“We can live without gold and silver but not without water. Not without peace and quiet.” At El Volador (near Arboleda, Nariño Department, Colombia), the people considered moving the school due to its proximity to drilling noise. The mining company Gran Colombia Gold gave gifts of school supplies and toys for the children. The notebooks read: “The calm follows the storm. The mining company is your friend.” A forum is being held at the Universidad de Nariño (Pasto) on February 28–29, 2012 to lay the table for dialogue with the departmental and national governments.
Some residents of the towns of San Lorenzo and Berruecos (now Arboleda) are complaining that exploration by the mining company Gran Colombia Gold is causing environmental contamination and harm to the social fabric. For the last fifteen months the company has been excavating at various locations in these towns in search of gold and silver, although the residents believe that other types of ore also occur. Rodrigo, a resident of El Volador (near Arboleda) says that copper and limestone (a component of cement) have also been found in the region.
Some 19,000 small farmers and farm workers live in these towns three hours northeast of Pasto, the capital of Nariño Department in Colombia. For generations, indeed centuries, they have worked the land and have never had any involvement in mining. Before the advent of mining in their area they had little knowledge of what lay below the surface. Then the land began to acquire a new use, causing great uncertainty and conflict as residents were offered money, jobs, and other compensation for mining exploration.
Since the arrival of the miners in early 2011, residents have denounced the silence of the Gran Colombia Gold mine company. Residents have accused the outgoing mayor of Arboleda, Ciro Rafael Delgado and the former governor, now the secretary at city hall in Bogota, Antonio Navarro Wolff, of failing to inform the public about the arrival of the mining project in the territory, as well as approving the mining project through tthe Ingeominas and Corponariño (Corporation for the care of the environment in Nariño) which certifies projects to access land and water resources.
Foto Parte superior de las plataformas de exploración derribadas por la población.
During the initial months, local farmers saw people going up and down the roads carrying equipment. They appeared to be making various measurements. The communities were not given any prior notice of what was about to happen. The situation became clearer when the mining company started requesting permission to enter farms and paying compensation to farmers. One of the affected farmers, a member of the community-based ministry, explained that Mazamorras Gold, one of the company’s projects in the area, failed to give him proper information: “They were telling landowners all kinds of stories about how all they were going to do was dig a little hole and then leave; now they’re telling them that they want to take their land away!”
Company jobs and conflicts
The residents were offered three kinds of jobs: 1) labourer – moving equipment, materials, and tools, building roads, and performing other heavy-duty work; 2) security guard – guarding equipment, encampments, drill pads, and engineers’ housing, and 3) community work – mainly women doing “social inclusion” tasks, which according to the residents mainly consist of trying to convince everyone else of the benefits of the mine.
One of the workers who quit the job elaborated on the workers’ situation: “There were quite a few of us working. There were 65 of us on the job during the first two weeks and most of us quit. We realized the harm the mine is causing. The people still working there aren’t from around here and aren’t used to working the fields; that’s why they’re upset that some of us want the company to leave.”
When they started, the workers were being paid 30,000–40,000 pesos per day, three times more than for farm work. After confrontations with the community in October 2011, their salaries were increased by a factor of two or three. The same thing happened with the other workers. Subsequently, the company held a demonstration and pressured the workers and their families to attend. At present, fifteen people in the community are filing legal complaints to the effect that they were threatened by the company’s security guards.
Devastating effects on agriculture
The general sentiment is that the company’s arrival has caused continuing devastation. Residents say the social fabric of their community is falling apart, little by little. They are concerned that the community is being destroyed by confrontation between the local population and the mine workers. Many of these latter are also residents, and in many cases the result has been intrafamilial conflict or fights between neighbors.
These communities have always been devoted to agriculture. The most important crop is coffee, which is marketed through the National Coffee Producers Association. Other crops are bananas, potatoes, beans, corn, ulluco, wheat, yuca, guava, and other fruit and vegetable crops suited to the temperate climate, for home consumption. The great expanses of land visible from the mountain tops are mostly under cultivation by family farmers. Scattered among the peaks are villages such as Santa Marta, which boast a number of centenarian inhabitants.
Farmers in the region complain about the continual statements of the mine engineers to the effect that the nearby land is nothing but fallow brush. But the camera lens doesn’t lie: photos show large areas of cultivated land on the mountainsides.
One of the biggest concerns is what will happen to the land where people have lived for so long. The farmers are well aware of the government’s discourse about ownership of the subsoil and non-renewable natural resources (Article 332 of the Constitution), and how this argument is being used to expropriate their land and give it to a foreign multinational. They wonder what will become of their families and livelihoods. Displacement is unfamiliar to them – and they want it to stay that way. They have worked this land for generations and cannot understand why now, under the pretext of mining, everything they have earned should be taken away from them.
Drill pads and mine expansion
The Mazamorras Gold project started in the Bolívar area (town of Arboleda) where exploration began with a lease on less than 10 m² of land. The drilling machinery, reaching 500–700 meters below the surface, was initially placed here. But then new drilling sites were set up on other farms. Roads and lanes were built, and water was pumped from the Mazamorras River. The machines made noise at all hours of the day. Rumour has it that the company has struck valuable ore. They have expanded their operations to areas such as Olaya, Yunguilla, and Salado, where they have set up numerous drilling pads.
