Tolima, Colombia: Resistance to mining becomes movement for peace and democracy

By CATAPA Belgica. 22/07/2016

On June the 3rd 2016, the streets of the Colombian city of Ibagué are packed with people. No less than 120,000 folks from every corner of the department of Tolima are marching as part of Ibagué’s Carnival March in defence of land, water and life. It is an enormous turnout for a city with a population of 465,000.

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(Ibagué can become one of the first cities that could be able to stop a mining giant by means of a referendum. © El Cuarto Mosquetero)

As they march, people raise their voices for more ecological awareness and better protection of natural wealth as they do each year. But this year, the main issue on everyone’s mind and lips is the city’s upcoming referendum, which will give citizens a chance to vote on the future of the ‘La Colosa’ mega open-pit gold mining project, which will be located at around 34 km from the city.

As its name ‘The Colossus’ indicates, if built, the La Colosa goldmine would become the biggest in the Northern Andes region. The project belongs to South-African gold company AngloGold Ashanti, which owns the region’s mining concessions and is planning to extract the first ounces of gold within ten years.

Elsewhere in Colombia, similar democratic initiatives are springing up to challenge the expansion of large-scale mining operations throughout the country. In Cajamarca – another town in Tolima located in the middle of a future mining project – citizens are also preparing for their own referendum on mining.

“Cajamarca and its rural communities demand their government to guarantee them a life in dignity on their land”, says Robinson Arley Mejia Alonso, a member of social-ecological youth collective COSAJUCA.

Robinson’s concerns are shared by many across the Tolima region and beyond. Efforts to take back democratic control over decisions concerning mega projects have unleashed a major political and social movement in the region, which is considered of national importance for mining by the Colombian Government.

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(120.000 folks from every corner of the Tolima’s department march to raise their voice. © Viviana Sánchez​)

Having fought hard to win the right to hold a referendum in the first place, citizens of Ibague will now have the opportunity to answer the following question:

“Do you agree -YES or NO- that in this municipality mining projects and mining activities should take place, which imply soil contamination, water loss or water contamination and several impacts to the agricultural and touristic vocation of the municipality?”

According to Renzo García Parra, one of the driving forces behind the referendum in Ibagué and member of the local environmental NGO Comité Ambiental en Defensa del Agua y la Vida, if Ibague says NO to mining, the city would become one of the first in the world to stop a mining giant by means of a referendum.

This is the first time in Colombia that a mega mining project could be stopped by the actions of its citizens. The referendum in Ibagué is already been reviewed by the Constitutional Court. It is expected that this Court will deliver a positive verdict on the legality of the referendum since it has been sentencing against a few of the most controversial pro mining laws since 2010.

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(The main issue of the Great Carnival March is the referendum on the ‘La Colosa’ mega open-pit gold mining project. © El Cuarto Mosquetero) 

Peace and fair distribution of land

The protest in the Tolima region continues to spread. Even the mayor of Ibagué openly supports the resistance movements and the referendum. According to García, Tolima has become Colombia’s centre of resistance against the extractive policies of President Santos. The popular democratic movement is a thorn in the side of the Colombian president whose development plan ‘Locomotora Minera’ is all about promoting large-scale mining operations through an investment friendly climate.

By demanding a binding referendum, the region has become a national symbol of democratic citizen participation at a crucial moment in Colombia’s national history. This kind of democratic political participation has been a missing link in the historical peace process in Colombia, say land right activists and rural communities across Colombia. It has not been part of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP, reached in Havana on June 23th. This flood of protest and democratic participation is therefore diametrically opposed to that other spearhead of Santos’ policy: the peace agreement.

After 60 years of intense violence, Colombia is finally experiencing its transition to peace, with a peace treaty expected to be signed very soon. It is hoped the treaty will bring to an end a conflict that has mainly been fought in the countryside, where unequal land distribution and control over natural wealth are sources of conflict. No less than half of Colombia’s territory is in the hands of only 1% of the population and the country has one of the world’s largest concentrations of internally displaced populations, reported at 6 million people.

A fair distribution of land and citizen participation in decisions concerning Colombia’s natural wealth are therefore of paramount importance for real peace to be achieved. This means that, as in Tolima, communityies must be able to speak out and be heard on issues such as mining. The Colombian people cannot peacefully live together if they are not involved in the redistribution of their land and the granting of mining concessions in their region.

Listen to the people!

Unfortunately, issues concerning a lack of democratic participation and unequal land access- threaten to fall outside the peace treaty.

This is why the referenda in Ibagué and Cajamarca are so important. Not only do they prove that a democratisation of environmental issues is possible, they give peace a chance in the countryside of Colombia by returning power to the people.

It seems that the Colombian people are a few steps ahead of their leaders in understanding and initiating a peace process that is just and durable. While the official peace process is still in its final throes, Colombians have already started to get to the territorial and political roots of the nation’s problems.

 


 

CATAPA is a volunteering organization that works around sustainable development and alternatives to globalisation, with a focus on the mining issues and Latin America. they are members of the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network.

This blog was produced to celebrate the Global Day Against Mega Mining on 22nd July 2016.

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