By Daniela Quintero Díaz, EL ESPECTADOR, July 22, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The people that live in Támesis, a municipality located in the mountains of southwest Antioquia Province, are afraid of the impacts of the mining megaproject in their territory. The AngloGold Ashanti Company is planning to extract 4.9 million tons of copper concentrate, gold, and other minerals from an area nearby, but the company has not included them, or the Andean Bear, in its environmental impact study. That fact is presented in the documentary “Verde como el oro” (Green As Gold)..
Gonzalo and Nelson are campesinos. They live in a tiny village of 22 families, located in the Támesis Municipality, in southwestern Antioquia. It’s a mountainous territory, rich with water, and surrounded by forests of fog.
They learned to work the land starting when they were little, but they also learned to hunt. The televisions, the living rooms, and the refrigerators in their houses used to be—years ago—adorned with the dried paws of a “bear wearing glasses” (the only bear that exists in Colombia, native to South America, and which is now labeled “Vulnerable” by the International Nature Conservation Union). It was thought that its bones had medicinal properties and there were several popular myths about them. “That’s all history now,” says one of them in the documentary “Verde como el oro”, directed by Isabella Bernal. Decades ago, the people learned to live with the bear and to protect it in these mountains of the Andes. From old-time hunters they turned into forest rangers and protectors of the species.
They understood that taking care of the bear also meant taking care of the ecosystem, and of the land where they lived. If the bear were to become extinct, the same thing would happen to the water, to the forest, and to their crops. The bear wearing glasses, explains Bernal, seeds the forests, a “little gardener” who spreads seeds all over the territory. “With his footsteps, he cracks open the earth, and where the seeds fall, he’s carrying his coat from one place to another. The light filters through the forest and the seed starts to germinate. It’s a species that is very important for maintaining the equilibrium of the tropical Andes.”
But now, these men and women, and the Andean bear also, are being threatened by a force majeure: the mining megaproject. In Jérico, the neighboring municipality, the AngloGold Ashanti Company is waiting for the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA in Spanish) to issue (or not) the environmental permit for the extraction of 4.9 million tons of copper concentrate, gold, and other minerals. According to the multinational itself, it will be one of the largest extractive schemes ever built in Colombia.
The first mine, Quebradona, out of five mines that the Company is planning to exploit, will be located between Jérico and Támesis. That’s barely 300 meters from the border between both municipalities and the Andean Bear Biological Corridor. There they plan to use drills and dynamite to reach the mineral deposits, which are found at a depth of 400 meters, and they plan to use underground construction for the extraction. According to the information furnished by the mining company itself, in the high part of the mountain, the procedure will produce a surface crater 365 meters deep and a kilometer long. It’s just a few meters from that area of subsidence where the Andean Bear Corridor is identified.
In the same way, they plan to produce nearly 119 million tons of toxic residues, which they plan to dispose of in a dry tailings deposit that would occupy 160 hectares (abut 200 football fields), located only 2.2 kilometers from the Cauca River. This deposit would also be about 219 meters tall at its highest point. That means, there would be a mountain of inert material of a height similar to the famous Stone of El Peñol.
“These plans contain exact projections of where the holes will be, and the factories, and the areas of tailings deposits. We took the coordinates of these points from the Company’s web site, and we went there to see what the areas would look like,” Bernal explains.
In spite of all of those transformations that would take place very close to Támesis, neither the residents, nor the Andes bear were included in the Environmental Impact Study (EIA in Spanish) or in the Company’s Environmental Management Plan. “Why weren’t we included?” the campesinos are wondering. “To conduct mining there would certainly affect us.”
The Mayor of Támesis, Juan Martín Vásquez, sent a letter to ANLA expressing the people’s concerns about not only being excluded from the Environmental Impact Study, but also expressing their historic and profound rejection of mining exploitation in the territory. In previous years they have promoted marches in which they argued that the vocation of these lands, rich in water and biodiversity, is agriculture. “We are coffee growers, we grow cacao, citrus products, avocados. Our mountains are free from mining; it is not part of the economic activities appropriate for these territories,” stated a resident of the Municipality about the demonstrations.
In the documentary, the Company gives assurances that, in the area of the project that they plan to last for 28 years, “There are no subterranean rivers. We found no evidence of any influence of the bear in the area of the project. We are not having any effect in connection with the species.”
Bernal and his team also took up the task of traversing the mountains, following the bear tracks, to confront those claims. The campesinos from the area were his guides.
“The bear is there, no matter how much AngloGold Ashanti says they haven’t seen him. We saw the bear’s scratch marks on the trunks of the trees, we saw his scat on the farms; we saw him. The trail cameras that the Gaia Corporation has put up in the territory also demonstrate the presence of the Andes bear, even though they want to exclude him from their inventory of mammals,” assures the Director.
Besides that, La Mama, the mountain where Quebradona would be located, is a hydrologic star. Nearly 18 rivers and streams begin there and flow directly into the Frío River, the Cartama River, and the Cauca River. “They are saying that there are no subterranean rivers, but there definitely are. They are there, and the documentary will show them,” says the Director. “The big threat is that in this area they are planning to build four tunnels six kilometers long, and a hole that would be 800 meters deep. That would drain away all of the water and dry out the mountain. Other studies done by Comfama demonstrate the same thing.”
AngloGold has said that it would plant 2,500 hectares of tropical forest in 20 years, including the obligatory compensation required by ANLA. “But that is a pretty low figure if you consider the amount of forest they will be destroying. Besides that, the connectivity of the forest will be lost during the operation of the project. Can you imagine losing that forest for 30 years,” wonders Isabella.
The Expansion of Mining
The map of southwestern Antioquia shows how that territory has been converted into “the pot of gold” for the mining industry. Nearly 79% of that area has lands that are titled, have requests for titles, and have been declared to be of strategic interest to mining, are in the mining permit process, and/or with ethnic mining going on, according to official data from the national mining platform Anna Mining, at the National Mining Agency (ANM in Spanish). Eight municipalities even have more than 90% of their territory planned for that.
“This are has never been a mining area, in the southwest, mining has never been included in development planning. It’s an agricultural zone, and the presence of this multinational has also provoked profound social division, principally among the inhabitants of Jérico,” insists Bernal. Because of that, he explains, with “Verde como el oro”, what they are trying to do is to start a conversation among the citizens that could halt the construction of Quebradona, but in the medium term, it would allow us to build a debate in Colombia about the meaning of environmental democracy, so that the communities could have some agency and decision about their lands.
“We are in time to stop the project, and we want ANLA to consider these arguments, and also to consider the will of the community, and understand that the bear does not move in the way that they have delimited the territory, that a map is not territory, and that a line is not a boundary.”
 Comfama, or Caja de Compensación Familiar, is a Colombian agency for the support of families.