Colombian Ethnic Minorities Decry Mining Activity

By Dialogo
September 08, 2009

Roughly 65 percent of mining concessions in force in Colombia are located on indigenous communities' ancestral lands or areas with a majority Afro-Colombian population and pose a threat to the environment and their traditional way of life, representatives of those minority groups said in Bogota. These areas were awarded in concession through last year by the state-run Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, or Ingeominas, according the results of a new study released by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or Onic. The study, which was carried out by the Center for Indigenous Cooperation, or Cecoin, served as the basis for a two-day seminar on mining concessions. Taking part in that gathering were representatives of indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombian leaders and peasants affected by the handover of lands to national and multi-national companies. The coordinator of the seminar, Embera Indian Patricia Tobon, told reporters Thursday that the state "has decided to auction off the territorial and economic rights of these communities, imposing a large-scale extraction-based economy that runs counter to rights of these peoples." The concession areas are located in 31 mining districts covering an area of more than 15 million hectares (57,900 sq. miles) that were set aside under Colombia's 2001 Mining Code, although Ingeominas has granted concessions in other areas as well, Tobon added. The study found that the mining contracts, licenses, permits and authorizations currently in force cover an area of almost 2.93 million hectares and that bids and requests for use of another 30 million hectares are currently being processed. One project being eyed by a multinational firm is La Colosa, a gold mine located in the mountains near the western town of Cajamarca that has reserves estimated at 12.9 million ounces. Canadian company Anglo Gold Ashanti has received a license for the project but still has not received a permit for the development phase. Evelio Campos, general coordinator of Ecotierra - a non-governmental organization in Cajamarca - told the press at the Bogota meeting that the multinational has illegally explored a forest reserve in that area. That reserve is a source of three small rivers that converge to form a larger one, the Coello, which drains an area of 35,000 hectares, Campos said. The Ecotierra spokesman said 1.5 grams of gold can be obtained at La Colosa for every ton of rock and that exploiting the entire mine will require one million tons of explosives and three million cyanide containers. By mining in that area, Anglo Gold Ashanti has violated "the (Colombian) constitution, environmental norms and local development plans," said Campos, who noted that that company has made donations and financed public works, activities and public celebrations to win the support of the local community. That same multinational is looking to exploit the gold deposits of La Toma, a rural hamlet in the southwestern province of Cauca, said Anibal Vega, the legal representative for the town's Consejo Comunitario de Negritudes, an organization representing the Afro-Colombian community. The hamlet, a rare, highland Afro-Colombian settlement, has roughly 7,000 inhabitants, 99 percent of them black, according to Vega, who noted that that community has traditionally lived from small-scale gold mining. But Ingeominas has granted a license to the Canadian company to exploit the deposits, which Vega said poses "a great threat." "Even the cemetery, where our ancestors are buried, is within the license area," Vega said. Another project on Careperro hill, a sacred site for the Embera-Katio Indians of northwestern Colombia, was presented during the meeting as another project threatening the rights of minority populations. The license to Careperro was awarded to Muriel Mining Corporation, a U.S. firm, and covers 11,000 hectares of jungle between El Carmen del Darien and Murindo, towns in Choco and Antioquia provinces, respectively. "For us, the destruction of nature is the death of that same mother nature," the legal representative for the indigenous people of Choco, Embera Indian Jorge Luis Queragama said.