Colombia's Environmental Crisis Accelerates Under Duque

Despite President Iván Duque's campaign rhetoric about environmental sustainability, his administration has opened up conflict-ridden regions to foreign multinationals.

April 20, 2020

Illegal mining in Colombia (Photo by Lady Castro/Wikimedia)

On 16 February 2020, six gunmen fatally shot Albeiro Silva Mosquera and his brother Luis Hugo and severely injured Indigenous leader and activist Daniel Remigio in Colombia's southwestern department of Cauca. The victims were all members of the Process for Popular Unity of Southwestern Colombia (PUPSOC), a grassroots organization that defends rural communities in the Colombian Massif from destructive mega-projects. 

The attacks were not isolated cases. In 2019, Colombia was the most dangerous country on earth for human rights and environmental defenders, with at least 250 killed, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz). Eighty percent of these deaths have been linked to powerful economic interests seeking to exploit the land and natural resources. As Colombia remains on COVID-19 lockdown, social leaders around the country continue to be murdered with impunity, with at least three environmental defenders killed in one week in March.

Under the current government of right-wing president Iván Duque, the situation is not improving. Duque's National Development Plan places extractive industries as a top priority for state-sponsored investment, making it easier for foreign multinationals to obtain mining concessions in biodiverse regions like the Colombian Massif, an Andean mountain range in the country’s southwest. Duque’s doubling down on this outdated development model in regions formally under rebel control could accelerate Colombia’s growing environmental crisis, setting the stage for the next major social conflict.

Duque’s National Development Plan

Colombia’s strategic location, diverse climate, hydrographic basins, natural resources, and fertile soils has made it into a key agricultural player in the region. Small-scale agriculture has historically been part of the way of life for campesino and Indigenous peoples living in rural Colombia. Although campesinos’ contributions to the country’s food production have been vital, the state has long refused to recognize campesinos as an important and distinct socio-political group. 

In fact, the state continues to displace many campesino and Indigenous communities for the implementation of “development” projects. The centrality of the energy sector in Duque’s national economic plan has facilitated the implementation of large-scale mining and hydroelectric projects across the country, marking a steady macro-economic shift away from small-scale agriculture towards energy and mineral resource extraction. 

One of the points outlined in Duque’s development plan is called "Mining-energy resources for sustainable growth and the expansion of opportunities pact." One of the objectives is to create “a responsible energy mining sector that is an ally to the territories” and will help diversify the energy sector by 2030. His countryside development with “progress” plan overlooks the role of the campesinos as agents of sustainable change through their ancestral agricultural models, which international bodies recognize as key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Instead, the plan focuses on the privatization of land for monocultural agriculture and extractive mega-projects. Campesinos are only part of the equation if they join the production chain, give up their land, or join the agro-industrial companies.

This development model, Duque explains, has directly generated 35,000 jobs and indirectly more than one million. According to the government, mineral extraction contributes 2 percent of the country’s GDP. Duque’s minister of mines and energy, María Fernanda Suárez, emphasizes the importance of the mining sector for the development of clean and renewable energy, explaining that there would be no electric cars, wind turbines, or solar panels without mining. Suárez is also an ardent supporter of fracking

In October 2019, Duque’s administration announced plans to send 2,500 troops to Cauca—home to significant gold mining operations and one of the departments hardest hit by decades of armed conflict—further militarizing and escalating violence against rural communities living in lands concessioned for mining projects. This department has also become a hotspot for murders of land and environmental defenders, totaling over 35 killings in the first nine months of 2019.

Meanwhile, the ongoing state-sponsored gold rush taking place in Colombia’s countryside could cause a further increase of violence in communities already struggling to recover after decades of war. A study conducted by the University of Medellín, showed the links between the rise in global gold prices in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and a substantial upsurge in homicides in Colombia’s gold-producing regions. The global economic slowdown brought about by the COVID-19 crisis has already driven up global gold prices by 5.3 percent as investors seek safe investments during times of increased uncertainty, exacerbating the ongoing slaughter of environmental activists across the region. 

