For thousands of small and medium-scale miners who have been on strike throughout Colombia since the middle of July, Monday will be a day more or less similar to any other over the past month.
“We are not joining the national strikes [planned for Monday by a wide variety of workers unions],” said spokesman Ricaurte Tirado of Colombia’s national mining union Conaminercol, in an interview with Colombia Reports Wednesday. “We have been on strike since the 16th [of July]. Everyone else is joining us.”
That organizers for the miners are almost a full month ahead of their counterparts in the other four major labor sectors set to strike Monday – trucking, health care, agriculture and education — is no accident or miscommunication. Of all the livelihoods being represented in the August 19th demonstrations, the miners’ is the one most literally under attack.
“They are destroying our equipment,” said Tirado. “Without any investigation or due process, they are destroying it. There are parts of the country where bombs are being dropped from the sky to attack [miners].”
Decree 2235, passed in 2012 at the insistence of President Juan Manuel Santos, tasks the Colombian government, specifically its police and military forces, with the destruction of any and all mechanized equipment involved in illegal and unauthorized mining activity, which Santos’ administration has repeatedly claimed is the primary source of revenue for armed groups within the country.
The problem, as far as Conaminercol is concerned, is that the government has not made any distinction between mining being conducted under the extortion of groups such as the FARC and ELN, which evidence indicates is every bit as profitable as the Santos administration claims it is, and medium-scale and artisan mining, the likes of which have been practiced in what is now Colombia for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
“We in Colombia were miners long before Colombus,” said Tirado, “and now, law after law we see our rights disappearing, up until Decree 2235, which violates every natural human right there is […] that decree, 2235, is a national embarrassment, a shame on our people.”
Conaminercol claims that as many as 3 million Colombians live directly off of income from what the miners call “informal,” but the government calls “illegal” mining. But really, Tirado said, that statistic is overly conservative.
“There are 800 [of 1,100] municipalities in Colombia that depend on mining as their main source of income. In other words, the whole local economy is based on mining, and the money that comes from it. But if you go to any part of the country, you will see it just as easily. You’ll see the products we take from the earth being sold in stores, or made into parts for machines, or what have you. The whole country lives off mining, in one form or another.”
“How can something be illegal when it affects the whole country?”
Colombia’s miners, he says, are demonized by the government, which on one hand passes aggressive laws such as Decree 2235, supposedly to protect Colombia’s environment, and on the other grants multinational mining companies generous contracts allowing them to take advantage of Colombia’s natural wealth and circumvent existing environmental regulations.
“The environmental impact that we represent, with all our machinery, is equaled by one single multinational – pick any one […] some of them go through 100,000 tons of rock a day. 100,000 tons: where are they going to put that? 100,000 tons is a soccer field five meters high. And so in one year you’re going to have one hole where the mine used to be, and one mountain made of loose rock.
“And instead of looking at the impact that these multinational companies have on Colombia, the environmentalists and the politicians in Bogota focus on the impact that each tiny mining company is having. And they don’t realize that 3 million people are living every day, eating every day, off of that activity.”
This double standard, he said, strips any credibility the government might have in its campaign for environmental protection. Instead, what you have is a government criminalizing its own people.
“They say it’s to fight the FARC, but where is the FARC in all of this? We are the ones working and we don’t see the FARC. They’re out there somewhere mining, still. And so then it’s just [the government] fighting us. Turning 3 million people into criminals.”
Tirado sees a recent quote from Natalia Gutierrez, in which the vice-Minister of Mining claimed that 40 of the 60 tons of gold mined last year in Colombia was mined illegally in an attempt to justify the government’s stance in the ongoing negotiations with the miners, as further proof that the government is destroying Colombia’s rural mining economy, in favor of larger, foreign interests.
“[The gold] we collected last year is worth $2.1 billion. $2.1 billion isn’t a lot of money compared to the profits of a multinational. But it happens that with that $2.1 billion dollars 3 million Colombians feed themselves. Because we take charge ourselves, [the buyers] pay us directly, the buyers pay us in cash, and we feed ourselves, while multinationals can take out hundreds of millions of dollars [worth of metals, chemicals and minerals] a day.
But at the end of the day, they take that abroad, and leave nothing here — no resources, no taxes, no investments, not even jobs once they’re done – except contamination.”
One such multinational, Drummond, whose workers have been on a separate strike for the past four weeks seeking wage increases, has come under fire recently for fighting environmental restrictions, even after deliberately covering up its involvement in a massive dumping of coal into the Caribbean Sea.
Tirado claimedd the miners he represents, moreover, go out of their way to reduce their environmental impact.
“We’ve proposed a law that would distinguish ‘illegal’ and ‘informal’ mining, and would work with environmentalists and miners to create thorough environmental guides to control mining activity. In some regions, we ourselves have opted to hire environmental engineers to develop plans for us. And we’ve followed them, of our own accord, without any involvement from the government.”
The reforms Conaminercol are seeking are diverse, but the most prominent goal, aside from the formalization of small mining operations, pertains to the assistance from the government, assistance that currently goes, according to Tirado, to multinationals who don’t need it, but should be going to the Colombian people.
“[The government] gives everything cheap to the [the multinational mining companies]. The infrastructure, the investments are all deductible [from Colombian taxes], gasoline, they have their own contracts to get gasoline […] everything is cheap.
And if those companies were going to leave more money in the country, I would be fine with it. But until then, who’s going to feed all the miners and the families that live off of [informal mining]?
If you’re a multinational, you dump all your sediment in the river, publically, legally, and while people drink dirty water, the government calls it a blessing. All we are asking for is the same dignity granted to the people contaminating our water and our air.”
According to Tirado, who is also a part of the 34-person National Strike Committee elected to lead negotiations with the government, talks have stalled because of a lack of commitment on the part of the government.
Thus far, negotiations have broken down three times, most recently earlier this very week. The government has blamed the miners for walking out on discussions, saying they are being unreasonable on the issue of permits for people who have been mining for two years or less. But Tirado, who acknowledged that the two-year limit has been an issue, said that the bigger problem is the government’s unwillingness to come up with new solutions.
“They say they can use the existing statutes to solve the problems, but the existing statutes are why we are here. We don’t want [Decree] 2235 to work better, we want it gone. And they say we are just complaining but not offering any alternatives, and yet we have proposed legislation. We already have legislation ready, but they do not want to fix the problem; they just want the strike to end.”
The strike, however, will not end, he says, not unless the miners see substantive change in a host of problems they say have been destroying their communities for years now. Like with the other sectors participating in Monday’s protests, the strike is the result of years of frustration and anger as much as a reaction to anything recent or specific. Like the other workers going on strike Monday, the miners claim they are ready to fight for as long as it takes to force the changes they feel they need. Unlike everyone else, the miners have been practicing for a month now.
- Interview with Ricaurte Tirado
- Pliego de Peticiones Paro Minero