MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombia: Popular vote to ban ‘La Colosa’ gold mining project

Published by MAC on 2017-03-28
Source: Colombia Reports, Mongabay, BBC

According to the National Register, 6,165 voted “No” and only 76 people voted ‘Yes’ in Cajamarca

In an almost unanimous vote, inhabitants of the Colombian municipality of Cajamarca rejected one of the world’s largest planned gold mines: the open-pit mine La Colosa, of AngloGold Ashanti. The referendum was carried out on Sunday, March 26, 2017.

While a legal battle between the multinational and the Colombian government is still pending, the company has already publicly stated that it will try to move forward with the project.

See previous on MAC:

2013-07-30 Colombian town rejects AngloGold Ashanti in local vote

2011-01-17 Urgent action on AngloGold Ashanti in Colombia

Central Colombia town bans ‘world’s largest open pit goldmine’

Adriaan Alsema

Colombia Reports - 

26 March 2017
In a historic vote, a central Colombia town banned plans to build what would be the ‘world’s largest open pit goldmine,” creating a major stand-off with multinational mining giant Anglo Gold Ashanti, which has said it would advance the project.

The Colosa project in Cajamarca, Tolima was South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti’s biggest bet in Colombia, until Saturday when the local population banned all mining from its territory in a landslide vote.

According to the National Registrar, 6,165 townsmen voted “No” to all mining exploration and excavation activities. Only 76 people voted ‘Yes’.”

The vote obligates the town council to formally ban all mining activity from the municipality.

Never before has a Colombian municipality banned controversial mining practices from its territory, effectively ending whatever mining titles may have been granted by the national mining agency.

Ahead of the vote, Anglo Gold said a “No” vote would have “minimal” effect, claiming the referendum only applies to future titles, while the company had already been exploring since 2002, reported newspaper El Espectador.

Judicial experts, however, said the mining company was wrong, primarily because business deals do not transcend state decisions. If an activity is prohibited by law, it becomes illegal activity.

Additionally, “they don’t have an environmental license to carry out exploration activities. If ‘No’ wins in the popular vote, it would be absurd if the company were to continue the project,” Dejusticia expert Diana Rodriguez told the newspaper ahead of the vote.

While the town may have avoided becoming the world’s largest oil mine, it has created a problem of epic proportions for the national government, which could be sued before an international tribunal dealing if the state is accused of having breached a contract with a private foreign company.

This could not just cause a AngloGold Ashanti vs. Colombia case, but a downpour of lawsuits against the nation.

Since 2001, mining companies have requested mining titles covering 20% of Colombia’s national territory through some 20,000 exploration and exploitation requests, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism CIPER in 2011.

The government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) granted 9,000 of these titles, reportedly in disregard of obligatory environmental regulations and local approval.

The current government of Juan Manuel Santos hailed mining as “the engine” of Colombia’s economy until 2014 when commodity prices dropped, the peso collapsed and the economy proved to have been growing on a bubble.

Since then, several municipalities have taken legal action against oil and mining licences while the national government declared large swaths of land protected.

A domino effect of Sunday’s vote in Cajamarca is possible, because while mining has been profitable for the fossil fuel industry, Colombia;s national government and foreign investors, most of the areas where mining have taken place have seen more losses than gains. While large communities remained poor, they were left with a mining-destroyed environment.

Additionally, mining has had a major impact on violence in Colombia’s countryside where particularly gold mining has drawn the interest of multiple illegal armed groups.

Villagers vote to ban ‘La Colosa’ gold mining project in Colombia

Residents of Cajamarca in central Colombia made a nearly unanimous decision in a popular vote on March 26 to block a massive gold mine, dubbed La Colosa, one of the largest in the world.

Bram Ebus
Mongabay -

27 March 2017

Residents of a town in central Colombia sent a clear message on Sunday to the powers that be that they don’t want a large-scale mining operation in their backyard. In an almost unanimous vote of 6,165 of 6,296 voters (about 98 percent), inhabitants of the Colombian municipality of Cajamarca voted against one of the world’s largest planned gold mines. Dubbed La Colosa, the open-pit mine is a project of world’s third largest gold producer, AngloGold Ashanti.

