“Here we can build a fair lie for ourselves and send money to our families. If this goes we will end up in the city to live a life of misery. If you don’t work you don’t eat and if you don’t know how to steal you die of hunger”(Resident of Mina Vieja, Sur de Bolívar)
The southern zone of the Department of Bolivar has been home to some of the worst Colombian human rights atrocities in recent years. In the late 1990s, thousands were murdered and tens of thousands displaced by paramilitary activity that accompanied the arrival of the mining corporations Conquistador Mines and Anglo-American. Today the region is facing incursions from the mining giant Kedahda (a subsidiary of Anglo Gold Ashanti). Since the mining applications the region has seen an increased presence of the Anti-Air Batallon Nueva Granada. The local agro-mining federation (FEDAGROMISBOL) is sounding the alarm bells for the extinction of small scale gold mining communities. They claim that their mountain paradise - rich in locally grown organic food, forest and water – will be tuned into desert by the arrival of open pit mines.
FEDAGROMISBOL - Federación Agro-Minero de Sur de Bolívar (Agro-mining Federation of South of Bolivar) - alludes to the dual interest of the mining communities; they are essentially a mining society sustained by agriculture. The two economies in the region are inseparable and in large areas (especially the North of the region) are used simultaneously in a small scale artisan way of living. The Federation administers mining titles, environmental plans and taxes. It is also the custodian of the rights and security of the miners. Their slogan is ‘for the right to life, integrity and permanence in our territory’.
On the19th 2006 FEDAGROMISBOL President, Alejandro Uribe Chacon was shot dead by the Batallon Nueva Granada. FEDAGROMISBOL and the local community claim he was executed extra-judicially by the Batallon. The Army claim he was a functionary of the ELN guerillas and was killed in combat. One of the justifications for this position is his work organizing against Kedahda. In the enquiry is ongoing.(3)
This loss, by no means a precedent, appears to be compounded by an extra-judicial campaign against the Federation. On the 26th April of this year, its President - Teofilo Acuña, who now resides in Bogota for security reasons, was violently arrested by members of the Anti-Air Batallon Nueva Granada. He was illegally detained without warrant until the 5th May when he was released with the help vocal local opposition and international pressure. The incident is one of countless such incidents that form a strategy of detention directed towards such leaders. The Federation, like so many organizations, has to constantly reassert its legitimacy and its right to resist the entrance of multinational interests. Their activities are monitored, tracked and photographed by authorities who carry out regular stops and searches.
The civil population has made considerable headway in advancing this platform of the left through local electoral politics. There has been an extensive registration drive in the rural zones and electoral committees have been established in an effort to strengthen the electoral process. Some of the participants in this process have been signaled out as guerilla collaborators - acts which led to national and international complaints. Organizers believe that the importance of the mining sector in investing money into the local towns is not reflected by the political representation of the region. Electoral mobilization is, however, fraught with difficulties in a zone where so many armed groups and powerful financial interests are in competition. Armed groups often compete for a protection tax that endangers the security of the civil population. The regular armed forces of the State appear to be disinterested in tackling those armed groups from the right. On the contrary, they have been heavily implicated in the direct cooperation with them and numerous testimonies tell of their harassing of civilians. (2)
On the 6th and 7th May of this year the mining community of Mina Mocha held an assembly on the human rights situation in the region. It was attended by 22 mining communities plus two mining associations. Also present were representatives from 17 human rights, social and peace organizations – national and international. ‘Is it legal that the army carries out patrols with civilians and demobilized paramilitaries (sometimes masked) – uniformed with garments and arms designed for the private use of the National Army?’ asks the subsequent report by the national and international commission. The report went on to conclude that civic activities are being controlled and monitored by intelligence agents; children youths and women are being used as civilian intelligence actors in counter insurgency operations [in violation of the Geneva Convention] and that public resources, as well as locations of residence, were being used as part of a military build-up to protect the entrance of large scale mining from guerilla attacks.(1)
“The soldiers have arrived to this region with the pretext that they come following the footsteps of the insurgency. But we see that they are not coming for the insurgency, they come contracted by Kedahda as the most effective resolution to divide us so that we leave our territory and de-occupy our land. That is the strategy of the Colombian Government directed towards us."
