Colombia’s national miners union (CONALMINERCOL) announced Tuesday it will be lifting its national work stoppage after nearly two months of nationwide strikes.
Reports of a deal between miners and the national government surfaced Sunday, when President Juan Manuel Santos announced an end to the strike. But leaders of the national negotiating team waited until Tuesday morning to disseminate the official signal through the local union network, telling its members to end protest activities.
Luz Estella Ramirez, executive director of the miners’ national negotiation body, told Colombia Reports, “we agreed on a deal last week, but we have been in intense negotiations all weekend and all day Monday figuring out the details. Not all of them have been figured out, and there is still work to be done going forward, but we have reached a point where we are comfortable saying ‘enough’.”
The strike, she said, has been long and difficult for artisanal and medium-scale miners and their families. “For us, this has been seven weeks without pay, seven weeks of hard work and frustration. Most of our families depend on [mining] to eat, to buy clothes and fuel. This is an important moment for Colombian labor and for Colombia, but it is only possible because of the commitment of Colombia’s miners to their rights and to the process. This is about them.”
Industry estimates report that over 3,000,000 Colombians live directly off small-scale mining activity, with countless more tied into the local and regional economies that depend on it. According to Ramirez, the government’s reported figures that 58,000 miners were on strike were grossly inaccurate.
“CONALMINERCOL represents at least 350,000 mine workers,” she said. “Not all of them were on strike the whole time, but conservatively, there will be around 250,000 miners returning to work after [Tuesday].”
Except for heated situations in places like Catatumbo in the Norte del Santander department and Caucasia in Antioquia, the miners strikes passed largely without violence. They have had a sharp effect on workers’ livelihoods, though, and economists report the widespread work stoppage has resulted in untold losses for the national economy as a whole.
President Santos acknowledged as much on Sunday, saying his government will “thoroughly analyze the lessons learned” from the miners’ “costly” national strike.
Ramirez, however, is more skeptical.
“The government never changed its position — never,” she said. “At first they tried to ignore us. Then they tried to beat us. Then they tried to exhaust us. In the end, the pressure from the protests [in the agricultural sector] made them [make a deal with us]. Last Tuesday, they ignored a meeting we had planned without so much as telling us they wouldn’t be coming. Then when the protests intensified, they realized they had to do something about at least one of the sectors. And now here we are.”
The deal, she said, while not ideal, does cover most of the important issues in the miners’ national platform. Specifically, measures have been agreed on to address the exclusion of informal and traditional miners in the national mining code.
“The government has said they will work with us to develop, in an urgent manner, a reform of the national mining statute that will take into account the lives and traditions of the millions of Colombians involved in informal mining,” said Ramirez.
It is still unclear how the government will go about distinguishing Colombia’s independent mining sector from the illegal mining operations carried out by guerrilla and neo-paramilitary groups, which Santos has said his government still plans to deal with “forcefully”, but according to Ramirez, the formalization of Colombia’s unlicensed farmers is still an “important step for human rights”.
Other central points in the agreement include the application of environmental guides and protections to Colombia’s small-scale mining, something Ramirez said both parties were strongly in favor of. It also includes the distinction of certain ancestral mining grounds, like Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, as established zones for traditional mining, free from large-scale concessions to multinationals.
According to Ramirez, the debate over Decree 2235 was one of the sticking points in the negotiations. Currently, the decree tasks military and public forces with destroying any equipment used in illegal mining. With no legal protections, though, Colombia’s small and medium-scale miners say they are the ones most directly affected by the policy, while illegal mines like the ones operated by the ELN in the Bolivar department remain largely unimpeded by the government’s aggressive tactics.
Ramirez said the deal between the government and the miners will not revoke the decree, as the miners had hoped it would. Instead, representatives from the informal mining sector will work with congressional leaders to draft regulations modifying how the decree is implemented.
Whereas miners have been complaining for months of unwarranted, indiscriminate attacks on their personal property, including the use of aerial bombers to destroy mining equipment, the new regulations would require government forces to first prove in a court hearing that the machinery in question is being used illegally. The new licensing process, said Ramirez, will ensure that artisanal miners can prove their legal status, and thereby protect their property.
The exact details of the deal are set to be released by CONALMINERCOL leaders Tuesday afternoon, but Ramirez said it will only prove effective in dealing with the ongoing struggles of Colombia’s independent mining sector if the government follows through on its promises.
“We are here in part because the government refused to honor its word,” said Ramirez. “If you study each of the protest movements, that is the common theme. Everyone had deals with the government, and the government refused to fulfill its promises. We have provided oversight measures to ensure the government’s compliance with our [most recent] deal, but we have no way of knowing if they will work or not.”
“Now it is up to President Santos to decide if he is serious about solving Colombia’s problems,” Ramirez concluded.
- Interview with Luz Estella Ramirez
- ‘Se levanta el paro minero’ (El Espectador)
- Tres ministros y Conalminercol firman acuerdo que termina paro minero (El Colombiano)
- Acuerdo firmado para levantar paro minero contempla cuatro puntos (El Tiempo)
- Santos anuncia el final de paro minero (Portafolio)