“We can live without gold or without silver, but not without water and peace.” In the rural community of El Volador (Arboleda municipality), they thought about moving the school because of its proximity to the exploration platform and the effects of the noise. The Gran Colombia Gold mining company donated school materials to the girls and boys of that very school, and in the notebooks the following inscription was read: “After the storm comes the calm. Mining is your friend.” This February 28 and 29, a forum will take place at the university of Nariño (Pasto) to seat the group that will dialogue with the departmental and national governments.
A part of the population of the municipalities of San Lorenzo and Berruecos (today known as Arboleda) is denouncing the deterioration of the social fabric and the contamination of the environment because of the explorations by the Gran Colombia Gold mining company. For more than 15 months this company has been carrying out excavations in different communities of these municipalities, looking for gold and silver, although the inhabitants have concluded that the explorations are in search of all kinds of ores. Rodrigo, an inhabitant of El Volador ( a community in Arboleda), says that they have also found copper and lime (a component of cement) in the region.
In these municipalities, located three hours to the northeast of Pasto (the capital of Nariño), live about 19,000 peasants, people who work the land and who generation after generation have devoted themselves to agricultural work for several centuries, and have never become accustomed to mining work. They affirm that before the mining arrived they did not know much about what they had under the soil of their land, until the explorations began to put the soil to a new use, and generated great uncertainty and conflicts among the people of the area as money, work and other considerations were offered for the explorations in their territory.
Since the miners arrived, in the first half of 2011, the local people have been denouncing the silence of Gran Colombia Gold. They also accuse the outgoing mayor of Arboleda, Ciro Rafael Delgado, and the ex-governor—the current government secretary of the Bogotá mayor’s office—Antonio Navarro Wolff, of never having let the arrival of the mining company in the area be known publicly, and through INGEOMINAS [Instituto Colombiano de Geología y Minería—the government agency charged with administration of these resources—SC] and CORPONARIÑO (the corporation charged with caring for the environment in Nariño) of permitting the concession of land and water resources.
During the first months, the peasants just saw persons come and go from the community carrying equipment, measuring, observing. The assure us that there was never any advance notice to the communities about what was going to happen; the lack of knowledge was evident up to the point that the mining company saw the necessity of entering their farms and asking permission, with economic remuneration, to carry out their work. One of the affected peasants, a member of the social mission office of the church, tells how Mazamorras Gold (the name of the project of the company within the area) failed to adequately inform them: “They went to the owners of land with the story that they were going to open a little hole like this, nothing more, and then they left; and now they that they want to get them to leave their own lands.”
Jobs with the mining company and conflicts
The jobs that the company offered to the people of the area were of three kinds: laborer, charged with loading equipment, material, tools, cutting paths and doing all the heavy work that the engineers might need; watchman, who would be charged with taking care of the equipment, the camps, the platforms and the sites of the engineers; and social work, the majority of these women, who would be charged with social inclusion, although the local people assure us that their task is “to convince the rest of the ‘benefits’ of the project.”
One of the workers who has withdrawn from the work in the mine gives a broader picture of the situation of the laborers: “There were a number of us working; the first two weeks 65 of us went in and then left, the majority of whom are opposed because we realized the damage that it was doing. And those who are working there are people who are not from the community and are not used to field work; that’s why for them it is hard to think that the company might leave.”
In the beginning the laborers had a salary about 30,000 to 40,000 pesos a day (roughly 16.70 to 22.50 a day in US dollars. In 2011, the minimum wage in Colombia was 535,600 pesos a month—SC], three times their pay for a day’s work on the farms, an amount that after the confrontations with the community in October of 2011 were doubled and even tripled. The same thing happened with other workers. After these events, the company organized a demonstration in which they pressured the workers to participate with their families. Today about 15 persons from the community are bringing complaints to judicial agencies over the threats they say they received from the security personnel of the company.
Devastating Effects on Agriculture
The sensation among the population is that since the arrival of the company the effects have been devastating and are taking on a discouraging rhythm. The people of the area have seen how the social fabric of the community has been coming apart little by little; they frequently point out their concern as the see how the community is being destroyed owing to the confrontations between the local residents and the mine workers. Of these latter many are also local residents, which frequently turns the conflict into conflicts within families or between neighbors.
