Tolima: territorial resistance to mega-projects

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)


The state of Tolima, in the heart of Colombia, is a focal point in the conflict between two opposing models in this country:  on one side, a short term model, unsustainable and destructive of the environment and of the communities.  That model is contained in the government’s National Development Plan. Even though the plan is prettied up with phrases like “green” and “social democratic”, the continuation of policies favorable to industrial agriculture, strip mining, and the concentration of land and capital is evident.[1] On the other hand, it is the communities that are keeping up a disciplined and dignified defense of our water, of our lives, of the environment, and of the vocation of agriculture in the Tolima countryside, as well as of the necessity to think about a development that is in accord with the needs of the communities, in the long term, and with respect for the environment.

This conflict is demonstrated particularly in the communities’ resistance to the mining and hydroelectric mega-projects that the government is pushing in the state.  All of them are intimately tied together, because the seven hydroelectric projects that they are planning for the southern part of Tolima appear to be intended to feed the enormous energy demands from the mining mega-projects such as La Colosa by AngloGold Ashanti (which has taken over 60% of the territory in the Municipality of Cajamarca -30,440 hectares – with 21 mining titles).[2] In view of this, the people of Tolima have put up a broad and extensive resistance that by now is bearing fruit, with proposals for alternative development such as the plan for Campesino Reserve Areas that the Tolima Campesino Associations are supporting.

Mega-mining has Ibagué in its sights.

The subject of the mega-projects is not a matter that just threatens the rural areas, far from the cities.  Ibagué, which every year since 2009 has been the scene of multitudinous marches-carnivals against mining and in defense of water and of life, is, literally, a whole municipality in concession for the exploitation of gold, copper, silver, platinum, lead and zinc. Thirty percent of the territory in the municipality, according to National Mining Agency statistics, is divided into 99 issued mining titles with an area of 42.712 hectares, plus 44 mining titles applied for, with an area of 33.251 hectares, equaling 23% of the total territory of the municipality.  Of these, 27 titles are the property of the multinational AngloGold Ashanti, with an area of 31.354 hectares (73.4%).  One title belongs to Continental Gold Ltd., with an area of 4.223 hectares (9.9%) and three titles are the property of Negocios Mineros S.A., with an area of 2.752 (6.4%), and 68 titles belong to other companies, with an area of 4,382 hectares (10.3%).

These concessions are located in the Combeima River valley.  It has 39 titles issued with an area of 7.595.4 hectares (27.7% of the total).  This includes the area adjacent to the water intake of the Ibal River and a stream called Cay. A mining title with an area of 160.5 hectares (37.2% of the dome) has been issued barely 17 kilometers from the city limits of Ibagué, in the dome of the Machín Volcano, plus two mining titles are applied for, with are area of 269.7 hectares (62.8% of the total area of the dome).  The páramos are not saved either.  Ten titles have been issued with an area of 5,297.2 hectares (30.4% of the total area of the páramos).

In response to this extractivist madness, they are pushing a series of public initiatives, such as the Public Consultation, an initiative approved by the Municipal Council last February. They intend to ask the members of the public the following question:  “Do you agree, yes or no, with what the Ibagué Municipality is doing by carrying out activities that involve soil contamination, loss or contamination of the water, or effects on the agricultural and touristic functions of the municipality, in order to promote mining projects?”[3] They are also going to carry out a new Carnival March on June 3, where they once again expect thousands of people to express their defense of the land and the water, filling the streets of the provincial capital with bright colors.[4]

Open Meeting in the Marina (Chaparral) opposing the hydroelectric plant on the Ambeima River

The Mayor of Chaparral, Humberto Buenaventura, in the presence of representatives of the provincial Assembly, and with all members of the municipal Council, faced with a strong militarization of the territory, held an open meeting on May 27 in La Marina.  More than 800 people attended, coming from different districts of the municipality (El Limón, Amoyá, Las Hermosas, Calarma) as well as from the Municipality of San Antonio. Campesinos, indigenous people, and representatives of associations – including an important delegation from ASTRACATOL (Tolima Farmworkers Association) – and some NGO’s all joined hands to give a big fat rejection of the development of a hydroelectric project using water from the Ambeima River.  The business called Energy for the Andes SAS wants to do that project.  We need to point out that the local authorities are echoing the public’s clamor and are trying to defend the river and the communities that live around it.  They are expressing their rejection of the plan.

