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How a Colombian city united against gold greed

BUCARAMANGA, COLOMBIA—Spirits were high last month among students, environmentalists, businesspeople, and politicians as the news came in that Greystar Resources had revoked its application for a large-scale open-pit gold mine in the mountains of northeastern Colombia.

But just twelve hours later, Greystar’s intentions became clear—it was withdrawing that application to bring in a new one for a redesigned, underground mine.

The short-lived but significant victory for those against the mine was possible thanks to the tireless efforts of the broadest, most diverse coalition in Colombia’s recent history. This coalition brought together an engineer’s association, committed student activists, the head of the local business federation, NGOs, teachers, environmentalists, and water utility employees.

Foreign investments in Colombia’s mining sector grew slowly in the 1990s, but in the eight years of former President Alvaro Uribe’s regime it skyrocketed in part due to a perception of safer exploration conditions. Even the Canadian government showed interest in making Colombia prime for investment needs by having the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) draft Colombia’s mining law of 2001, granting generous privileges to foreign companies. Uribe’s disciple, current President Juan Manuel Santos, has made resource extraction a centerpiece of his economic plan, deeming it the main “motor” of development and plans to follow the lead of Chile and Peru, two truly mining-oriented countries.

Santos’ strategy includes generous tax breaks to mining companies and modifying laws to be more “investor friendly.” It also involves persecuting traditional small miners—some who lack a mining title—aligning them with the neo-paramilitaries and guerrillas who mine illegally to fund their “dirty” work. Mainstream media plays into this dynamic by focusing on illegal mining but remaining silent about the large-scale corporate takeover of Colombia’s resources. Currently, 40 per cent of Colombia´s entire area is under mining permits, some of it on environmentally protected land or Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communal territories.

Into this mining binge came Greystar Resources, a Vancouver-based junior exploration company. (Junior exploration companies typically explore potential mining sites, deal with permit processes, and then sell their acquisition to an actual mining company, making financial speculation their real business.) Among Greystar’s investors are the International Financing Corporation—the World Bank’s private financing arm, and JP Morgan.

The company has mineral rights over 74,000 acres of land in the mountains of California and Vetas, two small and remote towns forgotten by the government, where Greystar has invested in infrastructure and had brought promises of employment and progress. Many locals in that area badly want the mine.

The project is just 40 kilometers northeast of Bucaramanga, Colombia’s fifth-largest city. Greystar plans to dig out an estimated nine million ounces of gold, making its mine one of the largest gold deposits in South America.

  "Cyanided" water, one of the anti-mining coalition's educational tools. Photo: Natalia Fajardo  

But that gold sits under the Santurban paramo, a tropical version of high moorlands. This unique ecosystem supplies water for Bucaramanga and 21 towns. The proposed use of cyanide at the Greystar mine caught the attention of the region’s citizens, who see it as a major threat to their “liquid of life” source: water. In fact, mineral extraction was legally banned in paramos in the amendment to article 34 of the Colombian Mining Law in 2010.

Besides the national effort to render all paramos mine-free zones, various environmental organizations in the Bucaramanga area worked for years to have Santurban declared a protected area, which would exclude mining, logging and cattle grazing from its grounds. More recently, opposition to the mining project gained ground when university students and other environmentalists joined the cause, concerned not only about the threat to their local water supply, but also about the sovereignty and long-term economic implications this mine represented within the national mining policy. They realized that the need for water was shared by everyone, regardless of their political views, and they framed their anti-mining campaign through water’s unifying lens.

The coalition started growing and taking a new shape when the municipal water utility workers union joined. Then they sought support from the state assembly leadership, where their calls landed on receptive ears; the assembly’s president, a member the leftist Democratic Alternative Pole (Polo) party, publicly denounced the mine.

Following this victory, the economic federations of Bucaramanga, which, besides understanding the intrinsic environmental value of the Santurban paramo, came to the conclusion that damaging the city’s water source would have a more negative financial impact in the long term than the ephemeral gains of mining. The state engineers association also opposed the project. At this point, it became clear the general public sentiment in the region was that water was worth more than gold.

“Take to the streets in support of your treasure, the Santurban paramo,” called out members of the coalition during a public demonstration on February 24, 2011. Previous protests had seen low turnouts, but the issue became so well-known and the opposition so diverse, that over 30,000 Bucaramangans marched in their streets, petitioning the Environment Ministry to deny Greystar’s license application. Around this time other segments of the government, including the Attorney General, publicly denounced the mine.

With all eyes on Bucaramanga, the ministry held a public hearing on Greystar’s case. There was a clear division between the small crowd from California and Vetas that was bused there by the company to support the project, and the large, mostly urban majority opposing the mine.

The majority of politicians, most prominently the state’s governor, explicitly called to shut down the project for its technical flaws and risks it posed to the community. Tensions ran high as the hearing progressed. Two attendees started a fight, and the ministry ended the hearing early. Media coverage focused on the fight rather than on the near unanimous resistance to the gold mine.

The hearing was a public disgrace to the company, whose stock value dropped 30 per cent. To top it all off, Colombia’s energy minister and even Serafino Locono, a prominent oil-and-mining CEO, highlighted Greystar project’s flaws at a miner’s conference in Toronto.

Greystar decided to preempt the environment ministry’s decision on the company’s license application, and withdraw its request for the mining operation, only to announce later that Greystar was reconfiguring its project to “address the concerns of the community.”

This company is just one of a group of businesses after Santurban’s gold. Its counterparts include Galway Resources and Ventana Gold Corp, recently purchased by energy billionaire Eike Batista. The success of these companies will likely be impacted by Greystar’s fate.

Laura Galvis, a student member of the anti-mining coalition, says that the group’s lack of hierarchy, its clarity in its position on the issue, and its ability to take an angle that resonated with everyone were essential to the recent success. “It’s not just about the environment, it’s about our very survival,” she explained.

Coalition founders worked hard to bring everyone to the table, and found a common point of interest with their traditional political opponents in the belief that the public’s right to clean water takes precedence over private interests. Through educational campaigns and public demonstrations, they slowly gained ground.

This broad alliance against the mining project is not quite a movement, for it rose to meet a temporary need, and its members have little in common beyond their rejection of the mining operations. The coalition is a something of an interim union aided by current elections, with politicians seeking supporters. Whatever its nature, this grassroots experience opened the door to a multi-party dialogue rarely seen in Colombia.

The most committed segment of the coalition—the students and environmentalists who oppose large-scale multinational mining in general—want to move the argument beyond the threat to Bucaramanga’s water supply. They see a need to adapt to the reconfiguration proposed by Greystar, and to deepen the debate to include other harmful effects the mine would bring, such as a deterioration of the area’s agricultural web and the loss of a local supply of gold for Bucaramanga’s thriving jewelry industry.

Publicly, the coalition’s success in bringing the Santurban case into the eye of the media hurricane has forced Greystar to change its strategy. Whether the coalition is able to stop the mining project compltely and protect its beloved paramo remains to be seen.

Natalia Fajardo is a mining consultant for Cedetrabajo, a political analysis institute in Colombia. Cedetrabajo is a member of Reclame, Colombia’s national network of organizations facing large-scale mining.

This article was originally published by Toward Freedom.


Natalia Fajardo