On March 26th 2017, hundreds of residents of Cajamarca poured into the streets to celebrate the results of a popular referendum on mining. Despite setbacks in the organization of the vote in the rural Colombian town, including death threats against the organizers, 98% of the population voted against the La Colosa mine, an open-pit gold project owned by South African company, AngloGold Ashanti.
Located in one of the most important agricultural regions in the country, Cajamarca’s residents are concerned about how the mine would impact the availability of water to grow crops and raise animals. They are also concerned about acid mine drainage, deforestation and the 250-meter-tall tailings dam that would sit atop an active fault line above the Coello River, which supplies water to 800,000 people. The embankment of the proposed tailings dam would be more than six times larger than the failed Mount Polley tailings facility in British Columbia, Canada. AngloGold’s initial exploration drilling for the La Colosa mine took place inside a páramo, a unique northern Andean ecosystem that serves as a source of the country’s major rivers. The company still holds mining licenses in other areas of the country that overlap with National Parks and protected areas.
The consultation in Cajamarca was just the fourth of its kind to take place in Colombia since the government officials began promoting large-scale mining investment roughly ten years ago. There have been just nine referenda in Colombia so far, with more than 50 are planned in municipalities throughout the country. Citizens believe the popular referenda processes on mining development in their communities is a clear example of the type of active participation in democratic decision-making processes encouraged in the 2016 peace agreements and set out in the Colombian Constitution. According to Colombian Laws passed in 1994 and 2015, the results of the votes, which are carried out by municipal authorities, are considered binding.
The vote in Cajamarca, however, which effectively halted AngloGold’s development of La Colosa, exemplifies the growing conflict over the future of large-scale mining in Colombia as advocates for community rights and the environment face-off with formidable corporate and government interests.
AngloGold currently holds 496 mining titles and over 1,000 requests in 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments. La Colosa mine is the company’s flagship project, and was described by the former CEO as “the largest gold deposits found in the last 10 years”. Shortly after the referendum in Cajamarca, Colombian Mining Minister, German Arce stated that AngloGold’s exploration license is still valid. The company’s Colombia representative, Carlos Enciso discounted the importance of the vote altogether stating that the popular referendum cannot be retroactive.
The Environmental Committee in Defense of Life from Cajamarca (Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida) is concerned that pressure from the government and the company will result in a rollback of environmental protections and meaningful public participation. Indeed, the Constitutional Court is preparing to review the referenda process with the goal of establishing limits on the reach of the popular consultations through the country. In early October the Committee, with support from 112 national organizations, 90 experts and social leaders and 14 international organizations, including Earthworks, sent a letter to the Court urging it to respect existing jurisprudence and to continue to protect the right of communities to make binding decisions regarding the development of mining projects.
According to Renzo Alexander García, spokesperson for the Committee, “It is unacceptable to expect to mutilate Colombian democracy under the pretext of protecting the foreign interests of mining companies. It is illogical that within the context of the peace process they want to annihilate the constitutional principles of popular sovereignty, territorial autonomy, decentralized politics, citizen participation, and the collective right of every man and woman to live in a healthy environment in this beautiful country.”