When President Juan Manuel Santos recently announced that mining and energy were going to be the new “engines of economic growth” that would propel Colombia into “democratic prosperity,” he was ignoring the fact the current internal armed conflict is being fuelled by a struggle for control of mineral-rich lands.
Colombia is the largest producer of coal in Latin America, with current production levels at 75 million tonnes annually, and estimated to increase to 145 by 2019. Petroleum has taken centre stage, making Colombia a net exporter since the early 90’s with the discovery of large oil reserves and market liberalization projects under the Pastrana administration. And it is hoped that the production of gold, which has been mined in Colombia even before the Spaniards arrived, will double to 80 tonnes by 2019 thereby attracting large-scale, multinational investment in what is being described as “the new gold rush.”
The colonization of the America’s has not stopped. Unfortunately, what used to be hand-dug tunnels are now turning into open pits, and livelihoods that have depended on artisanal mining practices are being replaced by large machinery. Even the brutality of exploitation and land grabs have not stopped. “87% of all displaced persons originate from mining and energy producing municipalities (35% of all municipalities), and 80% of human rights violations and violations of International Humanitarian Law that have occurred in Colombia in the last 10 years were committed in these places.”
The 2001 Mining Code declared mining as a “activity for public utility and social interest” which allowed for land expropriation regardless of who occupied the land. Not only was this code not in the interest of civil rights, but it also removed the governments role in direct investment thereby limiting its income to basic surface fees and royalty, which in some estimates after considering social and environmental costs amounts to Colombians paying for their lands to be mined. With funding from the Canadian International Development Agency in 2010 the existing mining code was modified making it possible to mine in protected areas – from indigenous reserves to critical environmental lands, keeping in mind that over 40% of multinationals in the industry are from Canada.
With about five million small scale miners contributing to the informal economy, using traditional artisanal practices, dating back centuries –many of whom are indigenous and afro-decendent populations—have been finding themselves in a positions of great vulnerability. The initial Mining Code of 2001 was written to favour large-scale multinationals operating from the high rises of Bogotá, far away from the reality of artisanal miners. It now requires artisanal miners to obtain licenses. The obstacles to obtaining such licences are many: five-year business plans, environmental studies, and core samples are all beyond the economic reach of artisanal miners. Furthermore the Colombian Institute for Mining and Geology (INGEOMINAS), overwhelmed with applications, has not been able to process them in a timely manner, and stopped accepting applications, but not extend the cut-off date. All this has further jeopardized the security and welfare of small-scale miners attempts to defend their land from the encroachment of multinationals. “Currently, 70% of artisanal miners do not have licenses, while in 90% of the mining zones concessions have already been granted to multinationals.”
On the other hand you have illegal armed actors –paramilitary and guerrilla—who are also present in these areas and have often committed horrendous crimes against the local population. There have been reports of massacres, economic blockades, extortion, forced displacement, threats and assassinations. These activities finance their armed actions, and remove popular resistance to incursion of multinationals. The state has responded by increasing its military presence in these areas, but is using the military only to protect the multinationals, not the local population.
The Colombian government continues to criminalize artisanal miners through the implementation of its new licensing requirements. It makes no distinction between new illegal medium-scale mechanized open pit mines run by powerful criminal gangs and traditional artisanal mines. It refuses to recognize and protect traditional artisanal miners’ way of life and their right to continue to mine free of threat, violence and death. Santo’s declaration of “democratic prosperity” then, is not a new statement, but one that brings definition to the growing disparity and violence that surrounds the mining industry.