The opposition to this project is the result of the direct experience of the campesinos, since in 2010 CORTOLIMA (Tolima Regional Autonomous Corporation) issued the license to develop a hydroelectric project using the water from the Ambeima River.  The community roundly rejected this project.  It was accompanied by strong militarization of the territory and by human rights violations by the soldiers from the “José Domingo Caicedo”  XVII Infantry Battalion, attached to the 6th Brigade, and also by paramilitary forces working with the Battalion.  As part of that militarization of the territory, in 2011 Héctor Orozco and Gildardo García, the directors of the campesino association ASTRACATOL, were murdered and several members and directors of that same association were arrested.  All of them were known to be opposed to the project.[5]

In several efforts, the difficulty about the Ambeima River could be seen reflected in the mirror of the dam in Las Hermosas canyon, built by ISAGEN, a Colombian energy company several years ago.  Today ISAGEN is in the hands of Brookfield, a Canadian multinational.  A report issued by ILSA and ASTRACATOL in 2014[6] noted some of the impacts suffered in the canyon because of the Hidroamoyá project: repression of local leaders that actually led to the capture and prosecution of 17 community leaders, showing an astonishing militarization of the territory; social breakdown at all levels because of the influx of foreigners and the Army itself; seven fish species have disappeared from the river below the dam; 16 species of mammals and birds also migrated away from the region; in 10 towns, 70 water sources dried up—those little creeks that give life to the hillsides in the woods and the farms belonging to the campesinos.  They don’t just affect the environment, but also the farms’ productive capacity. That was reduced by 40%, with farms that had previously provided 100 loads of coffee now providing 60 at the most. Also, the business fooled the community with its promises of royalties.  They started out talking about 2,500 million pesos (about $830,000) in royalties and now they are talking about 60 (about $20,000) at the most. Meanwhile the roads, the health centers and the schools continue to be in a deplorable state. In view of the Las Hermosas experience, the La Marina community has good reasons to expect nothing but the worst with the Ambeima River project.

The militarization that is aimed at neutralizing the results of the resistance.

But just as the campesinos of La Marina see themselves reflected in the situation at Las Hermosas, they can also see reflections in the battle by the people of Planadas. They purposefully opposed the Hidroplanadas project that is planned by the CINETIK SAS Company over the Ata River with forceful activities that included the massive march in November 2013.  It gathered some 10,000 people in Planadas.  All of these events, like the systematic opposition in the hearings, led CORTOLIMA finally to deny the license to carry out the hydroelectric project in 2015. The public opposition was fortified after the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the rule in the mining code that stopped local authorities from opposing any mining project.[7] That set  a precedent so that public pressure on the authorities could be extensive against other kinds of mega-projects, like the hydroelectric projects that, as we have said, are always intimately tied to mining.

The militarization of La Marina in the days before, during and after the open hearing was possible thanks to the unilateral ceasefire of the FARC-EP.  The Army, which for some years barely dared to show their faces in the region for fear of the heavy strikes that the insurgency had been dealing them, now took advantage if this gesture by the guerrillas to surround the territory.

This militarization is symptomatic of the vision that the government has of the post-conflict.  What is the point of militarizing a territory where the FARC-EP have not carried out any military action for a year and a half?  In which there is no problem of public order?  We can find the reason in a reflection by Alfredo Molano, who says that “they talk about maintaining the combat readiness of the Armed Forces. (. . .) the real reason is that, with the end of the armed conflict, the social conflicts remain alive and it’s for that eventuality that the Army and the Police have to prepare . . .”[8] Neither is it a coincidence that members of ASTRACATOL and of Marcha Patriótica in Tolima are receiving new threats from paramilitaries that are shielded by the initials AUC and that are called Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles). It would not be unusual if they were operating hand in hand with the so-called Armed Forces – that’s nothing new when there are multinationals and extractive business interests.  They increase their attacks and violations against organizations of the people. All of this only proves the need to fortify our resistance and the mobilization of the people against this model of destructive and unsustainable development.

But this struggle is not confined only to the people of Tolima. You can see the terrible consequences of this development model all over Colombia:  in Casanare, in La Guajira, everywhere. The great challenge continues to be to articulate these struggles and the resistance at a regional and national level. Another challenge is the rejection of the formulation of an alternative development project that was proposed by the territories.

The people’s organizations that have been working in different settings to develop plans for their livelihood are shining an important light on things.  In Tolima, ASOHERMOSAS (the Las Hermosas Association) has put forth an exemplary plan for quality of life.  It shows that in the popular sectors, we are not short of ideas to build and push an alternative model that will be centered on the welfare of the communities and of the environment.

Also in southern Tolima, the campesino organizations are now headed for the development of a Campesino Reserve Zone.  In the countryside we are contributing to the preparation of a national level project, a project for a Colombia where there is room for many Colombians, a project that will require everybody’s agreement, their creativity, their ingenuity, their commitment, their imagination and their capacity to be positive, but it will also require steadiness, organization and the ability to confront the forces that would even resort to violence to avoid the limitations that would be imposed on their greed.











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