The Peace Process Opening Land

The exploitation and state violence in the Colombian Massif exemplifies broader national trends of resource extraction and insecurity of land defenders. The Colombian Massif is a territory rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage extending over 4.8 million hectares and 89 municipalities in the southwestern departments of Nariño, Putumayo, Caquetá, Huila, Cauca, Tolima, and Valle del Cauca—all areas with high levels of guerrilla activity during Colombia’s 50-year civil war.

Here, the country's western and central mountain ranges originate, as well as 70 percent of the country's fresh water. The Massif region houses not only a great wealth of biodiversity but also significant cultural diversity with a representation of various ethnic groups, including Indigenous peoples (10 percent), small-scale farmers (83 percent), and Afro-Colombians (7.5 percent). It is the ancestral home to 13 different Indigenous groups, including the Coconuco, Inga, Embera, Awa, and Yanacona peoples. Housing and infrastructure in the Massif region is precarious; few communities have access to electricity, roads, and sewage systems. The lack of government investment in basic infrastructure has forced the communities to rely solely on the Massif ecosystem for potable water. Despite being designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978, the Colombian Massif was opened up to large-scale mining during the Uribe and Santos administrations. 

For decades, the presence of the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, the FARC, in the Colombian Massif acted as a formidable deterrent against extractive projects in two main ways. 

First, the presence of the FARC served as a deterrent for large concession holders, primarily due to the real risk of being kidnapped or extorted by the guerrillas as well as the lack of basic guarantees for investors. Now, in the wake of the peace accords, the Colombian Massif is where most of the large-scale gold mining concessions are being granted.

Second, contrary to the Colombian government’s claims of being the primary drivers of illegal mining, the FARC enforced strict communal guidelines that included robust environmental restrictions on extractive activities. 

It is important to understand the FARC’s role as an environmental authority in areas under its control as it helps explain the sharp rise in illegal mining across many areas formerly under their control, starting with the 2015 ceasefire and further increasing after their demobilization process in 2017.

The FARC demobilization generated a window of opportunity. Transnational interests and paramilitary organizations sought to take advantage of the power vacuum to further their own economic interests.

The Colombian government has since failed to fill this vacuum with effective programs to mitigate the impacts of large-scale mining by placing community-led initiatives at the center of policymaking. Instead, the Colombian government has again opted to continue a policy of militarization and extraction that only serves to further marginalize the local population. 

The historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC marked a major shift for many communities who had grown accustomed to their relative isolation from destructive neoliberal policies taking root in other areas of the country. Suddenly, these areas— inaccessible to extractive industries during the country’s long civil war—became the next frontier for multinationals seeking to make short-term profits at the expense of the local inhabitants and the fragile ecosystems they depend on for survival. 

The Colombian Massif Under Threat of Disappearance

The National Mining Agency has approved concessions to international mining companies such as Johannesburg-headquartered AngloGold Ashanti and Canadian-listed Royal Road Minerals in areas where exploitation is prohibited by national environmental protection regulations. The government has issued concessions for about 10,200 hectares of the Massif. Community members of Cauca’s La Vega municipality explained that, although the Massif has six Regional Autonomous Corporations (CAR)—government entities responsible for environmental protection—they have done little to protect the territory. 

“The institutions haven't been particularly helpful. In fact, environmental institutions do not verify the information provided by the mining companies about their environmental impact,” said Genio Martinez, a community leader from La Vega. 

For example, in La Vega, which is known as “The Heart of the Colombian Massif,” 13 mining titles have been granted and around 68 concessions are in the process of being issued. Nearly 85 percent of La Vega is concessioned for mining—including an area known as the Carol Chomsky Forest, set up to commemorate the life and spirit of Carol Chomsky, the late wife of renowned linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky.

To protect the territory and confront large mining interests such as Royal Roads Mineral, the campesino community of La Vega has organized the Proceso Campesino y Popular del Municipio de La Vega (PCPMLV). PCPMLV member Oscar Salazar explained: “We don’t want the international community to start paying attention once the rivers have dried up, but rather act now and stop the mining projects on their tracks.” The campesinos maintain that their work consists of “defending the territories, preserving water resources, and fighting against megaprojects.” Their Marches for Life and Water, which began in 2013, raise consciousness about the importance of defending their territory, and their annual Peoples and Seeds Conference facilitates international exchanges on food sovereignty strategies. 

