Cajamarca, an outcry

On Sunday, March 26, 2017, Cajamarca, a small town nestled between the Tolima mountains in the Central Cordillera of the Andes, became world news. On that day 6,166 people, 97% of voters, decided through a popular referendum that AngloGold could not extract gold from the bowels of the municipality.

The story of how a village beat the second most powerful gold mining multinational in the world began a decade earlier. In 2007, then-President Álvaro Uribe announced that AngloGold had discovered in Cajamarca one of the 10 largest gold deposits on the planet. Uribe’s government said open-pit mining would benefit the municipality through $700 million in taxes and $1.5 million annually (at the current rate) in royalties for 25 years, La Colosa’s useful life.

However, the residents had misgivings, which they turned into inquiries and then arguments. “We were alerted to findings in the AngloGold projects in the south of Bolívar [department], which were plagued with threats to residents and irreparable environmental damage,” said Yefferson Rojas, a member of Cosajuca, a local youth socioenvironmental collective, who has been an activist for a decade.

“Thanks to international NGOs, several people from the municipality traveled to Brazil, to the state of Mina Gerais, notorious for recent tragedies caused by mining waste. We shared all the research with the population, door to door, farm to farm, through film forums. It was a process of awakening the community to take them from being dazzled by money to understanding the real impact that the mine would have,” he said.

In this context, the Carnival March was born in 2011, a gathering based on music, art and pacifism that successfully promoted a message to defend the municipality’s agricultural tradition. Eight years later, the march had spread to 80 Colombian municipalities. All these initiatives culminated in a quest to hold a popular referendum in Cajamarca, as provided for in the 1991 Constitution, that, despite hundreds of obstacles, came to fruition on that sunny Sunday in 2017 when the electorate said “no” to mining on their land.

The people of Cajamarca, however, remember the process as painful and violent. Threats circulated through pamphlets, emails, calls and intimidation. Several bore the signature of the Black Eagles, an alleged narco-paramilitary group that, according to the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation and other experts, ceased to exist as a criminal structure in 2011 and whose name now serves as a facade to mask the perpetrators of various threats and crimes.

There were also deaths, Yefferson said. Two boys from his group, Cosajuca, died in strange circumstances: Camilo Pinto in 2013 and Daniel Sánchez in 2014. The former was killed with a knife in an apparent personal quarrel with someone no one knew, and the latter was found dead after being missing for eight days.

Cosajuca, which has followed these cases closely, maintains that both were crimes motivated by the activism of the two young people. However, neither is listed in government or international NGO reports as murdered environmental leaders. Alejandro García, human rights coordinator for the Environmental Committee in Defense of Life, a social and environmental organization in Tolima, said there’s a real disparity in figures tracking threats against and deaths of land defenders, and that it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the state’s neglect of them.

Game of roulette

García’s organization advises environmental groups in Tolima and currently works with around 18 that are opposing different mining projects. “Underreporting in the numbers of threats and deaths handled by the government and other organizations is a logical consequence of institutional indifference,” he said. “We are talking about regions where there is petty crime and problems in coexistence. Each complaint we are aware of, or for which we provide legal advice, is given its due context so it can be distinguished from generic situations and receive individual attention. However, the authorities reject this.”

According to the Colombian government’s ombudsman, Carlos Negret, whose office oversees civil and human rights protections, there is evidence of six community leaders being murdered in Tolima between 2016 and 2019. In 2018 the ombudsman reported 20 leaders, involved in various kinds of disputes, being threatened. These figures are a long way from the 72 people dedicated specifically to environmental causes who have experienced some kind of risk due to their work that the Environmental Committee in Defense of Life documented in 2018 alone.

Alejandro García is supported by, among others, Renzo García, a biologist from Tolima’s capital of Ibagué who helped lead the referendum process in Cajamarca and is one of the most recognized environmental leaders in Colombia today. They, as well as several colleagues from the Environmental Committee, have extensive records of threats and intimidation against them.

