Skip to main content

retroexcavadoraA meeting in Popayán, capital of the Cauca department, was the excuse for learning about a complex and violent reality. The war between the military, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and drug traffickers is intertwined with savage extractivism, with illegal mining its worst expression.


White walls on cobblestone streets. Narrow sidewalks and majestic gates carved with different motifs so as to distinguish families and lineages. Spacious and sunny courtyards with fountains surrounded by geraniums, orchids, and ferns. This colonial city is dotted with sanctuaries, cloisters, and churches, as white as they are austere, not wanting to seem of excessive wealth.

Popayán is taking a siesta. Time seems to stand still in this city of 250,000; it is traditionalist, oligarchic, proud of its past. At one point, it was surrounded by estates. These are disappearing, reclaimed by indigenous people. The Nasa, Misak, and Coconuco people, organized in the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC, Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca), dismantled the estates on land that had taken from their great-great grandparents.

Behind the uniformity of its appearance, Cauca department is the most diverse in the country: half are indigenous and black in equal parts, and a quarter or more are mestizos. The mountainous area is indigenous. The Pacific coast is Afro-descendent. However, there were only white students at the University of Cauca until officials opened quotas for “minorities”: 100 Afro and 400 indigenous out of 14,000 students is all they have.

The Tramas y Mingas meeting

From June 9-11, the University of Cauca organized the second edition of the Tramas y Mingasgathering. It was arranged around four themes: life and resistance, economy and community, power and autonomy, and education and communication. Sabedores and sabedoras of indigenous, afro, and campesino communities filled the space, weaving their experiences together, sharing their forms of resistance, and creating new forms of life.

Through the minga, the words of women paraded forth, like those of Concepción Matabancho. She has been a campesina in La Cocha (in the southern region of Pasto), where women are the most active, for nearly four decades. “The first step was to value ourselves,” she said, explaining how they work the land sustainably, children learn the ecosystem while playing, and men are pressured to break through sexism. She spoke of five needs, quite different from the “basic needs” defined by the World Bank in its policies toward the impoverished: the need for affection, for training, for understanding, for creativity, and for transcendence, referring to the generational change that all movements must deal with. The Association for Campesino Development (Asociación para el Desarrollo Campesino) recuperated the forest when it decided that wood is not a market good, but protection for the soil, and recovered 49 varieties of potatoes.

Melba Patricia Arias of the Women’s Committee of Inzá (Comité de Mujeres de Inzá) explained that the campesinas created 35 economic self-help groups with 20 people each. These groups function as territorial, collective savings accounts. The social fund of the 700 women allows for low interest loans for members. They consider it a way to “make a little crack in capitalism.”

Ever Castro and Socorro Andrade did not need to explain what the Vueltas Del Patico school in Puracé does. This is because it was the children themselves who showed us how the school curriculum is organized around an organic garden. Teachers, parents and students participate. In addition to the organic garden, they eradicated junk food and set up a “biotic nursery” that is governed by the slogan “Learning in Motion.” The kids choose a school cabildo (council), like those of the indigenous, and arrived at the gathering with their batons. “That frees the leadership that each of us carry within ourselves, allowing them to take responsibility and learn coexisting,” Ever Castro explained. She upholds the idea that “whoever doesn’t do food sovereignty can’t talk about food sovereignty,” which seems like a good way to combat the technicians who practice double standards.

There was much more, impossible to summarize. Taita Javier Calambás, an 80 year old Misak from Guambia and a founder of the CRIC, reflected on the differences between modes of organizing of [campesino]unions and those of indigenous communities. “The indigenous authority councils do not fit in the campesino movement. We don’t fight for the land, but rather for the rivers, the water of life.” Mario López, Coconuco and [another] founder of the CRIC, pondered deeply trade between communities. “Those of the cold land exchange their products with those of the hot land, but money doesn’t serve that. It is what we call market.” Exchange outside the logic of capital. He stated, “the money the government sends produces divisions when you do not know why or for what these funds were received.” Hugo Blanco, Quechua from Perú, highlighted the “original indigenous ethics of humanity” as a way to overcome the crisis of civilization we are facing. Oscar Olivera, leader of the Water War in Cochabamba, Bolivia, emphasized that changes come from below and that “it is a matter of building alternatives outside the state.” Thanks to the indigenous, he said, factory workers learned “collective decision-making and the social re-appropriation of the public.”

