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The extraction of mineral resources in Colombia has been a source of survival and wealth for the Colombian people. In trying to keep up with times, the needs of the industry, and international investments, the government has expanded the areas that can be explored and exploited by multinational companies; therefore, encouraging the increased magnitude and mechanization of mining practices.
Mining has always been an important part of Colombia’s culture. The history of intensified mining activity in Colombia dates back to pre-Columbian times where indigenous cultures extracted stones and precious materials such as gold and emeralds, destined for jewelry and ornamentation. “Gold’s beauty, scarcity, unique density, and the ease by which it could be melted, formed, and measured made it a natural trading medium. Gold gave rise to the concept of money itself: portable, private, and permanent.” (A Brief History of Gold) The value of gold has attracted many people to Colombia.
Colombia’s political history has been turbulent. The country has been plagued with violence between guerrillas and paramilitary groups looking to gain control over territories, by extorting, kidnapping, and murdering innocent civilians and drug trafficking. These groups have also become interested the mining activities, especially those that are illegal.
President Juan Manuel Santos, with the intention of improving Colombia’s economy, established five economic “locomotives” through its National Development Plan in 2010 to help improve the economy and increase jobs, trying to decrease the 12% unemployment in 2009 (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, 2011). Mining is one of the key economic sectors. As a result and thanks to its geological characteristics, multinational companies set their eyes on the opportunities to carry out mining operations in Colombian soil. This was important for the government because for many years the internal conflict and insecurity in the country kept investors away. According to the publication Exploring Opportunities, “Mining titles granted grew from 2,965 in 2002 to 9,131 in 2012, currently accounting for 4.4% of the national territory. Also mining title requests have shown an average annual growth rate of 22% since 2004.” (Exploring Opportunities)
The mining “boom” has been controversial. Although the economy might be strengthening, in 2017 mining contributed a small percentage to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), just 2% (National Mining Agency). The article Mining as the “Locomotive” of the Colombian Economy: It’s Real Cost found that:
For the past 15 years, the Colombian government has enacted laws promoting large-scale mining across the country with the banner of the sector becoming the engine for growth and development of the country. By declaring it an “activity for public utility and social interest”, expropriations, forced displacements, and licenses to operate in protected areas have been pervasive. (p. 1)
The mining extractions can be done in various ways. Large-scale, medium-scale, artisanal (also known as small-scale), underground, and illegal mining are the different methods employed to extract the natural minerals. These methods have had a direct impact on the development of the industry and its environmental and social impact in the community. The multinational companies carry out most of the large-scale projects because they have the financial resources, technology, and machinery to tackle the larger projects. Unfortunately, this mining has been contentious in Colombia, because of the environmental, labor, human rights, and economic concerns.
“Broadly speaking, artisanal and small-scale mining refers to mining by individuals, groups, families or cooperatives with minimal or no mechanization, often in the informal [illegal] sector of the market (Hentschel, Priester, & Hruschka, 2003).” This method usually takes a long time to complete and lacks resources. One of the main issues with artisanal mining is that it is usually associated with illegal mining, exploitation of mineral resources that is not regulated by the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy and the National Agency of Mining. Armed groups are attracted to illegal mining because it helps increase their funding. Then there are miners that have the means to extract legally but prefer to not do so, to avoid paying taxes or obtaining the necessary licenses. Some others extract the minerals because it’s their only means for survival.
The mining “locomotive” presents many challenges among the different actors in the sector: communities, multinationals, and the government. The interests of one group might not coincide with the others because the interest or stakes in the sector are different. During the last years, the use of new technologies by multinationals that facilitate the extraction of gold, backhoes, dredges, and dragons, and the presence of armed groups, has changed the relationship with the territory and worsened the social relations in mining communities.
As mentioned before, the mining sector in Colombia is currently known as the “locomotive” of development of the country to encourage foreign investments in the sector. This is good for the economy because the country has great mineral reserves that are well paid and in demand such as gold and coal. This is enough to create political conditions that can be detrimental for the mining communities and the country in general.
The lack of opportunities in the country have caused countless farmers and miners to resort to illegal mining as a source of income. Many local miners are caught between armed rebel groups, violence, and the regulations imposed by the government to stop illegal mining and others are losing their jobs. Also, in many cases royalties are lost in the hands of corrupt mayors and governors, as well as mining companies that have been caught evading the payment of royalties.
The peace agreement that was signed in 2016, has the potential to help the government achieve the goals set for the industry in the National Development Plan. The territories that were occupied by the armed groups and that were restricted to the community, are now vacant. Many of these remote locations are rich in natural resources and are now available to be exploited. The communities now have the opportunity to defend their land and regain access to stop mining projects from taking place.