Despite being the visible faces of the environmental movement in Tolima, they went through months of bureaucracy before receiving any protective measures from the government. In 2012 they decided to go to the Attorney General’s Office seeking protection. There they were told that if they were environmental leaders they had to go to the National Protection Unit (UNP), identify themselves as a community organization and prove their status. As they did not have legal status, the UNP sent them to the office of the Tolima government secretary, and it sent them to the office of the ombudsman, which, upon reviewing the threats, told them they should return to the Attorney General’s Office.

“They played roulette with us, sending us back and forth for another seven months until we managed to get legal status, and then they immediately gave us some protection,” said Alejandro García, smiling but resigned. “So, at least that was something.”

“What is being an environmental leader? Sometimes a mere figurehead that means nothing to the people of the city.” – Hever Olivera, farmer from Cajamarca

What the UNP gave them was a bulletproof vest and a mobile phone. And when two serious incidents occurred — one of them an attempt to raid the organization’s headquarters — it also gave them a panic button.

Apart from those, there are no protective measures for them to help reduce the risk, and they aren’t aware of anyone receiving other protections, either.

Ray of hope

Had AngloGold emerged successfully from the referendum, it would have gone on to extract, according to its own calculations, 2 million ounces of gold per year. That would have made La Colosa the second most productive gold mine in the world, behind only Muruntau in Uzbekistan.

According to biologist Renzo García, the gold the company wanted to extract in La Colosa is dispersed. “They would find one ounce of gold for every six tons of rock,” he said. Moreover, the rock contains iron sulphide. When exposed to air it transforms into sulfuric acid, and that would have a huge impact on water supplies, he said: Cajamarca is located in a hydrological basin linked to six municipalities, with local waters supplying the largest irrigated district in Colombia, including rice crops that feed much of the country.

The director of CORTOLIMA, Tolima’s environmental authority, Jorge Enrique Cardozo, stressed the potential impact of a mining project like La Colosa on the department’s water resources. “To extract the gold, the mine would be located at the head of the upper basin of the Coello River, which is the source of water for 60% of Tolimans, estimated at 1.2 million residents,” he said.

Of the 515 hectares (1,273 acres) that the gold mine would occupy, 50 hectares (124 acres) are part of a plateau. According to Cardozo, the mine would be devastating not only for the residents of the affected municipalities, but also for the adjacent forest reserve. A hundred species of birds, many of them threatened, converge in the region, as well as 70 species of amphibians.

So, when Jimmy Torres remembers everything he achieved with his colleagues, the sadness that descends on him every so often breaks through. “Seeing the way they kill a good man like César, the way they threaten us just for saying to the state ‘please take care of the water,’ causes pain that sometimes makes you want to give it all up,” he said.

Distrust remains. The authorities held the murder of César García to be a property dispute. Today, a man is serving 41 years in prison for the murder, while the community is demanding that AngloGold explain the death of its leader.

The multinational insists that it has never promoted any action against environmental leaders. “We have had a human rights due diligence system since September 2016 and a complaints and claims mechanism,” the company responded when asked about the cases mentioned in this article. “In all cases in which a complaint is filed, we activate a protocol in accordance with the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, where the competent authorities are formally informed of the complaints and an investigation is requested.”

Protection mechanisms called into question

The government also defends its role as a watchdog for the activists. In December 2019 (after the original publication of this story in Spanish), it signed the Escazú Agreement, a regional international treaty to defend the work of environmental activists. But it did so only after having initially refused to a few months earlier, in September.

In April 2018, the government of then-President Juan Manuel Santos promulgated Decree 660 to “create and regulate a Comprehensive Security and Protection Program for Communities and Organizations in the Territories.” The minister of the interior at the time, Guillermo Rivera, described the decree as “an instrument that splits the history of protecting communities in two,” meaning that, in his opinion, before this decree, environmental and community leaders were totally defenseless, and the decree provided them with institutional resources to fight against criminal organizations.

In practice, the decree has some flaws, one of which is that it did not strengthen the systems to protect ethnic groups, such as Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, to which many threatened activists belong. For example, in mid-October 2019, an Indigenous leader named Toribio Canas Velasco was murdered in the north of the department of Cauca amid tensions with armed groups entering the area. His death brought the number of Indigenous people killed in that part of the country to 36 for 2019.

