How a Tiny Colombian Village Beat the World’s Third Largest Gold Mining Company

by Novara Reporters

In 2007, then-president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe announced that a gold deposit had been discovered in Tolima, a department of Colombia bordering the capital Bogota. Not just any old gold deposit. The vice-president of AngloGold Ashanti, the company which came to own the mining rights to the area, called it ‘the biggest gold discovery in the past ten years worldwide’. The La Colosa mine (meaning ‘The Colossus’) would occupy an area the size of 203 000 football pitches. And this was not any old business either – AngloGold is the world’s third largest gold mining company and won the 2011 Public Eye Award for the ‘most evil company in the world’ over allegations it polluted rivers and committed gross human rights violations in Ghana.

Local people in the village of Cajamarca decided this Goliath wasn’t for them. The region is mountainous, home to a unique páramo high moorland ecosystem. It’s also the source of much of the water of central Colombia, and most people work in agriculture. “How is in the breadbasket of the country are you going to build a mine. How are you going to eat?” were the words of one activist.

Ten years later the company has left the region following a referendum that decisively rejected the mine, and the Carnival March for Water, Life and Territory saw 120 000 people turn out in June in the department’s capital, Ibagué, which also recently became the first city in Colombia to prohibit polluting mining. This is a huge victory. Cristián Santoya recently caught up with Camila Méndez, a land and human rights defender and member of the Socio-Environmental Youth Collective of Cajamarca (COSAJUCA), one of the member organisations of the campaign, to tease out some lessons for other environmental justice campaigns.

They forged unity through collective identity

This wasn’t a fight against a mine. It was a “fight for the defence of the land, of water, of nature, for human rights and for human dignity,” says Camila. The disparate movement managed to forge a unity around the community’s agricultural identity and provided a positive alternative to mining. Under the banner of ‘water, life and territory’ they united many sectors from across society, many of whom wouldn’t normally have taken to the streets. ‘Defending water and life is not something of the left, of the right, but it’s something for everyone’, as one COSAJUCA activist put it. There is also a profound connection that many have with the territory. It’s this connection that is the source of popular sovereignty, and inspired campesino (‘peasant’) farmers to lose their fear. They beat the company “without money, with what we had, with what the land gives us”.

They exploited all available channels

Camila recalls that when they found out the company was coming, the didn’t want to just go out into the streets to protest. They wanted to make AngloGold leave. This meant using whichever channels of resistance were available to them: political, extra-political, and crucially, legal. Though it wasn’t easy, activists were able to take advantage of a mechanism in the constitution which allows local communities to make decisions about projects affecting them: the consulta popular (popular consultation, or referendum). This has set off a consulta fever in the country. Since 2013, there have been nine consultas (all of them said no to mining). 16 more have been approved and 55 more still are in the pipeline. Their success is proven by the fact the government is now fighting back, cutting off funds to local governments who want to run their own in an attempt to bypass this challenge to the dominant neoliberal model of development.

They fended off opposition with creativity, imagination and strategic improvisation

Camila emphasises creativity, imagination and strategic improvisation as three key principles central to the movement’s success, given the constant meddling and roadblocks they faced. Some of these were more foreseeable than others; In December 2016, the anti-mining mayor of Cajamarca died suddenly of a heart attack. The man who replaced him was in favour of the mine, and the consulta was unexpectedly scheduled for just two weeks later, in an attempt to wrong-foot the campaign. But they mobilised quickly, going farm by farm to spread the word and making use of their strong networks. A group of nuns gave a special mass and vigils; indigenous groups arrived the day before the vote to do a traditional ceremony blessing the land. Despite last ditch attempts to derail things – the municipality deliberately laid out fewer tables than normal, and on the morning of the vote text messages circulated claiming it had been cancelled – 6296 people turned out, 97% voting no.

Later, after the consulta had decisively rejected the mine, the Mayor claimed that people were dying of hunger after the departure of the company and its investment. How did the movement respond? By organising a huge meal for 2500 people in the central square on 26 November, drawing on a long activist tradition of building unity around food. The message was clear: in the breadbasket of Colombia, the people do not need a gold mining company to feed them.

They turned the university inside-out

The seed of the movement was in the public University of Tolima, the biggest in the department. But it bloomed well beyond the campus to empower ordinary people to take action. Students and academics at the university created an environmental diploma that taught people about the defence of the land and the environment. This was open to anyone who could read and write, free of charge, allowing broad participation in the campaign: women, campesino farmers, the elderly, young people. And what do thousands of diploma-holders do once they’re armed with this new knowledge? They “talk about it with their family, with their sons, with their husband, so now there’s another family joined up to the defence of the territory. That way the message multiplies itself,” Camila explains.

They used local culture

The organisers understood that if they tried traditional mass mobilisation and protest they would be criminalised. So they invented the ‘Carnival March for Life,’ a peaceful, artistic celebration of local culture and the environment (…and a protest). The first one drew 12 000 people, and they’ve been getting bigger and bigger ever since. Last year 120 000 turned out and replica marches have started popping up around the country.

They refused to be intimidated

“There is fear in communities because they’ve killed many of us, but we’re defending life”. At the beginning of the campaign against the mine, Álvaro Uribe, the country’s president, called the organisers ‘friends of terrorists,’ a barely-veiled signal to murderous paramilitary groups active in the area. And they got the message: COSAJUCA, one of the organisations behind the campaign, lost Juan Camilo Pinto in 2013 and Daniel Humberto Sánchez in 2014.

An example of the typical conditions activists continue to face came two days before the vote, when a public communication was circulated saying that members of the campaign were now a military target for the Aguilas Negras – ‘Black Eagles’ – a notorious paramilitary group. The organisers had the nerve to keep quiet, realising that going public would scare people from turning out.