At El Volador the people considered moving the school due to its proximity to drilling noise. In December 2011, the company gave gifts of school supplies and toys for the children. The notebooks read: “The calm follows the storm. The mining company is your friend.”
The way the operation works is as follows: the engineers determine the best site for finding ore and set up a platform or pad with the drilling apparatus on top of it. The machine drills and sluices out the tailings. This is done with water pumped from streams or from the Mazamorras River. The hydraulic pump uses 246 litres/minute for a drilling rig such as the Versadrill Canada kmB 1.4. That adds up to daily consumption of 354,240 litres.
“The machines insert three-inch tubes into the ground. They inject chemicals and extract the rock, but if what comes out is just earth then it’s no good. They throw all the cyanide waste into the stream and they say that such a small quantity can’t do any harm,” said one of the workers who decided to quit.
According to research by the Water Referendum – a project by social organizations seeking to amend the Constitution to make access to water a fundamental right – monthly household consumption in a large city like Bogotá is 15 m3, or daily consumption of 500 litres. The consumption of an exploratory drilling rig is equivalent to the consumption of 708.48 urban households, which typically consume considerably more than rural households.
The name of this project, Mazamorras Gold, is derived from the name of the river running through the mountainous terrain of several towns of northern Nariño. The river converges with the Juananbú River. The river was named in colonial times when the paths running along it were a major thoroughfare and women could be found selling mazamorra, a corn-based dish typical of South American indigenous cultures. The residents do not think that Gran Colombia Gold is aware of this fact, but what does concern them is that the mine owners present themselves in the news and on their website as the owners of the land.
“Water is everything. It is our mother, our father; it is hope. When there is no more water there will be nothing left, just an immense desert where you don’t see the blood of those who fought to defend it,” said a man named Tomás. Between San Lorenzo and Arboleda, near the telecommunication tower of these localities, is La Marucha, a small lake supplying water to thousands of local residents. Its pure, clean water irrigates crops in the towns of San Lorenzo,
Buesaco, and Arboleda. Myths and legends surround the lake; everyone knows that it can be fierce, that rain is in the forecast when the lake becomes agitated. “It’s not a good idea to anger the lake; it goes into a fury and makes the land tremble,” says Gerardo, one of the oldest inhabitants of the region. He told us the legend of the golden hen that is seen in the vicinity of La Marucha but never lets itself be caught; when people try to catch it, it heads for the middle of the lake and disappears into its depths. The lake has quenched the thirst of people in this sector of the Colombian highlands for centuries.
One resident apparently tried to fill La Marucha by bulldozing earth into it. The other locals spent two weeks removing the earth and even recovering many trees from the pond. They managed to save and restore La Marucha.
La Marucha is a two-hour walk uphill from the closest locality, Santa Marta. The villagers, it is said, would not trade the lake for all the gold that the mine has to offer. But La Marucha is currently owned by the government and managed or controlled by Corponariño. The farmers know that the government can give the land to anyone through expropriation and resale under Articles 332 and 333 of the Constitution, supplemented by the Mining Code. The government may claim that it has the community’s interests at heart, but the locals know that the government is taking the land away from the community to give it to foreign multinationals. For example, they have allowed the streams descending from La Marucha to be used for mining exploration.
The role of the government
The government has been buying or expropriating land throughout the country under Law 685 of 2001, now the Mining Code as amended by Law 1382 of February 2010, which lays out the regulations covering mining activities. According to Carlos Duarte, the author of a book about the history of mining legislation in Colombia, this legislation was drafted with direct input from CEMEX, HOLCIM, and Ladrillera Santafé — cement companies tied to the construction industry — and with the sponsorship of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the World Bank.
The new version of the law gives foreign companies the same guarantees as domestic ones. The purpose of the amendments is succinctly summarized by four sections: section 4, establishing the government’s power to designate any site in the country as mining land and making state ownership of the resources inalienable in perpetuity; and sections 18 to 20, giving foreign companies or persons the same rights to carry out mining operations as domestic companies and persons.
Further consequences of this new law are reduced environmental and social safeguards as well as lower royalties and taxes for private companies. Duarte has gathered valuable data about the use of Canadian government funds to influence the amending process for mining legislation in Colombia and Africa. The Canadian government hired a team of lawyers to coordinate (with the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank) advising on the drafting of the Mining Code.
Bernard Bigras, a Bloc Québécois (opposition) member of the Canadian Parliament, told Duarte: “Through its Energy, Mining, and Environment Project, CIDA provided technical and financial support to rewrite Colombia’s mining law. The revised version of the Mining Code of 2001 was adopted without consultation of any of the potential affected parties, such as indigenous communities. This code created highly favourable investment conditions for foreign companies. The 2001 code weakened a significant number of environmental and social safeguards and created major economic incentives by drastically reducing mining royalties and taxes on private companies.”
The main concern of the local farmers has to do with the government's expropriation of land for mining. They dwell on the events of October 2011 when the government sent in the police to protect mining facilities. The residents were shocked, believing that the government's role is to protect citizens, not repress them.
“If they keep doing this, they will pollute the water and turn the land into a desert. After all, the minerals that they want to take away are also used by our crops, which support us.” The mining company argues that underground exploration and exploitation have a minimal impact on the environment and the soil. But the residents want to know: How are we supposed to grow crops where the subsoil is gone? Where is the ground supposed to sit? Are we going to grow crops in mid-air? Don’t plants and crops need minerals in order to grow and reproduce?