Women Lead Opposition to Gold Mine in Colombia's Central Mountains
They're young, educated, angry - and they're women.
They are prominent leaders of a social movement in Colombia which is fighting against a mine proposed by Africa's leading gold mining outfit.
Now they're waiting to hear whether their protests will be recognised by the powers that be.
Women Lead Opposition to Gold Mine
By Helda Martínez, IPS
3 August 2009
IBAGUÉ, Colombia - Women in the small Andean town of Cajamarca and the nearby city of Ibagué, in the central-west Colombian province of Tolima, are leading the struggle against a major gold mining venture that threatens to alter their way of life.
Despite differences in social and economic conditions, one thing that unites women from these two Tolima communities - separated by only a few kilometres on the Pan-American Highway but otherwise worlds apart - is their wariness over a mining project that promises prosperity for a few while posing a threat to the natural environment and rural livelihoods.
It all began in 2006, when the South Africa-based mining giant AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) - which had prospecting permits from the Ministry of Mines to explore 27 areas in the province, including 15 in the municipality - discovered gold in a field near Cajamarca.
The quiet life of Cajamarca, a farming town of 25,000 people who mostly live off agriculture and cattle raising activities, was disrupted as soon as exploration began in a mine called La Colosa, less than six km from the town’s limits.
Following the initial euphoria spurred by the mirage of possibilities conjured by newfound gold, excitement among the locals died down as they realised the consequences that mining would have on their soil and their water resources, prompting them to begin organising in opposition to an activity that also threatened to have a negative social impact.
The gold deposit found by the mining company is located in a forest reserve created by a 1959 law. The area also holds significant water resources that are critical for the protected forestland, the region’s ecosystems and agricultural production.
According to critics, the intensive, open-pit mining activities that would be required to extract the gold would take a heavy toll on water resources and severely affect crops. Furthermore, the use of cyanide and other chemicals in the leaching process necessary to separate the gold metal from the rest of the minerals would pollute the groundwater.
Thirty-five kilometres from Cajamarca, in the provincial capital of Ibagué - a cultural centre of over half a million people, with nine universities - women students are playing a leading role in the mobilisation against the mining project.
According to Ministry of Education figures, women outnumber men by two percentage points in the universities of the Tolima capital, whose economy is based on agriculture-related commerce and activities and tourism.
Cajamarca has no centres of higher education, but there are still more women than men from that small town pursuing university studies. Of the 463 residents who in 2005 were enrolled in universities, more than 58 percent were women, according to that year’s national census.
But discrimination in the region has no consideration for education, and when it comes to the labour market, it is the women of Ibagué and, especially, those of Cajamarca who have a harder time finding employment. Poverty also hits these women the hardest, says Diana Ávila, an economics student at the University of Tolima who is writing her thesis on these issues.
"Many women can only find work as domestics, and the conditions they are employed under are usually unfavourable," Ávila told IPS. Journalist María Alexandra Herrán added that the social and economic conditions in Cajamarca are also forcing "girls and young women into prostitution, in some cases even pushed by members of their own family."
"Cajamarca is a place where outsiders are permanently passing through - operating as a truck stop, for example - and this makes it vulnerable to prostitution, resulting in a high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases," she told IPS.
United against La Colosa
Opposition against La Colosa gathered strength in December 2007 when AGA announced that its prospecting operations had confirmed that the site held one of the world’s ten largest gold deposits.
Anti-mining activism spurred a social mobilisation that currently involves 28 non-governmental organisations, most of them formed over the past year. What all of these groups have in common is prominent participation by women.
"We have an even number of men and women, but the women have a more active participation," said Ávila, an activist with Conciencia Ambiental (Environmental Awareness), one of the NGOs mobilising against the mining project.
Cristian Frasser, another economics undergraduate who studies with Ávila, told IPS that women, both university students and peasants, "are contributing enormously to resistance efforts."
He also described the actions taken by Carmen Sofía Bonilla, director of the province’s top environmental authority, Corporación Autónoma Regional de Tolima (CORTOLIMA), as "brave."
Bonilla’s refusal to give in to pressures has made her a hero to La Colosa opponents. She applied environmental protection regulations to the letter and put forward technical arguments to first reduce the area that AGA could explore and then push for a freeze on such activities.
Another Tolima woman, Liberal Party legislator Rossmery Martínez, called for a debate in the national House of Representatives, questioning the legality of gold prospecting in a protected forest area, and won leftist Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez over to the cause.
Bonilla’s actions, the legislative debate, and subsequent public hearings in Ibagué and Bogotá convinced the Ministry of the Environment to suspend activities in La Colosa in February 2008, pending the outcome of an environmental feasibility study that will determine if the mining project is authorised under the current legislation that protects and limits the use of the area’s forestlands and water resources.
Since then, more and more women university students, in particular those in forestry engineering and economics programmes, have become involved in the campaign against the gold mine, as they are aware that the freeze on activities is only temporary.