Failing to positively transform the sector, the ‘golden peace’ is likely to be superseded by ‘mining war’ pitting local mining communities, social movements, criminal organizations, public forces and large mining companies […] given the challenges of consolidating Colombian state presence and acceptance in many mining areas, the counterproductive regulatory approach and slow pace in incentivizing and assisting gold miners to formalize, and the domestic as well as international difficulties in implementing stricter and more comprehensive due diligence measures throughout the mineral supply chain […] (Masse & Le Billon, 2017)
In short, the peace agreement is good for Colombia and its people but will not end the illegal mining issue that has plagued the country.
The economic progress pursued by the government does not reconcile with the environmental and social impacts. The extraction of natural resources is causing a great impact on the Colombian territory. The concession requests have increased and are issued without any consideration for nature because of lax environmental legislation. Impact of mining activities in many regions of Colombia have caused some irreparable damages. Quality of life of the people who live in the regions where mining is carried out not only does not improve, but it worsens day after day. The communities are witnesses of how, as a consequence of the bad mining practices, illegal mining is causing a lot of contamination, health issues, and the destruction of the environment.
During the extraction process of gold, chemicals such as cyanide and mercury are used. Mercury causes negative health effects such as genetic malformations and explosives like the ammonium nitrate/fuel oil that is powerful can cause severe respiratory damages. The soils where these exploitations are done are completely deserted and due to the amount of chemicals used, they remain sterile. Should mining be allowed if it causes so many problems? It is difficult to understand because the government says it wants to protect the territory and its people but the cruel reality is that for some personal interests and money are worth more than the common benefit. It can be possible to promote responsible mining practices and protect the environment, instead of destroying it. Many other countries have been successful in implementing regulations that promote safe mining.
Many of the communities in the regions where mining extractions occur, do not know their rights and this makes them vulnerable to multinational companies who take advantage of this. In other instances, people who in some ways are aware of their rights, have a sense of belonging, and oppose these mining projects are grossly silenced with threats that often result in their death. Father Reinel Restrepo of Marmato, Caldas and a defender of the rights of the people in his municipality, was assassinated.
Shortly before he was killed, Father Restrepo gave declarations to the Colombian press, stating that the church is a defender of the poor, and that “this Canadian multinational company wants to take advantage of the population; they want to drive them out. They have even gone so far as to want to relocate the parish church,” he said, “…they’ve come and asked me if I agree with the relocation of the town […] I’ve openly told them that I’m not in agreement with this.” (Moore, 2011)
Lastly, is important to note that the Peace Brigades International report Mining in Colombia: At What Cost states “87% of all displaced persons originate from mining and energy producing
municipalities (35% of total municipalities), and 80% of the human rights violations and violations of International Humanitarian Law that have occurred in Colombia in the last 10 years were committed in these places (Vicente, et al., 2011).”
The growth of the mining industry in Colombia has caused much damage to the environment and its people. Many can argue that this industry is amoral, motivated by profitability, “well-intentioned but selfish in the sense that impact on others is not considered. (Carroll, Brown, & Buchholtz, 2016, p. 207)” The unethical practices of multinational corporations and the government is a major factor in the up rise of social resistance and conflicts in the country. Comments like “communities are free to hold the votes, but the choice to allow mining rests with the government” by the Mining Minister is what really causes disapproval among the communities. It’s not about what’s best for the community, it’s about the interests of a few with the ultimate goal in mind, profits. According to the Observatory of Mining Conflict in Latin America, a database of communities affected by mining operations, there are currently 15 conflicts related to criminalization, violation of human rights, and public referendums that have been reported in Colombia, among those conflicts is the case of Marmato, Caldas.
A poll conducted by Brujula Minera (2015), raises some interesting points regarding the community’s perception of the mining industry:
The statistics show that the Colombian people are sort of divided on how they perceive the mining industry. It’s quite interesting to see that people in mining communities don’t believe it’s positive for their municipality yet they agree it’s good for the country. The numbers show that many people don’t have a positive concept of mining companies and the government. This is why the industry now counts with a number of activists and visionaries, with an interest in improving the quality of the communication between all the actors involved in current conflicts.
Marmato is known as the “pesebre de oro de Colombia” because of where it’s located and its’s gold reserves. It’s known as one of the main producer of gold in the country. “Mario Tangarife and the indigenous councils believe that there are only 20 or 30 thousand ounces of gold left in Marmato, an amount that could last more than 800 years if extracted using traditional methods. But seems like it will be running out much sooner if the multinationals continue their race for it (Giraldo Herrera & Grajales Murillo, 2013).” Tensions between local miners and Canadian company “Gran Colombia Gold” have increased significantly.
