The Colombian paronacional (national strike) which paralyzed strategic centers of the country, started on August the 19th. Mainly farmers, small-scale miners, educators, students, health workers took to the streets to express their numerous concerns varying from Free Trade Agreements, the use of national seeds, cutbacks and land grabbing. Despite various government attempts to undermine and deny its sheer existence, the national strike occupied roads and city squares for over one month. This was also the case from September the 1st in Aguachica-Cesar. Close by the little city lies one of the most important transport routes between Colombia’s northern coast, Bogotá and the center of the country. The ones on strike mainly consisted of agromineros(an occupation combining agricultural and mining activities) from Sur de Bolívar and participants from South and Central Cesar. Their main concern is the threat of land-grabbing as a result of the entry of multinational companies.
A participant and miner from Sur de Bolívar stated,“We see ourselves under threat from our own government. The one who wants to turn over certain areas -the ones we live in- to multinationals. This is the reality we face."
Therefore the strikers demand the immediate exit of national, transnational and multinational mining and agro-industrial companies. The state is asked to develop a political framework where the importance and existence of small-scale miners is acknowledged, a framework where there is guidance in treating and preventing environmental impact and where the sector would be more protected against large scale project investments.
The simultaneous gold rush of Colombian small-scale miners and multinational capital merges together in the remote area of San Pedro Frío, Sur de Bolívar. Two cab rides, a trip with lancha rápida passing over the Río Magdalena and a final three hours of slippery, bumpy first class off-road action by a Toyota Land Cruiser brings you to the miners’ communities of the Serranía of San Lucas, Sur de Bolívar. The violent civil war between 1946 and 1958 as an effect of rural settlements related to the conflict between the Colombian Conservative and Liberal parties –better known as La Violencia- triggered mass internal migration. Many migrants from the departments of Cundinamarca, Caldas, Tolima, Santander and Antioquia found a home in the South of the department of Bolívar. Cruelly, certain geological characteristics made sure that Sur de Bolívar was not the best safe haven.
Just like the rest of Colombia, Sur de Bolívar has an abundance of natural resources. Next to hydro, energy, timber and agropecuarios (livestock, agriculture, fish) it is the presence of minerals that seems to attract the attention of foreign capital, interested especially in the high gold concentration. The abundance of mainly mineral wealth often attracts armed groups, and the interest of many big investors creates a large amount of social conflict and may often lead to environmental degradation. The notion of the ‘resource curse’ is consequently not unknown in Latin America.
Being under the national poverty average according to DANE (National Administrative Department of Statistics), Bolívar is still one of the poorest regions of the country. Families of small-scale miners often work for generations in their gold mines without being able to leave circumstances of extreme poverty. El Dorado-like ambitions do not dictate the miners’ motivation, it is all about making a normal living, an ambition which seemed even harder to fulfill after the implementation of the 2001 mining code, aiming at the formalization of the sector.
According to one of the small-scale miners present in the strike of Aguachica, the code was not developed in their favor: “They want to deprive the poor and hand over everything to a multinational. (…) With the current mining legislation, called the mining code, the state wants to remove the small-scale mining sector. They don’t want the small-scale miner to participate. This is also one of the demands here in the mobilization. The inclusion of small-scale and traditional miners by the government, into the new mining code reform.”
The ones able to buy up the mining titles are the ones who seemed to be somehow involved in the creation of the mining code and have the political connections and power to obtain the largest part of the pie. It is for example well known that CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) helped to write the legislation and is a guardian angel for the Canadian extractive industry.
Since the 2001 mining code, artisanal and small-scale miners have faced a strong political and military crackdown on their operations. One of their biggest concerns is the criminalization of their sector. The lack of government aid in their formalization process makes the small-scale miners believe the mining code is not designed for them.
Most of the miners are connected with the Federación Agromineros Sur de Bolívar (Federation of agro-miners of Sur de Bolívar) and work on their legally obtained titles. In San Pedro Frio, a small-scale miner says that after he got displaced in 2000 by the paramilitary in the department of Antioquia, he came to work as a miner in Sur de Bolívar. Since mining is all his family knows, he is glad to be able to work in Sur de Bolívar, although that life is hard. To provide for his family he has to work 7 days a week inside small tunnels, where it’s often hard to breathe. Working days of 8 hours does not always prove sufficient to provide: sometimes he needs to continue at night to make ends meet for his family. His biggest fear is the threat of multinationals; to be displaced and be without work again.
