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JUNE 4, 2012

BERRUECOS, COLOMBIA—In southwest Colombia people are organizing within and throughout their villages, creating a strong network of resistance to Canadian gold mining. But they’re not fighting for concessions or reforms: they’re fighting to win.

Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold set up exploration platforms in small farming communities near Berruecos, Colombia in early 2011. Soon after, local coffee farmers began to question the benefits of a large-scale gold mine. “All I see that can come from this project is conflict and displacement,” said Hector Gomez*, a local farmer who is opposed to exploration. We spoke at a former drilling platform near the Mazamorras stream, where he had brought his kids for a swim.

His neighbour, Carlos Perez, adds that he moved to the area in part because of its reputation for being safe. “The first thing we lost [when the company came] was peace,” he said.

The budget for exploration is $3.8 million, which includes geophysical surveys and drilling, to test the size of gold, copper and silver reserves.

Gomez and others have already paid a heavy price for speaking out against the project. The Committee for the Integration of the Colombian Massif (CIMA), a rural social movement that counts many local farmers as members, has officially reported ten separate cases of harassment, death threats and violent assaults against critics of the company and their children since April 2011.

In two of these cases, CIMA representatives say, the head of private security for the mining project directly threatened the lives of local organizers. The human rights committee for the CIMA notes that many more cases go unreported due to fear and a lack of faith in officials to investigate.

“It's just like what happened with the coca-producing zones,” said Gomez in a comparison that may seem unexpected, until explained. “First comes the money, then comes the violence—the armed groups, drinking [and] crime.”

Farmers have had difficulty getting the Colombian government to provide information about the environmental impacts of large-scale mining, let alone hear their concerns about the project.

Gloria Muñoz, another local coffee farmer and young mother, went door to door collecting signatures for a petition calling on the municipal government to hold a forum against mining. She says she collected over one thousand signatures and sent it to officials, including Ingeominas, the Colombian government department responsible for granting mining exploration permits. She received no response. Meetings with the local mayor led to promises of a forum, but no results. "They put it off three times," she said in the courtyard of her modest but quaint home overlooking green hills and neighbouring farms.

"They act like if the company leaves, we'll die of hunger," said Muñoz. Sylvia, a relative of Muñoz, was hired as a spokesperson for the company. Also a young mother, Sylvia stresses the importance of job-creation, and argues that, when it comes to the environment, farmers have nothing to worry about. “This is a responsible company,” she said.

The debate between locally-hired contract workers and project opponents over jobs and the economic future of the region has sometimes boiled over, creating what the CIMA has called an atmosphere of chaos, anxiety and confrontation.

Local spokespeople for Gran Colombia Gold have their work cut out for them. People living close to exploration platforms say that when drilling began, it was loud and took place around the clock. When a shuttered drilling platform began to leak water, project opponents say they noticed that the water level in a near by aquifer began to drop.

As tension mounted between rural communities and the company, local contract labourers and spokespeople carried out community projects on Gran Colombia Gold's behalf—some of which did not go over well.

On October 9, 2011, some of the company's workers and private security personnel arrived to repair a paved soccer court in Bolivar, a tiny hamlet only accessible by a winding footpath up a steep hillside. Farmers living nearby say that they did not want company employees to carry out community work, so they approached the workers and asked them to stop.

They allege that the head of private security for the project ordered the workers to continue, and that a physical confrontation resulted in which a mine worker struck a protestor along with his sister and niece.

Later that day, hundreds of angry residents from Bolivar and nearby communities occupied two of Gran Colombia Gold's mining exploration camps. They remained on the grounds until the following day when they burned the camps to the ground.

Shortly thereafter a mediation team arrived, including the Department (the Colombian equivalent of a province) of Nariño's Human Rights Ombudsman, representatives of two municipal governments and of the Governor's office, as well as a Gran Colombia Gold employee.

Farmers say they negotiated a tentative agreement in which Gran Colombia Gold would suspend work for one month while the Governor of Nariño prepared and held a department-wide forum on the impacts of large-scale mining.

Gran Colombia Gold never signed the agreement. In a press release it said that the burning was carried out by "unknown invaders." The release did not mention a previous confrontation or mediation process.

Municipal elections led to some small gains for project opponents in 2012. In March, organizers finally got their mining forum in Berruecos, at which a number of officials and mayors declared their opposition to mining by multinational companies.

They were also able to pressure the newly-elected Governor of Nariño, Raul Delgado, to hold a department-wide forum on mining in March. At the forum the governor committed to setting up a co-operative roundtable that would bring together an array of social actors and decision-makers in order to better negotiate land-use policies handed down by the Colombian government.

At the end of the forum, CIMA representative Robert Daza said he was hopeful about the roundtable, but that the movement was prepared to organize a general strike across the department if it doesn't work out in favour of the local population.

Organizers believe that a large mobilization like this is possible because they are not alone. Their story is being played out in different ways across the country. While agriculture accounts for 22 per cent of jobs in Colombia, the national government has made large-scale mining a major priority in development planning.

In 2008 the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy reported that 52 per cent of companies investing in mining exploration in Colombia were Canadian. That same year the two countries signed a free trade agreement, which includes strong protections for investors. The agreement went into effect in August 2011.

The Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) has followed the trade deal closely, producing a report on the agreement in 2009 entitled Making a Bad Situation Worse. Brittany Lambert, program officer for the CCIC's Americas Policy Group, said from Ottawa, “Our concern all along with the Canada-Colombia FTA has been that it has the potential to exacerbate the ongoing human rights crisis in Colombia.”

Colombia is home to the highest internally-displaced population in the world, estimated at between 3.8 and 5.4 million people. Peace Brigades International reports that 80 per cent of human rights violations that have occurred in Colombia over the last ten years took place in mining and energy-producing regions, with 87 per cent of internally-displaced people originating from these zones.

Many see this as a result of the tendency for rich earth to attract armed actors, from guerrilla groups to paramilitaries to the Colombian armed forces. The Colombian military has a strong presence in regions hosting large mining projects. President Juan Manual Santos announced in February 2012 that 30 per cent of Colombia's public forces—more than 80,000 members—are currently dedicated to protecting mining and energy infrastructure.

Aside from the militarization of mining zones, social and human rights organizations have reported the targeted killings of leaders opposed to large-scale mining. In September 2011 José Reinel Restrepo, a Catholic priest and outspoken critic of another Gran Colombia Gold mining project, was assassinated a week after travelling to Bogota to criticize the company's plan to displace the entire town of Marmato, Caldas.

Almost one year after the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia came into effect, the Canadian government was slated to release a report on how the deal has impacted human rights. Rather than comply with the requirement to produce an annual report, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade released a document on May 15 that merely outlined the methodology it will use to produce a report for next year.

Voices from communities like Berruecos have, at least for the moment, been ignored in Ottawa.

Despite being up against a powerful company, farmers in Narino are optimistic. "We're not rich, but we do good work here, and we're not going to lose what we've got because we're willing and ready to defend it," said Gomez.

*Some names in this article have been changed for security reasons.

Leah Gardner is a member of the Project Accompaniment and Solidarity with Colombia (PASC).

Leah Gardner