Colombia’s national government on Monday promised to act against illegal mining in the southwestern Cauca state after some 100 women had marched to Bogota and locals internationally denounced death threats.
The government had been urged to for months by communities from the southwestern Cauca state, who have said drug trafficking organization “Los Rastrojos” has been operating an illegal mine on protected land and threatened community leaders after local protests.
Following four days of negotiations, a government commission has been tasked with coordinating actions against illegal miners and returning stolen lands to their rightful owners. The government body includes the Vice Minister of Mines, Maria Isabel Ulloa and Vice Minister of Environment, Pablo Vieira, as well as officials from the Ministry of Defense.
The guarantors of the agreement include Todd Howland, Representative of the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights in Colombia; national Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora, Father Francisco de Roux and senators Iván Cepeda, Luis Evelis Andrade and Alberto Castilla.
Marching to Bogota
Some 100 women marched from the north of Cauca to the capital Bogota on November 17 and occupied space inside the Interior Ministry main office to demand being heard.
“We have decided to stay here, not for them to give us answers because they have already given us many, but so they take the necessary actions to guarantee the protection and integrity of the African communities in Cauca,” the women said on their Facebook page.
The march drew national attention to the impact of illegal mining in the southwest of Colombia.
Francia Marquez, legal representative of the La Toma de Suarez Community Council said that emergency measures were required from the authorities as the community’s territories are being extinguished, and that displacement was being caused through constant intimidation like the recent Rastrojos threats.
The problem of illegal mining
Illegal mining is a significant activity within Colombia, with estimates that almost 50% of the country’s mines are illegal. Such mining often involves rebel groups such as the FARC as well as neo-paramilitary and drug trafficking organizations. The groups target gold as well as silver, coltan and emeralds, in operations which pollute rivers and forest ecosystems.
Local communities bear the burden of these operations through extortion, polluted local drinking water, as well as through violence and the theft of lands. Marchers said that mining started in the region last year, and that now there are 32 diggers, while in the Patia Valley in the south of the state there are at least 80.
Local leaders who had asked for official action against the mines, but instead of a government response, that received one from the “Rastrojos” that threatened to kill those who persisted in resisting the illegal mining operations.
“We have been carrying out intelligence work since our arrival in southwestern Colombia in order to eliminate the guerrillas and the people that don’t want development and work, such as the ACIN, ACONC, indigenous cabildos of Santander, black councils, SUTEC, Polo, Green Party, MIRA, ASI, and community assemblies.”
Action welcome but overdue
For Charo Mina Rojas of the Process of Black Communities, official action against illegal mining is welcome if overdue, but it does not fulfill all of the states responsibilities in relation to mining on Afro-Colombian land.
“The national Government is[still] hugely disrespectful in terms of our right to prior consultation. We have been working hard to make the Colombian Government consult with communities prior to issuing mining concessions,” said Rojas.
“Our ancestors fought for these territories, bequeathed them to us and now it gives us much sadness see how they are being destroyed through mining, how mining is polluting and destroying the environment,” the leader said.
Rojas added that if the right of Afro-Colombian communities to prior consultation were respected by all, not only would there be no illegal mining but also “there would be no mining concessions in the north of Cauca.”