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Mining companies undermine local democracy in western Colombia: NGOs

posted by Jacob Stringer
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Colombia news - gold exploration

Gold mining companies are undermining local democracy by giving money to the municipalities where they operate, said a local NGO in western Colombia on Sunday.

As mining companies move into southwest Antioquia to mine for gold in the mountains, local NGOs are claiming that the money the companies give to local mayors risks usurping the functions of the government.

“They are occupying the functions of the state that shouldn’t belong to private companies. The state has failed to invest in homes and schools so a company does it,” Juan Carlos Castro of BIABUMA, a small farmers association in the municipality of Tamesis, told Colombia Reports.

“They co-opt the state…They give money to the municipalities for improving roads and fixing schools, as AngloGold did in Jerico, and Solvista did in Caramanta,” said Castro.

The companies are all still in the prospecting or exploration phase and would have to reach agreement with local and national governments before opening a mine.

According to Joseph Williams, a spokesperson for Publish What You Pay, an organization which campaigns for transparency in extractive industries, “Large payments that are made prior to deals being struck could be suspicious, it would definitely raise a red flag.”

The multinational mining companies present the payments to municipal authorities as part of their social programs, but giving money in this way loosens democratic controls, according to Leo Henau, a campaigner from the town of Jerico.

“No one controls this money that mining companies give in cash to mayors, there are no procedures,” he told Colombia Reports.

Castro and Henau spoke to Colombia Reports at a meeting in Caramanta, Antioquia of the Cinturon Occidental Ambiental (COA), a local network of civil society groups formed to confront mining in the “Cinturon de Oro” or Gold Belt of Colombia. They are concerned that an ecologically unique area, part of which has protected status as a significant watershed, is now entirely allocated to mining concessions or applications for concessions.

“This is a region of high biodiversity, including endemic birds, pumas and bears. The mountains are also water sources for surrounding regions,” said Castro.

He pointed out that as multinational mining moves into a traditional farming area, few local people are aware of what the companies are really doing. “They meet with local people but they don’t talk about their exploration or what they are doing. They offer benefits and work but they are not honest.”

Campaigners believe they are already seeing the effects of payments to local governments. The mining companies behave as they wish, said Castro. “They don’t ask permission to enter people’s farms, farms like mine. They just enter.”

Henao said the same about AngloGold Ashanti in Jerico.

“They invade the town. They park all their trucks in the streets. They pay no taxes. They have four offices and they don’t pay any taxes, no commercial taxes, nothing. Why not?” he asked.

The companies go to some lengths to get their messages across according to Henao. “They dominate the local media. In Jerico we only have the local TV station and radio station. Both are paid by [AngloGold Ashanti]. They can repeat their messages every day to the small farmers.”

The anti-mining campaigners also have social concerns. Small farmers leave their farms to take jobs as security guards or drivers for the miners. They help concentrate land into fewer and fewer hands in an area that is said to have already suffered from the forced concentration of land ownership while under paramilitary control.

But those jobs may turn out to be only provisional. Companies in southwest Antioquia include multinational companies Solvista Gold, Tolima Gold and IAMGOLD. While bigger companies like AngloGold Ashanti may excavate what they find, others will only explore and then later sell off their concessions making their presence, like the jobs they offer, temporary.

As mayors accept cash from the multinational mining companies, those concerned about the potential downsides of mining feel the central government is also on the side of the companies.

“These mining titles, and the applications, they pay no attention to the tectonics, the local economy, the ecological riches, nor the archaeological riches. The [officials] in Bogota hear about gold and they don’t care about anything: the people, what we do, the history of the area, the water, nothing,” said Castro.

Indigenous people are also being ignored. They have the right to be consulted on what happens in their territory but the Embera Chami of the area have not been told about the concessions on their land.

“They have never been consulted,” said Castro. “Never. In Valparaiso, Solvista Gold went to one reservation but they didn’t explain what they were doing or talk about exploration and exploitation. They just offered [projects] and benefits.”

“Jerico has had exploration for six years and we have only known about it for a year and a half. The companies work quietly,” said Henao.

The Colombian state has placed itself firmly behind big mining, citing it as a motor of economic development. But Henao points out that the benefits he thinks should be seen — royalties paid into central government coffers and redistributed nationally — may never materialize.

“The state doesn’t get benefits from this. It just regulates. Supposedly it collects taxes from the mine, but the taxes paid in Colombia are almost nothing. They are not sharing the wealth,” claimed the western Colombia campaigner.

He has suspicions of outright corruption too.

“The local environmental authority, Corantioquia, gave a mining company permission to use water in two months. When a farmer asks for the right to use water it takes more than a year. How does this happen?” Henao asked.

COA, the network of civil society groups, told Colombia Reports that they plan on continuing to educate people about the perils of continuous land concessions and the long and short-term environmental damage that mining often brings. They will hold public meetings and even go house to house to get their message across, they claim.

Despite the resources of their opponents, campaigners have had some success. Several municipalities, including Jardin and Tamesis, have agreed to refuse the requests of mining corporations within their territories. It is not a sure tactic. While the Constitution grants some autonomy to municipalities, these local agreements will soon be tested.

Meanwhile, the municipalities around Jardin and Tamesis are taking the mining company’s money. In those towns, the campaigners of COA don’t see any part of their government, local or national, willing to confront mining companies and the environmental and social risks they bring.

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Jacob Stringer is a British citizen with degrees in Physics, and Social and Political Theory.

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