Following recent mobilizations against Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold, and clashes with between residents and police in Nariño, Colombia, the governor of the department signed an open letter on November 23rd, stating his opposition to open-pit mining on land currently being cultivated by campesinos [small farmers].
For the past 11 months, rural inhabitants of the municipalities of Arboleda Berruecos and San Lorenzo, in the department of Nariño, have been mobilizing, organizing conferences, and writing reports and press releases in order to denounce mining exploration activities in the region. Local residents have also clashed with police and mine workers, and, according to the Comité de Integración del Macizo Colombiano (CIMA), a number of those opposed to mining have received death threats.
These events have led the governor of Nariño, Antonio Navarro Wolff, and the mayor of the municipality of Arboleda Berruecos, Ciro Rafaek Delgado, to sign an open letter expressing their opposition to open-pit mining on campesino land. In the same letter, they also called on the national government to revise the current mining policy set out for the department, and announced that they would be holding a public forum on mining on December 5th, in the city of Pasto.
"With a convincing resolve to defend their land and a firm belief that large-scale mining will bring misery and poverty to their community." These are the words of Luz Mila Ruano, mining coordinator for CIMA, referring to how the men and women of the affected municipalities have mobilized against a possible major mining project on their land.
Ruano also notes that since the arrival of the mining company, life in the region has changed dramatically. What was once a united and peaceful community, has since turned into a place of fear and anxiety. Inhabitants have experienced intimidation by mine workers, confrontations within the community itself, and ecological damage from the exploration process. They have also had to open their public drinking water to use by the mining company.
The story begins with the arrival of Canadian mining multinational Gran Colombia Gold in the municipalities of Arboleda Berruecos and San Lorenzo in northern Nariño. After two years of study, the company installed five camps in region in January 2011, and began exploring for minerals, principally gold.
According to company reports, if a mine is eventually established, 2.5 tons of dirt and rock will have to be removed and treated with cyanide in order to obtain one gram of gold. They assure the public, however, that cyanide is less polluting that its alternative, mercury.
Given environmental and health concerns, and the apparent indifference of the departmental government, campesino organizations and individuals began to mobilize in defence of their land. Their first task was to organize regional mining forums, initially in areas affected by the Mazamorras Gold Project - this the name given to the 5,979 hectares of agricultural land conceded to the company for mining exploration activities. These forums inspired others in the municipalities of Guayachavés, Samaniego, Ricaurte, La Florida, Pasto, Colón Génova and Sotomayor -- all areas where the Colombian Institute for Geology and Mining (INGEOMINAS) has granted concessions for mining exploration.
Following these regional forums, CIMA and other groups organized a department-wide forum on July 20th 2011, in the city of Pasto. The 800 participants from all around Nariño produced a number of mandates: First, they demanded that the federal government suspend large-scale and open-pit mining activities. They also denounced the pollution caused by mining companies and their use of public water sources. They demanded that the human rights of communities in and around mining concessions be protected, specifically the right of campesinos to use their land for agricultural production. The forum's final declaration also called on the Colombian government not to criminalize small-scale mining activities, and to provide technical support to local miners in order to reduce the environmental impacts of their work, which are already much smaller than those of large-scale, open-pit mining.
Threats and Mobilizations
Two participants at the July 20th forum turned out to be undercover members of Colombia's armed forces. The forum itself marked the beginning of a series of threats issued to the leaders of the movement opposed to mining.
Despite threats, local residents began to carry out the mandates elaborated in the mining forum. On August 20th, 2011, the inhabitants of Arboleda Berruecos began a campaign to halt the mining exploration activities of Gran Colombia Gold. They organized a march, which began in the town of Olaya -- where a main mining exploration camp is located -- and ended at the municipal offices and town square. Here, protestors denounced the negative impacts of mining in the area, as well as the increased levels of conflict and human rights violations following the arrival of the company. After the march, protestors were called to a hearing by the municipal council, mayor Ciro Rafael Delgado, and by municipal staffer Hugo Moncayo Hermosa -- all of whom agreed to hold a public mining forum with all of the actors involved, including the company.
Despite this, mine workers continued to harass local residents. On October 9th, 2011, the community clashed with workers, setting fire to a mining camp. Recognizing this growing crisis, the Peace Commissioner of Nariño, the undersecretary of mining for the departmental government, and employees of the municipalities of Arboleda and San Lorenzo, accompanied by the operational commander of the national police in Nariño, agreed to act as moderators between protesters and the company. They eventually reached an agreement which called for a moratorium on all mining activities in the region until governor Antonio Navarro Wolff held a public mining forum involving all actors. However, when it came time to sign the agreement, the company's representative declined, alleging that he had been pressured by the community during negotiations, and as a result, the federal government did not authorize him to do so.
Following this public rejection of mining exploration, and specifically Gran Colombia Gold's Mazamorras Gold project, new threats were issued to the most visible members of the opposition. Two inhabitants of the region received threats via telephone, and claim to have also received threats in person from retired army captain, Nelson Cubides, who now heads private security for the mining company. As a result, the two fear for their lives and hold Canadian multinational Gran Colombia Gold responsible.
On November 20th 2011, campesinos in the region realized that mining company employees were continuing to work, despite the October 11th agreement to suspend all exploration activities until a mining forum was carried out. The next day, 30 local residents approached mine workers in an attempt to speak with them and inform them of the agreement. However, as soon as the workers saw the campesinos approaching, they left. Immediately thereafter, an ESMAD [riot police] squadron fired shots into the air, detained Dorita Rivera and wounded her husband, Leonel Grijalva.
These events prompted CIMA's human rights committee to issue a public statement, holding the governor of Nariño responsible for the systematic rights violations of the campesino communities of Arboleda and San Lorenzo, given his silence and unwillingness to convoke the mining forum agreed to in October, 2011. Two days later, the governor of Nariño and the mayor of Arboleda Berruecos signed an open letter announcing that the mining forum would indeed take place on December 5th, 2011.
Updates (from PASC)
On Friday, December 3rd 2011, the Governor of Nariño cancelled the mining forum which was scheduled to take place on December 5th. In response, residents of Arboledo and San Lorenzo travelled the travelled the 2-3 hours from their homes to the governor’s office in Pasto, the capital of the department. Roughly 100 people crowded onto the steps of the departmental government building to denounce Gran Colombia Gold's mining exploration activities, and to call on the governor to defend campesino land from large-scale mining. They shouted slogans, held signs, and passed out a list of grievances against Canadian mining company, Gran Colombia gold.