South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti announced Thursday it has given up on plans for the world’s largest open-pit goldmine in central Colombia’s Cajamarca after the town almost unanimously voted to ban mining.
The suspension is a major setback for the mining company that has been preparing to dig the world’s largest open-pit gold mine from a mountain near the town since 2002.
The company had been preparing the “La Colosa” project when in March, 98% of Cajamarca’s voters said “No” to mining in their municipality.
While AngloGold initially said a “No” vote would not affect its operation, the almost unanimous opposition forced the company to “accept the expressed position of the community.”
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According to the South African company, it would not pursue any mining in the Tolima province “until certainty is granted to mining activity in the country and Tolima.”
After 14 years of AngloGold Ashanti’s presence in Tolima, mining project La Colosa, that is still not in its exploitation phase, has spent years without significant progress. Multiple reasons ranging from institutional, to political and particularly social considering the recent referendum, obligate us to take the unfortunate decision to end all activities at the project and with it the employment and investment, until certainty is granted to mining activity in the country and Tolima.”
AngloGold Ashanti’s statement is a major victory for Cajamarca that had been told by the national government their vote was irrelevant.
Cajamarca’s historic vote and the mining giant’s decision not to challenge it are another nail in the coffin of Colombia’s mining industry.
Never before has a Colombian municipality banned controversial mining practices from its territory, effectively ending whatever mining titles may have been granted by the national mining agency, which has been bordering the absurd in the Tolima town.
In Cajamarca alone, mining companies obtained titles for almost 86% of the municipality’s entire territory. More than 80% of these titles cover protected forest area. All these titles must now be nullified by the city council.
Mining titles in Cajamarca
While Calamarca may have avoided becoming the world’s largest gold mine, the town has created a problem of epic proportions for the national government, which could be sued before an international tribunal if the state is accused of having breached a trade-agreement-protected contract with a private foreign company.
This could not just cause a AngloGold Ashanti vs. Colombia case, but a downpour of lawsuits against the nation.
Since 2001, mining companies have requested mining titles covering 20% of Colombia’s national territory through some 20,000 exploration and exploitation requests, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism CIPER in 2011.
The government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) granted 9,000 of these titles, reportedly in disregard of obligatory environmental regulations and local approval.
The current government of Juan Manuel Santos hailed mining as “the engine” of Colombia’s economy until 2014 when commodity prices dropped, the peso collapsed and the economy proved to have been growing on a bubble.
Since then, several municipalities have taken legal action against oil and mining licences while the national government declared large swaths of land protected.
A domino effect of Sunday’s vote in Cajamarca is possible, because while mining has been profitable for the fossil fuel industry, Colombia’s national government and foreign investors, most of the areas where mining has taken place have seen more losses than gains. While large communities remained poor, they were left with a mining-destroyed environment.
Additionally, mining has had a major impact on violence in Colombia’s countryside where particularly gold mining has drawn the interest of multiple illegal armed groups.