Colombian town votes against huge open-pit mine

Global Business

A Colombian town wants to ban the construction of South America’s largest open-pit gold mine.

Billions of dollars are at stake, but so is a long and proud farming tradition.

CGTN’s Michelle Begue reports.

In 2006, a discovery in the small Colombian town called Cajamarca would change its future. Julio Roberto Vargas a community leader of the region, said he heard the news on the local television, “through Colombian media, former president Alvaro Uribe Velez declared that one of the most important gold reserves in the world was found in Cajamarca.”

The South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti bought the government license to make this the biggest open pit gold mine in South America, over the next decade AngloGold invested hundreds of millions into three Colombian mining projects—it calls the largest, La Colosa.

AngloGold says this mountain holds approximately 28 million ounces of gold, worth an estimated $35 billion. But to extract these riches, the mining company would have to bulldoze the mountain.

Vargas said the operation’s toxic runoff would ruin the crops of local farmers, “our municipality is the number one producer of Arracacha and red beans and we produce many other important foods for the country.”

Cajamarca farmers decided to use a 2015 Colombian law to call for a referendum on La Colosa.

In March, nearly 6,300 Cajamarca voters cast their ballots and an overwhelming 98 percent of them said ‘No’ to mining. AngloGold accepted the result and halted explorations.

The results in Cajamarca brought on a wave of legal uncertainties. Local plebiscites on land use are considered binding. Colombia’s minister of mining argues local authorities may make decisions on land use, but underground resources are under the control of the national government.

Even more worrisome for pro-mining officials 39, local governments are reportedly requesting similar referendums to block mining projects in their regions.

Guillermo Francisco Reinaldo, a Law Specialist on Mining said this will scare off international investment. “Another referendum was just approved in Cumaral Meta, to prohibit the extraction of hydrocarbon. At this rate we won’t have hydrocarbon, gold, coal and the country’s economy will be suffocated.”

Colombia is the world’s fifth-largest producer of coal, and has rich deposits of gold, copper and other minerals. The Colombian government has relied on taxes from mining companies to fund development for years, and it needs it now more than ever. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos promised to invest in rural areas that were forgotten during the country’s 50-year civil war. But his promises could go unfulfilled by local opposition to mining.

“We haven’t quite decided if we want to be a mining country or not.” Santiago Angel, President of the Association of Mining says this is a dispute over land use. The Association is supporting a bill that could break the stalemate. “This is the National government versus municipalities… if they think differently, who is going to solve the problem? Is it a court? Is it the president? Is it a public voting?” The bill is being drafted and Congress may vote on it as soon as July.

In the meantime, Cajamarca farmers still insist that mining could destroy their fields. Three major Colombian rivers flow from these mountains. Gutting a mountain to extract its gold could destroy this fragile ecosystem.

“The rain needs mountains, it needs soil to infiltrate and recharge the groundwater ecosystems, that feed our rivers and streams that later reach the ocean. So without mountains, that water cycle is broken,” Luis Carlos Hernandez a Cajamarca Forest Engineer said.

In the nearby city of Ibague, the Cajamarca farmers march against mining. They won the referendum, but fear that giant mining companies will eventually get what they want.

Alfonso Aponte a protesting Cajamarca farmer will fight till the end. “Our fathers were farmers and we want to continue that vocation. Hopefully, our children and grandchildren will follow our example of producing food for our country and the world,” he said.

Colombia’s rich natural resources are at the center of a conflict that pits the federal government against local ones, giant corporations against small town farmers, the rich against the poor. Whatever Colombians choose could alter the fortunes of this country or centuries to come.