(Interview with President of local Council of Communal Action)(4)
Apart from guerilla slurs, the small scale miners are denounced by the Government and Anglo Gold Ashanti for working with outdated practices of health and safety and polluting the environment. It is certainly true that there have been many cases of mercury pollution to the rivers and streams. Minor accidents are frequent and basic equipment such as decent torches are mostly not provided by mine owners. These facts must, however, be considered in the context of a complete lack of State training and provision to alleviate the problems. What is more, the juntas de acción comunal (councils of communal action) regulate the local environment to protect water supplies and forest. The felling of a tree, for example, must be authorized by the Junta. There is no argument that large scale open pit mining will bring any improvements to the social and environmental wellbeing of Sur de Bolivar. On the contrary, it will displace and destroy - turning one of Colombia’s most untouched areas of natural beauty into a barren, scarred landscape.
In the Southern part of the region, coca fumigations have had the effect of destroying other crops that stand in its path. They have caused grave skin complaints to members of the local population and have contributed to nothing less than a humanitarian crisis.(5) It is the belief of many of that the government is using these fumigations to displace the populations to help facilitate the entrance of the multinational Kedahda.
Tactics of Entrance
Beyond such crude methods of displacement the inhabitants of Sur de Bolívar are threatened by what they call an ‘economic blockade’. The multiple concessions applications of Kedahda is demoralizing the miners who lack the long-term legal muscle to defend their territorial integrity. In the long term this amounts to a form of economic encirclement. For the last three years La Junta of Mina Vieja have been in a legal battle to defend their mining titles. The company is now baring its full influence on the Government to reform the National Mining Code – thereby facilitation greater ease of entrance to the trans-nationals and threatening what little legal protection the small miners have. FEDAGROMISBOL complain of the use of figurehead third parties by Kedahda to avoid taxes and increase applications.
The population of the mining communities is transient and varied. Many workers are seasonal or contract workers from outside the region. Some men even come from Ecuador for a few months of each year - an impressive job hunt of some 900 kilometers. Society is very matriarchal and there are many young men who come in search of work. One human rights observer told me that the powers that be require drinkers to leave their machetes at home whilst on drinking sessions. The sessions are many, only on a Monday night is there no “rumba”. Football is a prominent pastime and is a way for neighboring villages to socialize.
There are few deep roots in these settlements - which shift in a semi nomadic fashion across the mountains in search of gold or displacing themselves for the same. The oldest villages are only around 15 years of age. One striking feature is the lack of elderly people. The few elderly that you encounter are likely brought in by families from outside. “I don’t know what will happen to us when we get old”, mused one mother half joking.
It is not unthinkable that provision for the elderly can be created by these villages. After all, the people of Sur de Bolivar have a proud history of dignified existence in the face of State neglect. All public works (such as clearing paths and constructing communal facilities) are coordinated by the Las Juntas and carried out by citizens on a rotary basis. There are schools, churches, shops and nightclubs. Some villages work to organize their own security, registering the leavers and arrivers and their destinations as a form of “early communication” on possible disappearances.
For most residents of these small scale mining communities, the only manifestation of the State is the National Army. It is ironic that the same forces that claim to protect the security and integrity of the civilians has brought so much fear, insecurity and human rights abuses. Their utilization appears to manifest itself as private security for the mining trans-nationals. In the words of one miner “the Government doesn’t want us to be here”. Amongst this frame of events, village meetings are no trivial affairs. Leaders make impassioned calls for unity and talk of the “cursed fear” that is breaking their morale. Nevertheless there is a high level of political consciousness and participation. The houses are fragile but the community is strong. Whether they are strong enough to weather the threats to their way of life depends on the success of the national and international mobilizations against Kedahda and the proposed reforms to the Mining Code.
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1/ Informe de la Comision de Segimiento y Monitereo a la Situacion de Derechos Humanos y Derechos Humanitario de la Comunidades Agromineros del Sur de Bolivar (6,7 Mayo 2007)
2/ Comunicado de Comision de Interlocución del Sur de Bolivar, (CISB) Aguachica, Cesar, 23 y 24 de Junio
3/ Declaracion Publica de La Asamblea General Extrodianaria de la Federación Agrominera del Sur de Bolivar (7 Mayo 2007)
4/ Interview: Presidente Junta Accion Comunal Norte de Sur de Bolivar (10 Julio 2007)
5/ CONTINUA CRISIS HUMANITARIA EN EL SUR DE BOLÍVAR,COMUNICADO A LA OPINIÓN PÚBLICA NACIONAL E INTERNACIONAL. Municipio de Cantagallo, Sur de Bolívar, Magdalena Medio. La Asociación de Familias Campesinas del Sur de Bolívar, (AFCSB) y La Federación Agrominera del Sur de Bolívar, (FEDEAGROMISBOL),