These communities have always been dedicated to agriculture, to working the land. The majority of them grow coffee, their main commercial market—together with the National Association of Coffee Growers—and they also produce plantain, potato, beans, corn, ulluco [another root vegetable like potato—SC], wheat, yucca, guava, some fruits and crops that are appropriate in the temperate climate for their own food. The large extensions of land that are seen from the mountain heights are mostly cultivated, and several families live on their slopes. Among their peaks behind the views from the highways there are towns like Santa Marta with residents more than one hundred years old.
The peasantry of the region complains about the continuous judgments of the mine engineers who claim that their land, where they are going to carry out their explorations, are nothing more than unworked thick weeds. On the contrary, and if the camera lens does not lie, it was easy to make out great extensions of cultivated land on every mountain.
One of the great worries is what will happen to the land where they have lived for years. The peasantry knows the discourse of the State about who owns the subsoil and non-renewable natural resources (Article 332, Political Constitution of Colombia) and how this argument is a pretext for expropriating the land and handing it over to a foreign multinational to exploit it. But the peasant families ask themselves where the peasant families are going to end up, and under what conditions. They have not known displacement, and they do not want to experience it; they have worked that land for years and they cannot understand why now, under the pretext of mining, they are going to take away everything they have gotten.
Platforms and expansion of the mines
The Mazamorras Gold project started its first work in the rural community of Bolívar (municipality of Arboleda) where they acquired the land to carry out their exploration by renting a piece of land of less than ten square meters. There they put their drilling machines, which reach a depth of 500 to 700 meters, and from there they looked for other farms to get themselves set up and start more drilling. For this, they opened roads, they made paths through the countryside and they pumped the water of the Mazamorras River for their work. The machines made noise 24 hours a day looking for ore. According to rumors among the population, the company has found several ores throughout the length and breadth of the area. Today they have expanded to different communities like Olaya, Yunguilla o Salado with multiple exploration platforms.
In the community of El Volador they thought about moving the school because of how close it is to the exploration platform and the effects of the noise. The company donated school materials and toys to the girls and boys of that same school in December of 2011; in the notebooks the following inscription was read: “After the storm comes the calm. Mining is your friend.”
The way these platforms function is the following: the engineers determine the sites in which they will surely find ores. They install a little base, called a platform, there with a drilling system that perforates and sucks out all the residue of the exploration. The suction is done through pumping; for this they use the water of the ravines or the Mazamorras River. The amount used for a hydraulic pump is 246 liters a minute for a drilling machine like the kmB 1.4 of Versadrill Canada; its daily consumption is 354,240 liters.
“They are three-inch tubes which the machinery is pushing, a drill, and then they start putting chemicals in there, and the stones start coming out a little, and it goes over there and it hardens, and if earth comes out it is no good to them. They were throwing all the residues, with cyanide, into the ravines using return hoses, and they were saying that that for a small amount was not bad,” says one of the workers who decided to withdraw from the mining company.
According to the studies carried out through the Referendum for Water—a proposal from different social organizations that are trying to transform some articles of the Constitution so that access to water will be a fundamental right—the monthly consumption per dwelling among the strata 1 to 4 [socioeconomic strata that go from miserable to upper-middle income, that is, the vast majority of the population of Colombia—SC] is 15 cubic meters, which would give a daily consumption of 500 liters per dwelling in the big cities. Therefore, the daily consumption of one exploration machine is the equivalent of 708.48 dwellings per day, which is substantially greater than the consumption per user in a rural type of municipality.
The name of this exploration project, Mazamorras Gold, was taken from the name of the Mazamorras River, which runs through the mountainous region of various municipalities of northern Nariño and empties into the Juananbú River. The river got its name during the period of the Colony because the paths near it were an obligatory passage for travelers, and therefore women would station themselves on one side and the side of the river to offer plates of mazamorra, a kind of corn grown by the South American indigenous cultures. The people of the area do not think that Gran Colombia Gold knows this, but what truly worries them is that the owners of the mine are presenting themselves on news programs and on their web page as the owners of this territory.
