Pedro César García Moreno, a member of Conciencia Campesina and president of the Community Action Board of El Cajón-La Leona district, was shot dead close to his home on November 2. He had been actively involved in opposing the development of an open-pit gold mining project, had regularly attended environmental meetings, and had helped persuade many farmers in the area not to sell their lands to foreign miners. César was a peasant worker, territory defender, and environmental leader. He left behind a wife and two children aged 4 and 9 years old.
Every March, Every Action Taken
Conciencia Campesina is non-governmental organization representing the interests of small-scale farmers; it is also part of the Comite Ambiental y Campesino, a network of environmental organizations opposed to large-scale mining in Tolima. Throughout the last three years, together with other grassroots groups, Conciencia Campesina has peacefully rejected the development of La Colosa gold project.
In an interview with Contagio Radio in Bogotá, Jimy Torres, a member of Conciencia Campesina, said: "César was one of the most representative leaders, in every march, in every public forum, with every action taken against this mega project."
In 2006, the South Africa-based mining giant AngloGold Ashanti discovered gold in a field near Cajamarca, an agricultural hub of great importance for the food security of Colombians. Opposition to mining gathered strength when, on December 2007, then-President Alvaro Uribe announced that the discovery was “huge.”
In December 2008, Colombia's general auditor recommended that the government deny permission for La Colosa, saying that the mine would be located in an “environmentally sensitive area.” Exploration drilling activities were suspended but later resumed in 2010.
The La Colosa project is located some 150 Km west of Bogotá, in the rural Tolima Department, near the major regional city of Ibague. The deposit lies in mountainous terrain at an elevation of 2800 mts. The area is characterized by its steep valleys and is prone to seismic and volcanic activity, heavy rainfall, and landslides.
It has estimated inferred resources of 24 million ounces of gold, at a grade of less than a gram per ton of rock, and is currently believed to have the potential to produce between 800,000 and 1.2 million ounces annually for twenty years. The mine will involve huge open pits and the chemical extraction of gold with the use of cyanide. In 2009, the project manager said the mining operations would require about 1000 liters of water per second. The total investment is estimated to range between U.S. $3,000 million and U.S. $4000 million.
The project is 100% owned by AngloGold Ashanti, the world's third-largest gold producer, formed in 2004 by the merger of AngloGold and the Ashanti Goldfields Corporation. It operates 21 gold mines on four continents and is listed on the New York, Johannesburg, London, and Australian stock exchanges. In 2008, AngloGold produced 4.98 million ounces of gold, an estimated seven percent of the world's production. The company has been broadly supported by Juan Manuel Santos government: it is the mining firm with the highest number of mining licenses in Colombia (more than 400), controlling a territory of at least 821,000 hectares.
AngloGold Ashanti has a tarnished history and has been accused of working in collaboration with paramilitary groups to intimidate the communities surrounding its mining activities. On September 30, Adelinda Gómez Gaviria, an activist who opposed plans by AngloGold Ashanti to expand into the southern department of Cauca, was assassinated. Amnesty International issued an urgent action on October 4 demanding an "exhaustive inquiry into her death and the prosecution of anyone found responsable." Preempting accusations, the company repudiated the killing of César García in a press statement dated November 3.
Human Rights Abuses
The people of Tolima have expressed their rejection to large-scale mining through a series of massive demonstrations in defense of water and life. But community leaders who criticize and oppose the mining project have been characterized by the State authorities, the media, and representatives of AngloGold Ashanti, as “terrorists.”
In 2009, IKV Pax Christi, a Dutch peace movement that works for international humanitarian law and human security, published a report on the mining project, in which they predict that the economic interests presented by La Colosa will attract criminal activity primarily within the company itself. They write that the resulting human rights violations will take the form of “violent attacks, kidnappings of employees, blackmail, robberies and shootings."
In a 2011 report, the human rights organization Peace Brigades International documents the disproportionate role that the extractivist industry plays in criminal activity in Colombia: "80% of the human rights violations that have occurred in Colombia in the last ten years were committed in mining and energy-producing regions, and 87% percent of Colombia's displaced population originate from these places.” They also document the many instances in which community leaders who oppose mining projects have been targeted with threats and attacks.
The municipality of Piedras, in the district of Cajamarca, is located some 96 Km west of La Colosa. In July this year, in a popular referendum whose results are binding, people voted overwhelmingly against AngloGold Ashanti’s project. The company then filed a lawsuit against Piedras Mayor, Arquímedes Ávila, because local residents were blocking the circulation of the company’s employees, vehicles, and machines.
The Network of Rural and Environmental Committees of Tolima rejected the homicide of César García in a public statement.
The UK-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign issued an urgent action on November 5, demanding an independent investigation of the assassination and "ensuring safety and security of community members who oppose La Colosa."
IndustriALL, a Global Union representing fifty million workers in the mining, energy, and manufacturing sectors in 140 countries, also repudiated the killing.
When I visited Cajamarca in 2011, a vibrant assembly discussed the social, environmental, economic, and cultural implications of large-scale gold mining at the annual meeting of the Latin American Observatory of Mining Conflicts (OCMAL). Knowing that an international delegation was visiting the town, AngloGold Ashanti distributed a magazine with a group of young girls running and smiling on its cover. The headline read: "A shared future.” I was disturbed at the disquieting pamphlet, and stood up in front of the people packing the venue to tell them that in my home province in Argentina, open-pit gold mining had been banned since 2003 after the town of Esquel voted out a Canadian mining company that wanted to mine our mountain. The look on the faces in that Cajamarca venue and the general feeling in the room were reminiscent of the struggle in my own province; I knew the strong resistance to this project in Colombia would persevere.
Luis Manuel Claps studied Communications at the Buenos Aires University. He has followed mining in Latin America since 2004 as editor of the Mines and Communities Website. He is based in Lima, Perú.