Now that the conflict with the FARC has ended, (which was until recently the world’s longest running insurgency) you might expect things to be safer for environmental protectors. Not so. “What has happened is an increase in assassinations of leaders and defenders of human rights,” says Camila, as paramilitaries take advantage of the power vacuum to carry on pursuing their interests by assassinating those who defend the territory, just as they did before, but now without the pretext of hunting down guerrilla members. The UN reports that 105 activists and community leaders were murdered in 2017. Protection from the government isn’t forthcoming. According to Camila, Colombia is “a world leader in impunity and in the lack of investigation of these crimes… but as we always say they can’t take away our hope”.

They embraced a horizontal, flexible organising structure

Internally, the environmental committees have a participatory, open, networked horizontal model, which was key to retaining unity and growing the movement. Of course we shouldn’t fetishise horizontalism for its own sake, but the campaign found an organising model that suited the situation and helped them build unity.

“The Comité is open to anyone who wants to defend territory, life and water,” Camila explains. Everyone is welcome to meetings and treated the same, whether they’re an individual with an hour a week to contribute or an organisation with tens or hundreds of members, like COSAJUCA. This demand for participation has particular resonance in Colombia, where many social sectors have long been marginalised from the political process and don’t feel represented by the distant, centralised state. That’s precisely the problem with the imposition of a mega mine by a foreign company, and underpins the commitment to a participatory organising process.

What they sought to cultivate within the movement was not “the rigid ideology of political parties”, but “a logic of the movement, which has the flexibility of accepting that there are people who are never going to think like us, but today can unite in defence of water, of ecological heritage,” outlines Renzo García, a prominent spokesperson for the movement.

Internally horizontalist, the broader movement functioned as a network of local environmental committees, community groups, associations and organisations such as COSAJUCA to become more than the sum of its parts. This was a flexible and spontaneous form, with “moments where we all come together, and others where we do our own work”.

They haven’t cracked it, Camila admits. “It’s simple and complicated at the same time. It’s a constant construction”. Necessarily it’s an unfinished process, but so far they’ve managed to foster collective ownership of the movement and helped people see past their differences to what unites them.

They recognised that the struggle is intersectional

“Fine, we’ve got rid of the mining company but what about our position as women?” Things don’t end with the exit of AngloGold. The struggle against extractivism – a system which exploits and commodifies the earth’s natural and human resources – is the struggle against patriarchy. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein draws the link between women’s bodies and ‘sacrifice zones’, areas that can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress. Indeed it’s a patriarchal understanding of ‘humanity’ underpinning the humanity-nature dichotomy which underpins the extractive model.  Taking it back to Cajamarca, machismo is still a problem; women are often burdened with domestic duties that stop them from participating in collective decision-making. But now the company is gone, Camila explains that women are continuing to meet to think about what their proposals are for what comes next.

They want to go beyond the local – to build counter-hegemony

The campaign has been hugely successful, but organisers know that it has to be more than a parochial pocket of resistance to the extractivist advance. Unless the underlying economic model is contested, a mine beaten is just a mine moved.

The environmental defenders in Tolima have taken this challenge head on. After the latest Carnival March in Ibagué, a group of 45 leaders from the Tolima region hopped on a bus to cross the country and support another municipality, Cumaral, which was holding a consulta on oil extraction. And in November 2017, 70 organisations met in Ibagué as the National Environmental Movement, and have called a mobilisation for 1 June 2018. This cohesion of social movements imagining an alternative to the current system is intimidating extractive companies and governments.

The next step is global. “We’re facing up to a worldwide model,” recognises Camila. “The mining-energy model comes from the North. It’s a form of colonising our territory and seizing power through corporations and the extractive industry”. That’s why she made the journey to London, to contest the Mines and Money Conference back in November.

UK complicity

The UK government is wedded to the same neoliberal ideology that sees extractivism as the way forward for Colombia and, conveniently, for British business. With a full post-Brexit free trade agreement the ultimate goal, in 2016 the Department for International Trade pushed particularly for greater cooperation in the oil and gas sector – historically a driver of environmental conflict – at the same time as boasting of its efforts to support post-conflict activity in Colombia.

Pushing greater cooperation in the oil and gas sector is firmly rooted in creating a ‘friendly business environment’ for companies to invest. This translates to a continued lack of effective regulation to protect human rights and the environment. Instead, non-binding voluntary principles – which have often resulted in the legitimation of some of the worst corporate offenders – will continue as the norm for British companies’ extractivist activities in the global South. This is the preferred model for the EU and the US, which have repeatedly tried to stop the process towards the development of binding legislation to regulate multinational corporations’ activities.

Kew Gardens, a government quango, also recently gave current President Santos the Kew International Medal for work protecting biodiversity, in another tasty piece of two-faced PR work. Though Santos has indeed pledged to double the area under national environmental protection, quite literally two days after he was awarded the Kew prize, Santos visited the UAE to secure a $1 billion investment in a gold mine on the border of the Santurban páramo, a delicate protected ecosystem that provides water for more than 2.3 million people in the northeast of the country. And under the current president’s watch, the area of land under concession for mining and hydrocarbon extraction has surpassed that dedicated to agriculture. A true eco-warrior.

For those of us living in centres of power in the global North – this is our fight too. At the time of the consulta in Cajamarca, one campesino farmer told Camila, “what was done in Cajamarca wasn’t for Cajamarca it was a contribution by Cajamarca to humanity. To conserve what we are is not for us; it’s for the whole world”. Cajamarca has done us a favour, it’s time use the lessons of their success and return it.

Published 25th March 2018

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