Inhabitants of Colombia’s northwestern department of Choco went on strike Wednesday to protest multinational miners’ increasing pressure on smaller-scale businesses which reportedly provide 80% of the department’s employment.
Schools and shops were closed and public transport shut down in solidarity with the approximate 10,000 Chocoanos working as independent artsinal miners or for local companies, reported newspaper El Espectador.
“Today is the first day of an indefinite strike, due to the fact that the government has favored large multinationals and has not given us the opportunity to formalize,” Choco Miners Federation president Ariel Quinto told the newspaper.
The majority of miners, many of whose families have been mining for generations in the remote department, have never been able to formalize claims on the land or their businesses.
According to the federation, local miners have been pushed away by mining concessions granted to multinational mining companies on lands traditionally used by the locals.
The miners were supported by the department’s suspended governor, Luis Gilberto Murillo, who told the newspaper that “there are almost 400 mines that directly generate up to 10 thousand jobs and almost 15 thousand indirect jobs.”
According to the popular politician, “Mining plays a primary role in the Choco economy. We are miners and because of this we believe a process of formalization is necessary.”
The Colombian government does not use the word “informal,” but has been actively campaigning against “illegal” mining, stressing that illegal armed groups such as the FARC or neo-paramilitary groups like the “Rastrojos” or “Urabeños” are using the money made in mining to buy arms.
“This aggressive attitude … to present Colombia’s small and medium-scale miners as the country’s worst criminals, is a McCarthyistic attitude which falsifies the truth,” socialist Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo told Colombia Reports in February.
“Added to the displacement caused by the arrival of multinationals are the accusations against those who have been victims. Not all of us miners are illegal or go about associating ourselves with illegal armed groups like they want to portray us,” miners’ leader Federico Taborda told El Espectador.
The Choco Miners Federation said some 30 major companies have already earmarked one million hectares of land in the department, approximately one fifth of Choco’s territory. According to Taborda, the multinational companies have their eyes on 80% of Choco.
According to El Espectador, Mining Minister Mauricio Cardenas — visiting Quibdo, the capital of Choco — agreed to talk with the local government and miners in the hope to end the general strike.
The miners hope the minister will agree to create a permanent mining negotiation table for Choco where the locals and the national government can discuss the recent revoking of local mining concessions in favor of multinationals and regulations. Additionally, the miners demand regulation allowing Afrocolombian and indigenous communities to continue mining on land that has been used by their ancestors for centuries and to be consulted before Bogota grants a mining concession to a multinational at the expense of local businesses.
“The Colombian state should take the necessary measures so that large-scale mining, the small and medium-scale mining, and what we call artisan mining can all live. This would be the democratic solution that the small and medium-scale miners and I propose,” said Robledo in February.
According to Cali newspaper El Pais, the minister is in agreement with the miners and the opposition senator.
“We reach out to the miners so that they can work together with the State. We want them to have access to workshops and credit, and that they can have the guarantees given by the Ministry in terms of legality,” the minister was quoted as saying by El Pais.
“We want to make sure that the miners have the conditions to operate, but this has to go both ways. The miner must commit to respect environmental and labor norms and respond for the social security of its workers,” Cardenas added.
According to analysis website Razon Publica, Colombia’s mining sector has grown to be responsible for 2.2% for the country’s Gross Domestic Product, 24% of its exports, and 30%, or $15 billion, of last year’s Foreign Direct Investment.
Choco, primarily inhabited by Afrocolombian and indigenous communities, is Colombia’s poorest department, despite its wealth in natural resources. According to national statistics department DANE, in June Quibdo had an unemployment rate of 18.5%, the highest in the country. That month, the city’s unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage points, while Colombia’s overall rate dropped 0.9 percentage points. According to the United Nations, 82% of Choco lives in extreme poverty.