Eight Colombian municipalities banned mining in their jurisdictions after local referendums won a majority vote in support of banning mining.
A series of municipalities across Colombia this year have demonstrated an overwhelming support for curtailing mining activities within their regions; a serious concern for investors and resource companies after the government of Colombia has been encouraging development to further build the peace with FARC.
An important sector that will benefit from the peace will be the extraction industries, especially the gold mining industry. During the years of conflict, the gold industry was plagued by internal criminal activity with unlicensed illegal mines bringing in approximately $7bn per year for armed groups and other criminal factions. The illegal mining also damaged the environment through polluting the water with substantial amounts of mercury used to separate gold from other minerals.
In an effort to clamp on down the violence and environmental damage of illegal mining, the government of Colombia has been encouraging foreign investment into the mineral industry while encouraging local governance in an effort to build the peace. FARC agreed to disarm but they have moved from the battlefield to politics, and with them come a very strong anti-development stance against foreign resource companies. Not all opposition to development is politically motivated but it also a part and parcel of changes to the mining code and as communities are experiencing control over projects for the first time.
The first vote of this year, held in February, took place in Cabrera with seven other municipalities followed to ban mining in their territory, according to Colombia Reports. Residents of Colombian municipalities have expressed a growing concern over the environmental impacts of mining on their towns––while some that farm for their livelihood are worried of how this may also impact crops nearby mining locations.
Colombia’s mining code had prohibited local authorities from suspending projects in their region, according to Bloomberg. A ruling enforced by Colombia’s Constitutional Court last year made these votes possible, as the ruling overturned the Colombian government’s exclusive authority to authorize mining projects. Now local politicians or residents that have obtained a certain number of signatures can call a referendum, reported Bloomberg. A mine or oil field that was already licensed to produced would not be impacted by the vote.
Residents of Cajamarca, located in the municipality of Tolima made headlines in March. The vote to man mining froze the current La Colosa project, controlled by AngloGold Ashanti, a gold mining company from South Africa. AngloGold Ashanti has invested $900 million towards mining projects in Colombia within the past decade, according to Reuters.
If the La Colosa project were to be completed, it would be one of the world’s largest open-pit gold mines. However, locals worry the mining in Tolima will negatively impact their water sources and pollute their environment, according to the BBC. The vote in Tolima, held on March 26, displayed overwhelming opposition against mining with 98.8 per cent against the project.
Just a few months later, in June 2017, a majority of locals in the Cumaral municipality voted in the first oil ban referendum passed in the country, which bans crude exploration, drilling and production, according to TeleSur.
Tauramena was the first municipality to enforce the ban, when a majority favoured to exile oil exploration in the country in December 2013, motivated by the population’s concern over the threat to water sources this practice may generate. The municipality located in Casanare, the central east region of Colombia, won the vote by 4,426 in favour of the ban out of 4,610 citizens that participated in the vote, according to El Espectador, a Columbian newspaper.
The municipality Cabrera, was the first to ban mining this year, as they voted in February, winning with 97 per cent in favour, according to El Espectador. The official question voters answered was, “Do you agree, yes or no, that mining projects and/or hydroelectric projects that transform or affect the use of land, water or agricultural vocation should be implemented in the municipality of Cabrera, Cundinamarca, as a Peasant Reserve Zone Township?” Only 23 voters approved this, according to the same source.
EMGESA, the Colombian electric power company that wants to impose mining and hydroelectric projects recently before the vote, the company restructured plans not to affect the municipality. However, a majority of voters in Cabrera wanted to protect the territory, as Cabrera has been recognized as a peasant reserve zone since 2000.
In response, the community of Cabrera has been working on a Sustainable Development Plan that does not consist of mining or hydroelectric plants. Paola Bolaños, a member of the Committee to Promote the Peasant Reserve Zone, said this project will ensure that the agricultural vocation is respected, reported by El Espectador.
Thus, a new era of peace is crucial for the government to take control of illegal mines in order to allow the economy to prosper while protecting the environment through greater provisions of the sector. Fundamentally, despite the peace plan costing $44bn over a 10-year period, it can be viewed as an investment into the stability of Colombia’s long-term peace prospects by ensuring effective governance.
Some resistance to mining is inevitable in a democracy especially in the nascent form of local governance permitted under the peace process. A further estimated 50 other municipalities will hold a referendum considering banning mining or not, within the next coming months, according to Colombia Reports.
This may be a setback for certain mining companies and the attractiveness of the country as mining jurisdiction in the short term. In the long run, if companies and communities can learn to work together it could improve the appeal of inviting extraction industries into the country. One should prefer the ballot box over a return to armed conflict. Colombians will be better off and so will the extraction industries with peace.
***MiningFeeds would like to make a special note that Savanna Craig contributed heavily to the writing and research of this article