For generations, the small-scale miners operated informally. But in 2001, CIDA-sponsored reforms to the Colombian mining code obliged small-scale miners to formalize their operations and obtain mining titles from the government. This created several problems for the artisanal miners in Marmato. The vast majority of miners were unable to secure titles within the allotted timeframe: Many were unaware that the rules had changed, others lacked the resources and know-how to complete the process, and others applied but were never attended to (Lambert, 2012).
Mining is more than a job for many of the miners in the region, it’s their way of life. Many feel like the government and Grand Colombia Gold are excluding them out of the industry that has been part of the town’s history for years. Subsoil laws changed in 1986 and many miners became the legal owners of the land they were mining.
After Gran Colombia Gold learned that it could not expel the miners, two years ago, it started negotiating buyout agreements. The mine owners who agreed to sell—based on a contract which included a clause guaranteeing employees’ continued employment—were paid only part of what they were owed, and promised they would be paid the balance in 2013. But at a meeting in December, Tapasco said the company told him it did not have enough money, and that the miners would have to wait.” (Rollow, 2014)
The way Gran Colombia Gold obtained the lands was unethical and should have serious consequences. This case is a clear example of the general criticism of business (global businesses too), “Business is too big, it is too powerful, it pollutes the environment and exploits people for its own gain, […], it does not tell the truth, […], and so on (Carroll, Brown, & Buchholtz, 2016).” The multinational company did not care about what methods were used to get the lands it needed for its operations or the impact it would have on the town and local miners.
The large-scale mining performed by Grans Colombia Gold also has environmental, health, and social effects. The local community is affected by the pollution of water and air and the noise and vibrations generated by the different mining operations. Pollution generates chronic or acute health issues as a result of exposure chemicals typical of the mining activity and noise and vibrations from blasting, dust and landscape changes, unemployment, and work uprooting.
Mining is an industry that brings economic development to a country if done well and responsibly. This has not happened in Colombia and many activist groups have felt the necessity to voice the concerns of millions of Colombian that in some way have been impacted by mining practices. Campaigns have been created to bring national and international attention to this issue. These campaigns and the media attention keep multinational companies, the government, and artisanal miners in the public eye and possibly from carrying out unethical practices.
One particular campaign that has had great success, is a short video produced by Catalejo Films. Like in many other worldwide issues, actors use their platform to expose social injustice issues, in this case extreme mining in Colombia. They are protesting against open-pit mining and the environmental and health impact (Mineria contaminante a cielo abierto en Colombia, 2010). Along with RECLAME, a Colombian network against large-scale transnational mining, “calls upon the Colombian people to continue mobilizing in defense of the mountains and against transnational mining (Moore, Páramos free of large-scale mining: an obligation of the Colombian authorities, 2011).”
This mining industry is not the only reason why people are displaced in Colombia, but it has been a huge contributor to the astonishing numbers reported. As of December of 2017, the total number of the population displaced was 6,509,000 out of a population of 49,068,000 people (Colombia). The peace agreement can be a solution and problem to the displacement issue due to legal and illegal mining and armed groups. Many multinational companies tend to target territories that have suffered at the hands of armed groups, where the population has already been displaced, killed, or the company has paid armed groups to protect them or displace the community of the territory they want to exploit.
The government still has much work to do when it comes to protecting the indigenous communities that are being displaced. “In 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered that the environmental license must be extended to the exploration stage in the cases where mining projects overlap with traditional uses of land by native minorities, such as indigenous population or afro-Colombian people (Alvarez, p. 119).” The enforcement of this order does not always take place, this is why these communities have denounced the abuse and lack of consideration by the government, local enforcement agencies, and multinational companies for its people and their rights.
In recent years, the Colombian government has changed the mining regulations in the country. The government is trying to encourage foreign investments and avoid illegal mining. The government must attend to economic, environmental, and social impacts that legal and illegal mining causes and the violation of human rights that this issue involves. It is their obligation to establish a clear and effective policy of small artisanal mining legalization and social inclusion; evaluate the environmental impacts, impose sanctions, and demand restitution for damages; protect the life and integrity of miners and communities that are being intimidated, attacked, and forcefully displaced by illegal armed groups or multinational companies; and provide education to small, medium, and large scale miners on industry safety issues, disaster prevention, and environmental management.
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