“I voted no for the future generations. I have two nephews of seven and three years old. Even though they do not live in Cajamarca, I know that I want them to enjoy the little I’ve been able to enjoy so far, as it concerns the countryside,” said Camila Méndez, a 21-year old social sciences student living in Cajamarca, just a few hours before the announcement of the vote’s results. Méndez is a member of the local youth organisation Cosajuca. “If we win… we’d show the complete world that Cajamarca is able to defeat a huge multinational enterprise, a mining monster as AngloGold Ashanti.”

The popular vote functions as a protective measure if collective rights are considered endangered, including long-term impacts caused by mining and energy projects. However, the result of the popular vote does not necessarily mean the La Colosa project is doomed. A legal battle between the multinational and the Colombian government is still pending and AngloGold Ashanti has already publicly communicated that the company will try to continue with the project while it studies the consequences of the vote.

That didn’t stop residents from celebrating, though. As soon as the results were announced, hundreds of people started to celebrate in the center of the village. Many consider the vote to be a huge victory for the region and the country, and the culmination of years of work by civil society, area residents, and environmental activists.

It is also a landmark for local sovereignty, and a slap in the face of a mining project that is now officially labeled as unwanted by Cajamarca residents. It is expected to have reverberations in other communities that also seek to oppose other mega infrastructure projects.

Many area residents — like married couple and vegetable farmers José Joaquín and Luz Dary — would likely be personally impacted if La Colosa moves forward. On a recent rainy day, Joaquín found himself in the rain collecting the last strains of cilantro. He hurried off to the hamlet Anaime in order to transport the little harvest to the market of Cajamarca before nightfall. The Cajamarca region, a farming zone par excellence, is seen as a major agricultural hub for the country. Among the large cities it feeds is Colombia´s capital, Bogotá.

Joaquín’s wife fears how mining could impact their fields. “They will touch everything,” she said. “According to the company mining has nothing to do with agriculture, but that is something illogical.”

A mining title overlaps the humble two hectares she works on, full of cilantro, beans and peas.

She fears for all that they grow. “With mining we won´t have crops,” Dary said. “I cannot offer contaminated products to my buyers. This would be irresponsible of me.”

Colossal risks

AngloGold Ashanti is a South African mining multinational that aims to develop its flagship mining project in Colombia, La Colosa. The company plans to exploit 33 million ounces of gold, located in the country’s central Tolima province, if they can obtain the necessary environmental licenses. The project is still in the exploration phase, but has already generated a nationwide debate about its future impact.

When Colombia implemented the 2001 Mining Code, it opened its doors to the world of mega-mining. The ample gamut of international companies that showed an interest in the even wider panorama of natural resources that Colombia has in the ground led to Colombia being only second on the list of countries with socio-environmental conflicts, calculated by the Environmental Justice Atlas.

AngloGold Ashanti was the absolute winner in last decade´s gold bonanza as the company and its subsidiaries got its hands on a lion’s share of mining titles – in 20 of Colombia´s 32 departments. When the world’s gold price was still rising exponentially in 2007, the La Colosa prospected deposit was called the “largest found in the last ten years” by the company’s president at the time.

The gold concentration of the La Colosa deposit is estimated at 0.82 grams per ton of rocks, which indicates a large amount of waste to be produced per gram of extracted metal. Depleting the estimated gold reserves would require the blasting of 1257.27 million tons of rock.

The most feared impacts are intensive water use, deforestation and acid mine drainage, which happens when hidden ground layers containing sulfides come into contact with water and air. If they react together, the process of acidification dissolves very harmful metals and metalloids, such as arsenic.

Many Colombians have grown distrustful of projects AngloGold Ashanti has developed elsewhere in the world, and thousands have protested their presence in Colombia. The corporation had the dubious distinction of being branded with the Public Eye Award in 2011 for allegedly contaminating land and poisoning people in Ghana. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the company was accused of financing paramilitary groups, and in South Africa a court made a landmark ruling to allow for a class action lawsuit for miners to seek reparations for medical expenses, damages and loss of wages due to unhealthy labor conditions.

AngloGold Ashanti could not be reached for additional comment about the vote in Colombia and their La Colosa project beyond their public statement.


Aside from Sunday’s La Colosa vote, AngloGold Ashanti has faced other controversy in Colombia. Various local organizations opposed to the mining project say they received threats from paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles. Parts of the proposed mine overlap with protected forest reserves, which according to Julio Fierro, a leading Colombian geologist, were created to “protect soil, water and wildlife.”

Then there are the fault lines. Under the mining development zone is a dangerous geological fault line known as the Palestina fault. It crosses under the location where AngloGold Ashanti plans to build its tailings dam. Fierro says he can’t understand why such a risk would be undertaken.