Activists are drawing inspiration from Ataco, another town in Tolima province, where 27 years ago a grassroots mobilisation headed by local women succeeded in blocking another gold mine project. That action was directed against a Colombian company.
La Colosa opponents are also organising discussion meetings, or workshops, to encourage women - in particular peasant farmers - who will be directly affected by the mine to join the cause.
"We support awareness-raising and communication efforts with actions aimed at informing on the impacts that mining will have, like water shortages and widespread pollution, which will particularly affect the health of children, seniors and pregnant women," Herrán told IPS at one of these meetings.
"As women, our messages reach out to other women," she added, explaining that the workshops are held in Ibagué, Cajamarca and municipalities in the Tolima lowlands, where there are extensive rice, cotton and sorghum crops.
In addition to the workshops, activists launched an online campaign that has received numerous supporters. "I’m with you because my son drinks water, not gold" - that, said Ávila, is just one of the messages left by these supporters. "This message hit me because it clearly summarises what would happen if the mining project is allowed to continue," Ávila said.
The messages of support also stimulate the women of Cajamarca to continue mobilising.
One of these women, Aura María Díaz, told IPS that most women in the region have few job opportunities, other than working in the fields.
"I had my doubts about the benefits the mine would bring, but now I’m starting to believe that it would not only mean the end of agriculture, but would also disrupt the peace. Already it’s brought thieves and muggers into town, and now we’re afraid to go out at night," she said.
She also added that when the mining company began the now-suspended works, the number of prostitutes went up considerably.
Four hundred workers had initially been hired, and that brought in a lot of outsiders and created a false sense of bonanza that tripled the cost of property rentals and sales.
Some women were hired to work at the mine, but not many, according to Ávila, "because mining is hard work and, other than cooking, there are few tasks for women."
"The drills used are heavy equipment, and you have to climb up a mountain with slopes of up to 45 degrees. There could be some women in administrative posts, but we don’t know that for sure," Frasser added.
It was also reported that working conditions for women "were not the best, though it’s not possible to get accurate data because AGA won’t reveal that information," Evelio Campos, a native of Cajamarca who heads the NGO Ecotierra, told IPS.
"We’re in the process of gathering information and we know that several women were given the opportunity of working in the mine, some even as drilling supervisors, but were fired when they got pregnant," he added.
"The history of the mining industry confirms that prostitution, drugs and alcohol spread wherever this activity develops," Frasser noted.
Olivia Gil, also a native of Cajamarca and actively opposed to the mine, is convinced that if La Colosa opened that’s what would happen there. "I’ve always heard that even if a mining project brings an initial bonanza, when it ends, it leaves the town in ruins," she told IPS.
"There’s no wealth here now, but we live peacefully, which is what I want for my granddaughters," she said.
She’s still hopeful that when her granddaughters - who are now little girls - grow up they’ll have more options than are now available in Cajamarca.
"I want something different than the absurd fantasies some people dream of today. I want them to get something more out of life than having a little fun dancing and drinking, to later end up pregnant. I don’t want that for my granddaughters," she added.
That is why her daughter lives in Ibagué, where there are more opportunities for women, and where "my granddaughters have a chance for a better future than her mother and I had," she concluded.
Gold Conflict in Colombia's Central Mountains
By Helda Martínez, Tierra America
6 July 2009
The Colombian authorities could determine this month whether they will move forward on a giant gold mining project in a nature preserve in the central mountain range.
CAJAMARCA - In a protected area of the Cordillera Central, or central mountain range, gold mining plans are clashing with the will of farmers, activists and environmental officials to preserve forests and water resources.
A movement made up of 25 international, national and local non-governmental organizations is calling on the government to halt the exploration activities of the South Africa-based mining transnational corporation, AngloGold Ashanti.
The corporation, which has been working in the area since 2006, is awaiting authorization to conclude explorations of a gold deposit situated in the municipality of Cajamarca, in the central-west department of Tolima, and part of the Central Forest Reserve.
A 1959 law demarcated the reserve in order to ensure protection of a 1.5-million-hectare strip running north-south through central-west Colombia and passing through 10 departments, Tolima among them.
The area holds important water resources, with 160 headwaters and the Coello River basin, as well as the ecosystems that sustain them: high plateaus, cloud forests and protective and productive forest areas, according to the department's top environmental agency, the Tolima Autonomous Regional Corporation, Cortolima.
In the last decade, the company obtained permits to explore 27 areas of Tolima, 15 in rural Cajamarca. The authorizations came from the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, a division of the Ministry of Mines and Energy. In 2006, AngloGold Ashanti discovered the gold deposit.
In December 2007, the corporation announced that the site in La Colosa - initially estimated at 12.3 million ounces of gold - would be one of the world's 10 biggest gold deposits.
The firm hired 400 workers in January 2008 and stepped up exploration, taking water and soil samples with 74 perforations that were "up to 700 meters deep," said Evelio Campos, coordinator of the NGO Ecotierra de Cajamarca.