“We are designing policies that could serve as actual public policies since the government does not,” Salazar said.

The Massif’s rivers, lakes, páramos, and lagoons are at the mercy of illegal miners and large multinational companies. Often, foreign mining companies subcontract their hazardous mining activities to smaller, informal bands that often have links to paramilitary organizations known to use violence and intimidation against the local population to extract precious metals and sell them back to the concession holder—a process locals call “mercenary mining.” 

For communities like La Vega, the arrival of “mercenary miners” to their territories frequently means an increase in violence and environmental degradation, destroying forests and poisoning their drinking water with mercury and other highly toxic substances. Since Duque’s 2018 election, “mercenary mining” has boomed, reaching 98,000 hectares in 2019, according to the United Nations—a growth rate of 6.5 percent or 6,000 hectares a year. That's an average of 32 football fields every 24 hours.

According to local activists, this exponential growth in “mercenary mining” is due in part to a decree issued by former president Juan Manuel Santos in 2014. The decree incentivized the practice by expediting the process for becoming a legal miner. Under the new regulations, would-be “mercenary miners” are only required to pay 8,000 Colombian pesos (about $2) and present a valid I.D. to become an official “subcontractor.” Multinational corporations have since begun exploiting this form of legalized “subcontracting” in order to consolidate small-scale mining operations, particularly in areas deemed “too risky” for industrial-scale projects. 

Community organizers describe how entire Colombian Army battalions are at the service of these multinationals, known as “energy battalions.” According to local testimonies, there are at least 30 “energy battalions” in Colombia, where individual army commanders make bilateral agreements with multinational mining companies to act as private security.

“Commanders are allowed to make alliances with multinationals to protect their interests,” said Salazar, “in La Vega, we have one of these battalions.”

The Colombian Army is not the only institution accused of collusion with powerful multinationals. Members of local communities allege that, when the human rights ombudsman's office was asked to investigate a complaint made by a community affected by mining activities, the transportation costs, including gasoline and vehicle maintenance, were being paid for by AngloGold Ashanti, one of the largest mining concession holders in Colombia. 

In March 2018, Royal Road Minerals entered into a stock purchase agreement with Compañía Kedahda Limited, an affiliate of AngloGold Ashanti, to acquire Northern Colombia Holdings (NC Holdings). NC Holdings, in turn, owns Exploraciones Northern Colombia SAS, which owns a title package comprising mining concession agreements covering approximately 36,000 hectares of land, and the rights concerning applications that have been made to acquire mining concessions over nearly 215,000 hectares of land, in the heart of the Colombian Massif. 

Royal Roads Minerals specializes in setting up operations that profit from "post-conflict" environments. The company's website states: "Post-conflict environments can be dynamic and often confusing, but they are also a remarkable opportunity for the private sector." Despite corporate claims of environmental sustainability and community engagement, the communities of the Colombian Massif are soundly opposed to their industrial mining activities that threaten to destroy large parts of the high-altitude wetland páramo ecosystem so vital to the well-being of the global climate system.

Despite President Iván Duque's campaign rhetoric about environmental sustainability, his administration has doubled down on policies set in motion by the Uribe administration in the early 2000s, opening up conflict-ridden regions to foreign multinationals. These policies benefit corporations seeking profits at the expense of the environment and the lives of people already struggling to build peace after the longest and bloodiest conflict in the hemisphere. Far from being a solution to Colombia’s armed conflict, exposing the country’s rich environmental diversity and cultural heritage to the whims of multinationals could prove to be the catalyst for the next one. 

Evan King is an international human rights observer with Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, which provides physical and political accompaniment to grassroots movements advocating for justice and sustainable economies in the Americas. He is a William and Mary graduate in International Relations and Latin American Studies.

Samantha Wherry has been a human rights observer for the past three years with Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, which provides physical and political accompaniment to grassroots movements advocating for justice and sustainable economies in the Americas. She graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in International Studies and Peace Studies.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.