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Last frontier

Afro-descendant communities in Colombia are fighting to retain control of their ancestral goldmines in the face of pressure from private interests, which are apparently assisting the transnational AngloGold Ashanti. Local authorities in the town of La Toma, Cauca province, had planned to evict local miners on 6 August, but drew back at the last minute.

‘Thanks to all the pressure from within Colombia and from abroad, the mayor didn’t carry out the eviction order,’ says Lisifrey Ararat, a spokesperson for the estimated 400 miners affected. ‘Everything was ready for the eviction, including the security forces. But we’re ready too. No-one is going to leave the mine. We’re not going to let ourselves be moved on to Bogotá or to Cali. Who knows what we’d do there?’

La Toma is a town of around 6,500 inhabitants, located in the western Andes with constant guerrilla, paramilitary and army presence. The eviction order against its miners stems from the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining’s decision to grant a private individual, Jesús Sarria, a 99-hectare permit for exploitation. Yet Afro- Colombians have lived on the land since the 17th century and are in the process of formalizing their collective ownership of it. Under Colombian and international law, any mining project on collectively owned territory must first receive the community’s consent.

Locals have demanded that the authorities rescind the eviction order and that Sarria hand over the mining title. Sarria has refused, saying he paid handsomely for the concession. New talks are pending, with the miners’ eviction still imminent.

Sarria and Raúl Ruíz – who has been granted a 314-hectare exploration licence in the same municipality – are likely to be working as proxies for AngloGold Ashanti. The South Africa-based company has recently accumulated permits covering more than 42,000 hectares in Cauca province.

In Suárez municipality itself, Ararat reports that the company has been seeking support by sponsoring social events and hiring local leaders: ‘We realized that this is a strategic area that AngloGold Ashanti wants. I have been pressured by AngloGold Ashanti through their social organizers.’ Ararat has also received threats from unidentified sources.

For Carlos Rosero, leader of the Black Communities Process organization, the struggle in La Toma represents a central part of Afro-Colombian subsistence and identity. ‘Black people were brought to Colombia to work in the mines. Nearly 500 years of history are involved,’ he says. And while Colombian mining law in theory provides for small-scale, informal miners to legalize their traditional activities, the reality is very different.

La Toma’s miners began the legalization process in 2007, only to find that their lands had already been adjudicated to others. Even if this hurdle were overcome, the miners would have to hand over to the Government a yearly payment of approximately $250 per hectare, a sum beyond their means. Rosero estimates that only a handful of black communities across Colombia have managed to legalize their mining.

This scenario, together with intimidation of social leaders by paramilitary groups, has opened the door to large companies. AngloGold Ashanti’s director in Colombia, Rafael Hertz, calls the country ‘the last frontier of the Andes’ in terms of mineral exploration. In 2007, the company announced the biggest gold discovery in Latin America for over 20 years: 366 million grammes in La Colosa, Tolima province.

One community leader who has fought AngloGold Ashanti for many years is Teófilo Acuña*, president of the Agro-Mining Federation of the South of Bolívar (FEDAGROMISBOL). The Federation staunchly opposed the presence of mining transnationals, a position which led to the death of several of its activists. ‘As a company with large resources, AngloGold Ashanti has managed to penetrate and influence the corruption within [Colombian] institutions, including the military,’ says Acuña. ‘Based on our experience, [the most important thing for communities] is to create a strong organization. That provides the whole framework for resistance.’

For the moment, Rosero and Ararat plan to use the upcoming bicentenary of Colombia’s independence movement against Spain to highlight the situation in Cauca. According to Rosero, ‘blacks fought for Colombians’ independence. Now it’s time for them to recognize our land rights.’

Henry Mance

* Teófilo Acuña was interviewed in the August 2008 issue of NI.

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