“Water is everything, it is our mother, our father and our hope. When it is no longer here there will be nothing else around, just an immense desert that will hide the blood of those who fought to defend it,” according to don Tomás. Between San Lorenzo and Arboleda, next to the communications tower of these villages, is La Marucha, a little lake in plain sight that is capable of supplying thousands of residents of the area. Its water supplies the municipalities of San Lorenzo, Buesaco and Arboleda, irrigating their crops and supplying clear, clean water. There are myths awaiting us behind the lake, and everyone knows that she is wild and when she roars it is announcing rain. “It’s not a good idea to bother her, because she becomes furious and makes the earth tremble,” says don Gerardo, one of the oldest residents of the region. He also told us about the hen of the golden chickens that roams around La Marucha and never lets herself be trapped; whenever someone wants to grab her she goes out to the middle of the lake and loses herself in its depths. Certainly for centuries, it has slaked the thirst of these lands of the Colombian massif. [“El maciso colombiano,” a geological formation that is among the stellar sources of water in the country—SC]
One of the people of the area tried to cover La Marucha, throwing a mountain over it. After this event, the inhabitants organized a period of work to rescue it and managed to remove great amounts of earth and even pieces of trees in order to be able to uncover it. They say that they were at these tasks for more than two weeks until finally La Marucha resurged.
La Marucha is two hours of cross-country travel from the nearest village, which is Santa Marta. The spiritual meaning of the lake for the people living there has no price, apparently not even all the gold that the mine could offer them for it. La Marucha is currently state property and is managed and controlled by CORPONARIÑO. The peasants know that the State can hand over its properties to whomever it wishes through the expropriation and resale of lots as regulated by articles 332 and 333 of the Political Constitution and the current mining code; after this, we ask if the State is the community, or who is the State. But in the case of La Marucha, the inhabitants understand that the State could take it away from the community in order to hand it over to foreign multinationals, just as is happening with the ravines that run out of La Marucha and that are being used for pumping water for mining exploration.
The role of the State
The State has been buying or expropriating land throughout our national territory under the norms of Law 6895 of 2001, the current mining code, modified by Law 1382 of February of 2010, where the regulations that pertain to the mining work are stipulated. According to Carlos Duarte, in his research “Legislative chronologies of the subsoil in Colombia,” that legislation was advised directly by CEMEX, HOLCIM, Ladrillera Santafé—cement companies linked to the construction business—and was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank.
This new editing of the Law granted the same guarantees to foreign companies as to domestic ones about ownership of land and exploitation. Four articles could concisely summarize the goal of the change in the norm: Article 4 established the complete authority of the State to exploit [resources—SC] in any site in the country, defining the inalienability and non-assignability of resources; and Articles 18, 19 and 20 grant to foreign companies and persons the same rights of exploitation as those held by domestic capital.
Reduction of environmental and social safeguards, and in the royalties and the taxes paid by private companies are the consequences of this new Law. Carlos Duarte has collected valuable data about the use of public resources in Canada to intervene in the change in the mining legislation in Colombia and Africa. The Canadian government contracts with a team of lawyers to coordinate with the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank on advising in the development of the mining code.
In respect to this, here is a part of the speech of the Deputy Bernard Bigras (Quebecois Bloc) of the Canadian parliament, presented in the research of Carlos Duarte: “Through their Energy, Mining and Environmental Project, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided technical and financial support to edit the Colombian mining legislation. The revised version of the mining code of 2001 was adopted without consulting with the people who might have been affected, like the indigenous communities. This code created conditions for investment that are extremely favorable to foreign companies. The code of 2001 has weakened an important number of environmental and social safeguards, and has created important economic incentives, dramatically reducing the mining royalties and reducing taxes for private companies.”
The peasants’ concern comes from the State’s methods of appropriating land to use in mining. They remember what happened in the month of October of 2011 when the State took on the responsibility of sending the public security forces to protect the mining camps, a fact that generated a contradiction for the population, which had assumed that the State is there to protect the citizens, not to repress then.
“If they keep working, the water will be polluted and the land will be a desert, since the minerals will be gone that sustain the plants and that also sustain the people through our crops.” The mining company argues that underground exploration and exploitation have a minimal effect on the environment and the soil where they carry out their work. But the people who live there are asking: How are they going to do that if they have exploited the subsoil? Where will the soil be put? Are we going to farm in the air? Is it possible that plants and crops do not need the minerals below the earth in order to grow, produce and reproduce?
Location: none provided
Date Published: February 11, 2012
Translated By: Steve Cagan, a CSN volunteer translator
This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.