“A zone as important as Cajamarca, a company that wants to build a tailings dam at a height of 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) is an irresponsibility you cannot wrap your head around,” Fierro said.

There have been failures in respect to fault lines and mines elsewhere in South America. In November 2015 when the tailings dam of the Brazilian mining company Samarco collapsed, 19 people were killed whilst a river became polluted and many people were displaced from their livelihoods. A tailings dam contains a toxic sludge that, when it breaks, irreparably impacts the environment.

Just 15 kilometers (over nine miles) from the proposed dam in Colombia is another active fault line, the Ibagué.

Fierro worries that it could all add up to a recipe for disaster.

“The case of AngloGold Ashanti’s planned tailings dam, an accumulation of rocks of more than 250 meters high (820 feet), constituting on the body of the dam in a seismic active region is madness,” Fierro said. “It will be one of the five biggest mining dumpsters in the world.”

According to the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, 50 hectares of the La Colosa Project overlap with a moorland, as do many titles of AngloGold Ashanti.

Renzo Alexander García, a biologist at the University of Tolima in Colombia, says this is illegal.

“[The project will] disappear mountains, contaminate soils, water, air and put at risk collective rights for a clean environment for present and future generations, affect the food production of this region and to completely terminate the dynamics of the ecosystem,” Renzo García said in an interview. He stresses that the basin of the Coello River below the project site is of utmost importance as it “supplies water to about 800,000 people in the Tolima department.”

A difficult road to the popular vote

Organizing a popular vote on one of the country´s most emblematic cases has not been an easy ride for those involved. The vote was suspended once before when the State Council ruled that question posed was capricious and suggestive.

In July 2013, the first ever popular vote on a large-scale mining project in Colombia was held in Piedras, also in the Tolima department. With a turnout much higher than in presidential elections, 99 percent of the municipality voted “no” on a processing plant AngloGold Ashanti wanted to build.

At the time, the company responded to the results by saying they would continue to work on the project with the community, according to media reports. In the end, plans for the processing plant did change location, to Cajamarca.

The March 2017 vote faced other challenges. Earlier in March, the new mayor by the name of Pedro Pablo Marín Cruz was elected in Cajamarca. It was Cruz who decided to reduce the planned 35 ballot boxes spread throughout the municipality to 18. Cajamarca includes many distant hamlets throughout a mountainous area.

Collective outbreaks of happiness after the 2013 and 2017 referendums in the Tolima department showed that strong civil disagreement still exists over planned projects of AngloGold Ashanti.

“Dignity has no price, a farming culture won’t be sold because of pressures by the government and foreign companies,” activist Camila Méndez said.

Colombia minister in battle over Cajamarca mining ban

Colombia's Mining Minister German Arce has questioned whether the result of a referendum held in the town of Cajamarca, where 98% of residents voted against a major gold mining project, will prevail.

BBC News -

28 March 2017

Locals fear it will damage the environment and pollute their water sources.

La Colosa, in Central Colombia, has the potential to become South America's largest gold mine.

Mr Arce said the town's decision could not be applied retroactively.

The minister added that the South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti had already been issued an exploration licence, which would retain its validity.

Mr Arce also said that while the land was under the control of local authorities, any subterranean riches were under the control of the national government.

The minister said that if AngloGold Ashanti was awarded the environmental licence it needs to proceed with the project, the courts or Colombia's congress would have to decide whether the local or national authorities prevailed.

'No open-pit mine'

Mr Arce insisted that the referendum vote would not affect foreign investment in Colombia's mining sector.

"For the first time in 20 years we will have three major projects in execution phase," he told RCN.

He said campaigners had misinformed voters.

"We're not talking about an open-air mine here," he said. "Nor are there a hundred rivers at risk."

Campaigners were angered by Mr Arce's comments.

The opposition to President Juan Manuel Santos also criticised the government's stance on the issue.

"Santos and the Mining Minister agreed to disregard Cajamarca's decision on La Colosa. Democratic mobilisation will also defeat them," tweeted opposition Senator and presidential hopeful Jorge Robledo.

Only 76 residents of Cajamarca, in the central province of Tolima, voted in favour of the mining project in Sunday's referendum, while more than 6,100 of the town's 19,000 inhabitants voted against.

Several other Colombian cities and towns are planning to hold similar votes to try to block mining projects in their area.

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