(Translated by Haley Olig, a CSN Intern)
Colombia. The extraction of precious metal is put on standby as society now suspects water pollution and environmental disturbances.
Colombia is one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, with a variety of ecosystems including desert, rain forest, tundra, mountain ranges and cloud forests. It also has a tremendous cultural diversity, countless indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombian communities and, unlike its neighbor Venezuela, who has ostensibly become a land baron and oil company, many campesinos (farmers or peasants) who work the land and produce great quantities of food.
I took a peek at this reality on a trip we made to the state of Tolima, a few hours outside of Bogotá, in the west-center of the country, with the Grupo Permanente de Alternativas al Desarrollo (The Continuous Group for Alternatives to Development), which for five years has brought together forty intellectuals and activists from Latin America and Germany. In Tolima we toured the towns of Ibagué, Piedras, Doima and Cajamarca, and chatted with residents who oppose La Colasa, an over ambitious mega-project which, upon construction, would be the fifth largest gold mine in the world, and rest in the hands of the company Anglo Gold Ashanti. The crater of the mine would be in the Cajamarca municipality, considered “agricultural pantry of Colombia” for its importance in food production, from which vital water sources also stem. This spurred farmers, housewives and college students to organize in Comités Ambientales en Defensa de la Vida (Environmental Committees in Defense of Life).
It was former President J. Manuel Santos who in 2010 launched the slogan “la locomotora minera y energética” (“the mining and energy locomotive” that, according to Santos, would lead the country in economic development) and opened the country to one of the most questioned extractive activities in Latin America. Colombia is not a large-scale mining country like Peru or Bolivia, but is still a land of diamonds and coal, with one of the largest coal mines in the world: El Cerrejón in La Guajira. In recent years, in a context in which environmental regulations have been significantly relaxed, the South African company AngloGold Ashanti staged an enormous acquisition of mining titles that went virtually unseen by Colombian society. It is the third-largest multinational gold mining company worldwide and like its cousins (the Canadian Barrick Gold, also a specialist in gold), has a long list of crimes ranging from water pollution in Ghana, to allegations of financing paramilitaries in the Congo.
In Piedras, a small rice village half an hour outside of Cajamarca, a possible location for the leaching plant (which mixes cyanide and water to separate the mineral), townspeople requested to follow “the example of Esquel”, as one of spokesmen said, referring to the first consultation on mega-mining held in Argentina in 2003. The 2013 consultation in Piedras was the first public consultation in Colombia and showed 98% of votes went against the construction of La Colosa. Although it was brought to court by the government, the Supreme Court declared it constitutional. Thus, La Colosa became the emblematic conflict in Colombia surrounding extraction.
Mega-mining is not the only extractive conflict in the region. There is also the Master Plan of Development of the Río Magdalena, the country’s largest river, which begins in the mountains and has a length of 1500km. The grant is part of the policy called Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), which aims to make the river into a waterway for large ships to transport coal, oil, and palm oil for export. The other goal is to make the river a major energy source through the construction of several dams, many of them also serving mining projects. The fight against this huge privatization of the Magdalena River (into the hands of a Chinese company) led to a campaign by the name of “The River of Life”.
Noted writer William Ospina, a native of Padua, Tolima, who has accompanied the campaign, wrote: “The river is just one of the manifestations of water. To protect water here, defend water here is to totally defend the ecosystem of the entire territory and, to that extent, the world, are here in a particularly privileged place, and perhaps the place from which we must articulate to the world and for the world the discourse of water, so I think this is so important, because it cannot be perceived simply as a local struggle or provincial riverside fight to defend themselves from national forces that subjugate and want to overtake them, but it is the struggle of humanity to save the essence of their future, it is the fight to save this planet from its heralded and almost imminent collapse.”
On the trip we also shared informal conversations with youths and peasants of the Congreso de Los Pueblos (“Congress of the Towns”), a space officially launched in 2010, now with more than 17,000 delegates and 200 organizations. This movement of movements gathers indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, farmers, peace communities, neighborhood organizations, food sovereignty networks, and unions. Its defining characteristic is self-organization and their devotion defending the land, territory, sovereignty and the commitment to “peace with social justice”.
It is true that Colombia puts forth a tremendous and challenging scene: right-wing governments, an endless conflict where guerrillas, army and paramilitaries, involved in drug trafficking, dispute lives, property and territory; 6 million internally displaced Colombians, peace agreements that never quite materialize, paint a picture unfavorable to new political horizons. But seen up close, Colombia is also a theater of eco-territorial struggles in defense of life, a country which makes way for and generates broad and innovative social and political movements that struggle for the construction of a plural and democratic left. In short, a scene that seems to insert the country into a new and rising cycle of struggles.