In July 2018, shortly before leaving office, Santos announced a new plan to safeguard leaders in the face of systematic killings and threats. It included strengthening a military strategy known as “Plan Horus” to increase the number of military personnel deployed to targeted areas, such as where the risk to community leaders is high.

A one-stop complaint system was also created in the Ministry of the Interior to report, with fewer bureaucratic obstacles, possible risks to the lives of activists, communities or their land.

There was also an injection of 50 billion pesos ($14.5 million) to the UNP, attached to the Ministry of the Interior, which until last year was responsible for the protection of 4,510 community leaders, according to government figures.

According to the international NGO Global Witness, in 2018, 25 environmental leaders were killed in Colombia, making the country the second most dangerous in the world in which to defend land, after the Philippines. It was worse in 2019, despite the added measures: Colombia topped the global list with 64 murdered environmental leaders. Such statistics show that the current mechanisms do not work correctly.

“Seeing the way they kill a good man like César, the way they threaten us just for saying to the state ‘please take care of the water,’ causes pain that sometimes makes you want to give it all up.” — Jimmy Fernando Torres, environmental leader from Cajamarca, Tolima

Jimmy Torres points to a new generation of young people who now put the defense of the land and the environment above their fears. “When I went to ask for protective measures, the UNP offered me a vest, a radio telephone or to leave the area. I cannot work the land with a vest on and I will not abandon my place in the world. So I have an application form for protective measures that I will not request. I go out at 10 at night, on my walk home, and I’m relaxed about it. If my voice is silenced, or that of one of my colleagues, there is a generation that knows how to defend this piece of land,” he said firmly.

And he’s right. Currently, the National Environmental Movement, which involves young people from at least eight departments, is preparing a booklet to train environmentalists in self-protection measures in their work and personal life, and thereby address an issue that the state has not been able to deal with for them.

The last madman

“What is being an environmental leader?” asks Hever Olivera as he looks around the land in front of him and skilfully cuts the plants he needs to gather with a small knife.

Life took Hever to Rome, Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor and the Sinai. He became a soldier fleeing from a failed love affair until one day a ramshackle bus brought him home. “I came back in 1998 and said it was forever,” he says as he cuts, gathers and ties plants. He almost never blinks and he has a gaze that seems capable of settling for hours on something or someone, like a butterfly.

The 6 hectares (15 acres) Hever works were an inheritance from his father, who was murdered by common criminals. “I thought about leaving, but my mother told me that as long as there was someone here to die with, she would stay. And I stayed. In 30 years we have never needed a loan for this farm. It has always been sustainable. But one day it turned out that the state had handed over this land in a mining concession to AngloGold. Then I learned that life is only worthwhile if you are prepared to give it in defense of nature,” he says.

Hever joined a group of peasant farmers to defend the area near the source of the water that flows into Cajamarca. “When they declared us a military target for opposing AngloGold, I didn’t flinch. Since then we have been in universities and in Congress, setting out our position. All I ask the government is to let me exercise my skill, which is farming. What harm am I doing? Being the master of my own time, of my own livelihood?” he says. It’s hard to tell whether he is smiling or grimacing. “Well, no doubt that’s the problem, without harming anyone, I don’t depend on the state.”

Hever grows fruits and vegetables; and now he is focused on developing a medicinal plants project. He is not disturbed by the specter of threat that hangs over him and all the land defenders in Cajamarca and that appears from time to time in the form of a pamphlet or a strained atmosphere. What he does believe in is the pure water that descends to his house from the mountain, the tree outside his room that provides fresh oranges all year round, and the fertility of the piece of land that fate gave him to look after.

“What is being an environmental leader?” he repeats. “Sometimes a mere figurehead that means nothing to the people of the city. So if I am going to take something from this fight I’ve had, let it be the honor of being the last madman to be tossed into the ravine for defending this paradise.”

Banner image: Jimmy Fernando Torres was one of the first to oppose La Colosa gold mine in Cajamarca. His friend César García was murdered. Image by Julio César Herrera/El Colombiano.

Juan Zuleta Valencia is a journalist with El Colombiano in Medellín.

This story was first published here on Mongabay’s Latam site on Oct. 29, 2019.

Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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