In Colombia, oil companies find fertile grounds but difficult to overrule communities.
As many as 98 per cent of residents voted to block a mining project which would have had destructive effects on the urban population and the local ecosystem by putting an end to the use of the river’s water and extensive land drilling. Here’s why Camila Mèndez and many other young activists are taking to the streets of Cajamarca, a small village in the Tolima region, Central Colombia.
Camila is part of the youth collective Cosajuca, just one of the many South American movements mushrooming in recent years in response to growing threats to turn villages and rural areas and mining hothouses.
Social movements have always been present in South America and in particular the areas within the Amazon forest. Populations have been fighting to protect their natural heritage, moved by moral values and an unshakable belief that their voices must be heard. Governments too, are now coming to similar conclusions, giving further thrust to these campaigns.
In fact, in May 2016, the Colombian Constitutional Court invalidated a 2001 law which prohibited municipalities from declaring areas off-limits to mining companies, and ruled that: ‘municipalities have a constitutional right to hold referendums on and ban mining’, writes the Yes to Life No to Mining environmental organisation.
According to the South African news agency GroundUp, although the leading global gold producer AngloGold Ashanti was on the territory from 1999, this only appeared in the newspapers interested in the Andes in 2007. Nevertheless, over its 20-year presence in Colombia, the company accumulated more than 442 mining licences, for a total of nearly 800,000 hectares, distributed in more than half of Colombia’s regions.
The South African organisation, ActionAid denounced AngloGold Ashanti for having violated human rights and causing environmental damage during gold mining in Ghana. People of the small village of Obuasi revealed to the NGO that the river water, which was used for drinking, fishing and irrigation, has now been polluted with heavy metals such as arsenic, iron and manganese.
‘When experts came to measure the affected places, they’ve told us it is poisonous because of the cyanide. Because I don’t sell my crops, my income has gone down’, said Abi Tessa, a local smallholder, to ActionAid.
Meanwhile, poorer people have no other choice than to continue farming on polluted lands to feed their families. Another farmer, Brian Fatusu, declared to the NGO: ‘Since we don’t have any option, we turn a deaf ear to the fact that it is dangerous. We have to eat. So we eat this’.
Following its deplorable environmental and human rights record in Ghana, AGA was awarded the Greenpeace Public Eye Award for being ‘The World’s Most Irresponsible Company’, in 2011. International cry-outs only brought imperfect victories in Ghana, where AGA was ordered to pay out to the communities affected.
Destructive drilling ruined another West African region, the Republic of Mali, where according to the London-based peace organisation Colombia Solidarity Campaign, the company’s decade-long activities caused AIDs, lung diseases, and a rise in miscarriages.
‘Local residents claim that new cases of serious water pollution and flooding are still occurring and that alternative sources of water provided by AGA, such as public standpipes, are dangerously contaminated, broken or obsolete’.
According to a BBC report, Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy, Germán Arce, (who according to the business magazine LatAm Investor, ‘promotes the exploration of oil and gas so that the country can boost its reserves’) after the referendum results stated: ‘the town’s decision could not be applied retroactively’ therefore ‘if the project had already obtained environmental licenses, AngloGold Ashanti should have the right to proceed’.
To date, according to the organisation Yes to Life No to Mining, AGA only started exploratory work, which by law does not count as an active mining project because explorations do not involve acquiring any rights and licenses.
Indeed, Chris Nthite, Senior Media and Communication Specialist at AngloGold Ashanti, told me: ‘The environmental licenses have not yet been requested’. However, he clarified, ‘We have the mining concessions in place and are good standing, and therefore we have the right to request the environmental licenses when we are ready. If that filling is successful, and the license is granted, we can proceed with the construction of the mine eventually’.
The Constitutional Court rule in 2016, which recognised municipalities’ rights to overrule mining projects, has been considered a major victory for communities, as no previous courts have recognised the people’s right to be consulted. In fact, the only existing regulation on the matter, defined by the United Nation in 2007, tried to guarantee the consultation of indigenous tribes, without stating any binding power. In fact, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) asserts that states shall consult with the indigenous people before proceeding with any project that could affect their lands and other resources. However, Moira Birss, from Amazon Watch organisation, denounces the misuse of the regulation since ‘consultation is often interpreted as a merely informative meeting’, often occurring when projects are already underway.
Colombia’s 2015 law faces a similar handicap. Although people in Cajamarca have seen their rights recognised by the Constitutional Court, they will still need to battle to make this right recognised by the government and oil companies. Over the referendum in Cajamarca, the Minister of Mining and Energy, German Arce, declared he would appeal to the Congress or the courts to consider whether national or local authorities should prevail.
Many questions over who owns the rights over natural resources still remain unanswered. Empowering people with the right to vote used to be considered a significant step forward for our societies; today however, we should question the actual effectiveness of this freedom given that the people’s needs continue to be ignored.