In February 2008, Cortolima director Carmen Sofía Bonilla requested the intervention of the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Development to order a freeze on the mining project.
By law, the Ministry of Environment must grant a permit for economic activities in protected zones. This allows for delimiting an area where there is only grass and stubble, but it is intended for basic works that do not affect protected species, Bonilla explained.
The company had not requested that permit, so Bonilla's petition for a freeze was accepted.
"In February 2008, the mining work was suspended by order of the ministry," economics student Cristian Frasser, of the University of Tolima and member of the NGO Environmental Awareness, told Tierramérica.
But in May of last year, the company formalized a request to operate on 515 hectares in order to determine the project's economic and environmental viability, and the Ministry of Environment gave the green light, but only for 6.4 hectares.
Hiring has been cut to no more than 30 workers, but it is impossible to obtain precise figures because information about the mining project is restricted and the army guards access to the mining site itself.
La Colosa is located 5.5 kilometers from the town limits of Cajamarca and 35 km west of Ibagué, the departmental capital.
The population of Cajamarca is about 25,000; mostly farm workers. A few are merchants, with shops around the central square, a required stop when traveling between Colombia's central and western regions due to its proximity to the Pan-American Highway.
The rural portion of Cajamarca municipality is approximately 500 square km that includes a range of mountain altitudes, where a variety of crops are grown, depending on the temperature: coffee, fruit and vegetables like arracacha (Arracacia xanthorriza), a tuber cultivated in colder soils.
Critics warn that agricultural development of the area is in danger if the authorities give the go-ahead to mining activities.
The Catholic organization Pax Christi Netherlands, lawmakers from across the political spectrum, the Attorney General's Office and the Ibagué environmental prosecutor Diego Alvarado have all joined in the campaign against mining in La Colosa.
At a public hearing held in February, Alvarado argued that "the gold of La Colosa is dispersed in the rocks, in concentrations of just a few grams per ton, which would require intensive, open-pit mining, with serious consequences for the region."
That mode of production requires extracting an enormous volume of rock, which then undergoes a chemical process of lixiviation to separate out the gold metal from the rest of the minerals.
"For the lixiviation they will use cyanide, which makes it impossible to believe that this activity could be compatible with soil use in areas that are forest preserve, if cyanide contaminates the groundwater," noted Alvarado.
A study conducted by U.S. hydrogeologist Robert Moran, hired by Pax Christi, estimated that the operation would need "one cubic meter of water per ton of ore processed per second" in order to separate out the gold.
According to Moran's report, if an estimated 20 to 30 million tons of ore is processed per year, it would require 630 to 950 million cubic meters of water annually, or 9 to 24 billion cubic meters of water over the life of the mine, which is projected to be 15 to 25 years.
That level of consumption would exhaust the water supplies that feed "the aqueduct for crops, with 400 kilometers of canals that irrigate rise, sorghum and cotton in the central and south of the department, and which supplies water to five municipal aqueducts," activist Paola Robayo, a forest engineering student at the University of Tolima, told Tierramérica.
The authorities will have to decide whether to cancel the exploration permit, and thus close off future exploration, or to change the status of the forest preserve in order to lift the environmental restrictions.
"We know the influence that AngloGold Ashanti has in highly corrupt countries like Colombia, which is why we wouldn't be surprised if they end up changing the legislation," said activist Campos.
Last month, Rafael Hertz, chair of the company's Colombia affiliate, told the press that the ministry's decision is expected in July.
Meanwhile, the company has invested in community development projects. "They are painting houses, paving streets and making donations to schools," said Campos. The firm also sponsored the Folkloric Festival of Ibagué, held annually during two weeks in June.
In an ironic twist, the popular festival also provided a venue for critics of the mining project to distribute pamphlets and to display banners of protest against the company.
Colombia Expects to Decide on Anglo Gold Mine by End of July
By Heather Walsh, Bloomberg
30 June 2009
Colombia expects to decide next month whether to let AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., the third-largest producer of the metal, resume exploration at a gold deposit.
The government is reviewing the company’s petition to explore a larger area at the site called La Colosa, which was restricted to protect forestland in the surrounding area, Claudia Mora, the nation’s vice minister of the environment, said in a June 25 interview in Bogota.
“The most important thing, the clearest thing, is to ensure that natural resources are protected,” she said.
Exploration at the site 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Bogota was suspended last year, Mora said. The deposit has 12.3 million ounces of gold and is a “significant” find, AngloGold Chief Executive Officer Mark Cutifani said in February.
Colombia, seeking to increase its output of gold after prices doubled in the past four years, said this year that AngloGold could resume exploration on about 6.4 hectares (15.8 acres). AngloGold later appealed the decision and exploration there is still halted, Mora said.
Exploration will remain halted while the government also reviews opponents’ claims that the project may increase water pollution and reduce supplies, Mora said.