras was known, people from the region came together to build a strategy and identified that a possible way of defending their land from this extractive activity, was by democratically participating in the decisions taken by local governments.
(An activist from Piedras with anti-mining leaflets. Photo: Felix Bonilla Cruz)
The Colombian constitution presents several citizen-participation mechanisms in which people can take part of crucial decisions. The Popular Consultation, essentially a local referendum, is one such mechanism, and can be requested by the mayor or a local authority, and has to be approved by the city council and the tribunal for being constitutional. It is an immediate democratic mechanism, which is contained in the Constitution and in a specific law, and it counts with jurisprudential support from the Constitutional Court.
Two other municipalities have held Popular Consultations before and they continue to be legally binding. In Piedras, more than a third of eligible voters showed up to vote, and of 3,008 votes, 2,971 voted against mining in their municipality. We hope Ibagué can follow this example. This would be the first Popular Consultation to be held in a major regional capital, probably in the World.
How can you help us?
Ibagué’s proposed question to be put to the ballots has already been approved by the city council and was recently declared constitutional, which gives us less than 30 days to organize for the referendum. We need to continue to raise awareness among the inhabitants of the city, spread the message massively about the logistical aspects of the voting date, print flyers with important info, get the news on the radio, and dispel myths being propagated by the mining company about the purported benefits of mining. We would like to give away T-shirts, to spread a colourful visual movement that day. We need to hold meetings with local leaders, and to carry out a door-to-door, word of mouth messaging strategy for people that don’t know how to read or don’t have Internet access. On the day of the referendum we need to have information points, we need to have volunteers that can guide people through the process, and we need to be able to mobilize people to the city and within the city.
The citizens of Ibagué have held seven Carnival Demonstrations in defence of life, water and biodiversity, filling the streets with tens of thousands of people, with colourful expressions manifesting their disagreements with extractive activities, and we are very positive about the people´s response to the Popular Consultation. We are filled with hope that Ibagué can be the World´s first city to take mining to public vote, and that it can become an important reference for other communities around the globe who are defending their land.
(Citizens call for the future they want in Ibague. Photo: RedColombia)
You can become part of this historic day by contributing to our campaign. If you are in the region, you can contact us directly and come and help, and if you are not, by donating there will be a volunteer or one more voter that has been able to express their opinion about mining democratically in your name! Join us in this dream!
Related information links
- Video “In Solidarity” to launch the Global Solidarity Network Yes to Life, No to Mining inspired in the case of Piedras, Tolima by The Gaia Foundation: https://vimeo.com/search?q=in+solidarity
- Video for the call of the Carnival Demonstrations in defence of life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDBtSexnGsA
- Video about the food production hub in the Tolima region:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mfv8azF7ido
- Documentary: “Resistance to Mining Expansion” filmed in the region by Aida Quiñones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90O5vVwFnE
- Video of musician band Manu Chao calling citizens to vote:https://www.facebook.com/Comité-Ambiental-en-D…
- Article “Mining in Colombia and Environmental Justice: How the Popular Consultation Process Works in Practice” by Luisa Ferreira Peralta for The Environmental Law Reporter: http://elr.info/news-analysis/46/10416/mining-c..
- Article “The Rise of Popular Consultations” by Diana Rodriguez for Quarterly Americas: http://www.americasquarterly.org/content/rise-p…
- Article “El Matoneo Continua” by Diana Rodriguez for La Silla Vacía: http://lasillavacia.com/elblogueo/blog/el-maton…
- Article “En Ibagué se está cocinando el future de la minería” in La Silla Vacía: http://lasillavacia.com/historia/en-ibague-se-c…
- Article “Hoy: El día D del oro” in La Silla Vacía: http://lasillavacia.com/historia/hoy-el-dia-d-d…