He has no trust in the government and the power of law, claiming that “they displace us and want the multinationals to enter”. Other opportunities besides mining are scarce for him.
With over 5 million internally displaced, a large share of the rural migrant population finds a home in urban jungles such as Bogota. A lack of city experience and opportunities forces them into a life of street misery. Another displaced miner explains me why the city is no alternative: “The miners don’t know anything more than mining. Arriving displaced in a city, the first easy thing to do is bad things. He does not know what to do.”
The effects of Colombia’s internal conflict manifest themselves on the miners in Sur de Bolívar. After a history of displacement, working gold veins seemed a better opportunity than taking a chance in the unknown big Colombian urban zones. The current threat of mass displacement as an effect of the arrival of multinationals interested in the minerals of their current region seems just a new chapter of an ongoing history for them. Structurally played, harassed and violated by guerrilla and paramilitary groups, the last decade’s pressures by state and public forces make the community fear new displacements. One of the recent threats is a national nature park the Colombian government wants to place exactly at the location of the small-scale mines.
According to Marco, a miner present in Aguachica; this is a new strategy: “We don’t have any problems with national parks (...) But I am sure, if the government makes this a national park, with time they will help ‘somebody else’, they will invent something to hand it over to the multinationals. This is something else...”
The world’s third largest gold producer, Anglo-South African AngloGold Ashanti is one of the multinationals which got its hands on a large quantity of Sur de Bolívar’s mining titles. It also owns the lion’s share of mining titles in Colombia.
According to a lawyer from the Colombian human rights organization SEMBRAR which backs up the federation of agro-miners of Sur de Bolívar, the undercover entry of AngloGold Ashanti took place under a different name, Kedahda S.A. The 2003 entry of Kedahda S.A. correlated with a large established presence of paramilitary groups. Most of the paramilitary’s human rights violations were directed against labor unionists and social organizations and benefitted foreign capital with regional interests. Mainly the opposition against the arrival of big capital was suffering a lot. The panorama of the conflict changed after 2004 when the increased presence of the Colombian army also shifted most human rights violations to their side.
It’s a common strategy for multinationals to keep a low profile when they already have a questionable name and have intentions to buy up large pieces of land. Daughter companies like Kedahda S.A. are often used. It was not until 2007 that AngloGold Ashanti showed its true colors. The development pretext of the Anglo-South African multinational, which already has an international track record of human rights violations, seems more of a myth to the miners from Sur de Bolívar. Their job security diminished significantly after the 2001 mining code, beneficial for AngloGold Ashanti and their mining title shopping streak. The most noticeable changing impact is the security situation for miners, social activists and unionists.
One of the most outstanding examples is the death of a community leader and miner from Sur de Bolívar in 2006. According to a first-hand witness, the victim was murdered under the false pretext of being an ELN (National Liberation Army) member. The army informally created a suspicion of the victim being related to the insurgency movement. A month before the assassination of the community leader, a guerrillero from the ELN was murdered in an, according to the army, staged battle. The body of the guerrillero was left in front of the victim’s door with the threat, ‘next time it will be you’.
A more formal suspicion of the community leader was created afterwards; the army communicated a document to discuss the relation between the victim and the ELN. Furthermore it specifically stated the victim’s presence in March 2006 in a community meeting, organized in order to block the entrance of AngloGold Ashanti and Kedahda S.A. Only a half year later, on 19 September 2006, he was murdered.
Walking less than 100 meters behind, the witness saw how the victim encountered a group of military personnel. When a fight was staged, he saw from his place of hiding in the bushes, how the victim was abused but not yet killed. Quickly entering a house to alert a nearby family, he heard 7 or 8 shots. A killing under false pretext took place. The victim’s body was collected by family members on the next day at the military base. The battalion officially stated that their target was killed in a combat with members of the ‘narco-terrorist organization’ ELN. The victim was known for his publicly stated opinion against the entry of multinational corporations. The battalion Nueva Grenada is still known for its role to protect the interests of AngloGold Ashanti.
It is impossible to directly ascribe the paramilitary and military violence to the newly entered multinationals. But it is known that AngloGold Ashanti has agreements with the Colombian Ministry of Defense, and military battalions are deployed for their ‘safety and security’. Para-military human rights violations, including murder, abductions, torture and death threats, closely accompanied the mining multinational. While Colombia is on the verge of becoming a mining dominated county, the ‘arrival decade’ of mining companies seems to give a foretaste of how they will behave when their project operations begin.
Text by Bram Ebus©
Photos by Yoann Videau©