It was a meeting in which makings and doings stood out, in a department saturated with violence and savage extractivism. Autonomous economy was spoken of, and modes of production and reproduction in every village, based on their own criteria. Once again we find that there are plenty of enterprises for producing food, mostly promoted by women, that do not distinguish between production and reproduction, because they are two inseparable facets of life.

The Terror of the Excavators

On May 1, there was a collapse in an illegal mine in Cauca. “A land slide buried at least 23 people in the gold mine near the Santander de Quilichao municipality in Cauca, in the southwest of the country,” resulting in the deaths of three miners [1].

According to the Ombudsperson, checks and controls cannot be carried out in the area because of threats from armed groups: “Members of the sixth front of the FARC, which has a presence in the area, take part in that [illegal mining] by charging quotas for entry and operation of excavators” [2]. Labor Minister Rafael Pardo stated that 5,000 children work in mines, many of them used to explore the narrow tunnels in which adults do not fit.

Another accident at a gold mine in Buriticá Antioquia just a week earlier, which “left at least four dead and 81 wounded” [3]. There are 14,000 units of mining production, of which 56% have no operating license. In February, another accident left five dead and ten injured in a gold mine located in the department of Nariño, which borders Ecuador [4]. The mining boom and its illegality facilitate the proliferation of mining sites in terrible conditions for safety and security.

In 2010, some 26 million hectares of land were being processed for mining, 23% in the territory of Colombia. Of Cauca’s three million hectares, two million are engaged in mining and energy development, something that will inevitably affect the majority of the rural population.

There are two types of mining in the department. On one side is mining as craft, which has always been practiced by the indigenous, afro-descended people, and campesinos as a form of survival, with technologies of the hand and body. On the other, medium-sized mining, using excavators, dredgers, and barges. It is informal and illegal, and extracts mostly gold, silver, and platinum. Excavators began arriving in the 1990s. They are causing the retreat of artisanal mining, expelled largely by armed actors and also because “much of the slopes surrounding rivers were destroyed” with the excavators [5].

In the Colombian Macizo Interaction Center (CIMA; Centro de Interacción del Macizo Colombiano), a meeting was convened to discuss the mining issue and summon a Regional Hearing on Mining and Energy (Audiencia Minero-Energética Regional) in October [6]. A group of thirty people went around, pinpointing the problems area by area. A member of the Vega Campesino Process (Proceso Campesino de la Vega) notes that “we have about 40 million hectares in application to be mined, for a total of 114 million hectares in the country”.

An Afro-descended woman from the COCOCAUCA collective of Timbiquí municipality on the Pacific coast, detailed how mining operates: “The excavators work 22 hours a day, and during their two hours of rest, the artisanal miners enter. They [the excavators] contaminate all of the water sources that are the basis for life in the region. Now an artisanal miner earns six million pesos a week ($3000 USD), and that changes the values ​​and consumption styles of the people.” Excavator owners hire people from the villages to help them to cross rivers and difficult areas, who use their own strength, aided by ropes. These jobs pay very well. “Prostitution and school dropouts have skyrocketed,” she sadly explains.

In the north of Cauca, the population is divided and indigenous communities have opposing attitudes. Some reserves, like Caldono and Canoas, spoke out against mining, but in others, such as Tacueyó and Las Delicias, there has been mining activities for many years. “It depends on the strength of the cabildo (council),” a young Nasa person from the Association of Cabildosof Northern Cauca (ACIN; Asociación de Cabildos del Norte del Cauca).”Some communities set out to seal the tunnels with soil, but in others, young people are those most committed to working in the mine.” Mining not only produces divisions, but also starts off exploitation between indigenous themselves.

In the municipality of Buenos Aires, in the northern part of the department, the community’s relationship with illegal mining is very complex. The population is mostly black, and another part is indigenous. But they have lost control over extractive activities, [which are] dominated by the Bloque Calima paramilitary. “People sell their land or are kicked out by force,” he explains. “They dig huge pits, where hundreds of people go in.”

Over 10 hectares of the municipality have been conceded to individuals and multinationals. [Local] communities have been deprived of one third of the municipality. “When we went to throw out the excavators, we community members almost gave each other the machete,” a Nasa person noted, highlighting problems of alcoholism that occur in the vicinity of the mines.

From Coca to Gold

The mining industry tends to colonize ethnic territories. It does so by force, displacing or subordinating populations that have been settled for centuries. A manner very similar to that of monocultures.

The COCONAUCA report [7] notes that in the Pacific region, “the collective territory of black communities has been affected by the scourge of coca, the irrational plundering of natural (forest) resources, and illegal mining, with the growing humanitarian crisis of low food production and armed conflict, whose consequences are reflected in migration and forced displacement” [8]. It adds that the Ministry of Mines and Energy has issued land titles over ethnic territories with collective ownership, to the favor of multinational companies and local agents. In the three coastal municipalities of Cauca (Guapi, Timbiquí, and Micay), there are nearly 200 excavators in an area of only 70,000 inhabitants.

“The machines get in with the consent of the authorities, violating the rights of the communities. Mining is accompanied by señalamientos, the rupture of organizational dynamics, threats, killings, displacement, confrontation, and social change (familial disputes, begging, prostitution, and alcoholism, among others) “[9].

The Mining Code, approved in 200,1 has had a negative effect for artisanal miners, which could slow the deployment of mechanized mining. “It eliminated the categories of small, medium and large-scale mining, categories that were gathered into so-called Production Mining Units, where the small scale mining and the large investor stand in equal conditions” [10].

In Colombia, the mining sector follows a logic, a mode of operation similar to the business of coca and cocaine. An Indepaz (Institute of Studies for Development and Peace/Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz) report argues that “illegal mining has not displaced narcotrafficking, instead it serves for money laundering assets and in some cases to help with the finances of these [narcotrafficking] groups “[11].

The report states that the FARC and paramilitary groups like “Los Urabeños” and “Los Rastrojos” are the ones that “now control the illegal mining on the Pacific Coast” [12]. Its conclusions are awful, and raise questions about the future.” In areas like Timbiquí in Cauca and Istmia in Chocó, illegal mining is the sustenance of the armed groups operating at the margins of the law, protecting the jungle corridors through which drugs are moved. The presence of armed actors is justified by the miners as a means of providing security to prevent robberies and extortion “[13].

Heavy machinery must pass through checkpoints, where tolls must be paid to armed groups. Modes of operation are identical to those known for coca. A gramaje is paid to authorize the operation. Armed groups negotiate with the excavator owners to be able to bring the equipment in, and have control over the amount of gold extracted to collect their share.

According to the aforementioned study, things vary by region and presence of each armed group in terms of the percentages received by various stakeholders. In any case, there is agreement on illegal mining’s corrupting role, which generates a vast network of complicity difficult to disassemble [14]. Those most affected are the Afro-descended and indigenous peoples, campesinos, and women and children living in the territories that harbor gold and other riches. Different actors are apparently positioning themselves toward the possible end of the armed conflict. In the peace negotiations, the FARC has acknowledged that, ending any relationship with coca that–depending on the rebellion–might turn up figures in their plans [15]. Some observers, who prefer anonymity, believe that mining can be a strategy of alternative funding for groups that are now up in arms.



Raúl Zibechi is international relations editor at the magazine Brecha in Montevideo, adviser to grassroots organizations and writer of the monthly Zibechi Report of the CIP Americas Program



[1] BBC Mundo, 1 de mayo de 2014.

[2] Noticias Caracol, 1 de mayo de 2014.

[3] Prensa Libre, 24 de abril de 2014.

[4] AFP, 14 de febrero de 2014.

[5] Indepaz, “Impacto de la minería de hecho en Colombia”, Bogota, noviembre de 2012, p. 12.

[6] El Macizco Colombiano es un conjunto montañoso de los Andes en los departamentos de Cauca, Huila y Nariño, donde nacen los grandes ríos colombianos: el Magdalena y el Cauca (que vierten en el Caribe), el Putumayo y el Caquetá (de la cuenca amazónica) y el Patía (cuenca del Pacífico). Sus alturas llegan a 4.600 metros, tiene más de 300 lagunas y trece páramos, y una gran diversidad biológica. Es una región poblada por campesinos mestizos, afros e indígenas.

[7] Coordinación de Consejos Comunitarios y Organizaciones de Base del Pueblo negro de la Costa Pacífica de Cauca.

[8] “La minería en la Costa Pacífica del Cauca”, en

[9] Idem.

[10] “Estudio sobre la minería a gran escala en la región y sus impactos”, Jesús López Fernández, Red por la Vida y los Derechos Humanos del Cauca, p. 28.

[11] Indepaz, p. 62.

[12] Idem, p. 61.

[13] Idem, p. 62

[14] Idem. p. 63.

[15] El Tiempo, 17 de mayo de 2014.


Originally published :

Raúl Zibechi Translation: Paige Patchin