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Colombia: the next mining powerhouse?

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In the first of a new series, Mark Camburn* discusses the Colombian Government moving towards mining and the impact that the ongoing internal armed conflict will continue to have on development in the region

Could Colombia become the next mining powerhouse of the Americas? That is certainly the aim of the Colombian Government, which has plotted a course for its conversion from a farming nation to a País Minero (mining country) over the coming years.

This vision is built on the vast reserves of gold, oil, coal, gas, nickel, and other minerals under current exploitation and prospection in Colombia. The country’s National Development Plan targets mining and extractives as one of its pillars for future economic growth.

The British government and European parliament seem to have bought into this idea too. The EU is currently pushing through a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, and the UK has targeted Colombia as one of its priority countries within the “Britain Open for Business” initiative. Europe has become the main source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Colombia, and the UK the largest investor in Colombia’s natural resource sector.

But what of Colombia’s on-going internal armed conflict? Has this now been resolved, and have the millions of internally displaced people (upwards of 5 million to date) been able to make dignified and sustainable returns to their lands, and receive compensation for the losses they suffered over the past 5 decades? Is Colombia now ready to move forward and develop its mineral potential with the full and informed participation of all stakeholders, including indigenous and afro-Colombian communities and other small-scale rural land holders who stand to be affected by mining interventions? The simple answer is: No.

  • Despite recent efforts to move towards a negotiated peace in Colombia (peace talks between the government and the main left-wing guerrilla group FARC-EP will begin on the 17th of October), fighting continues between the different illegal and legal armed groups, severely affecting the civilian population, particularly in rural areas: 286,000 people were displaced in 2011 alone;
  • Whilst a new Victims’ and Land Restitution Law has been passed, most people have yet to return to their lands or receive compensation for their losses. Impunity for crimes committed against communities and their leaders remains high, and Human Rights Defenders continue to be systematically targeted: Between September 2010 and December 2011, 1 defender was killed every week;
  • Those communities that have remained on their lands, or returned to them through their own means, continue to endure the presence of illegal armed actors, and to live in precarious conditions: This is the situation faced by the indigenous, afro-Colombian and peasant farmer communities supported by SCIAF partners the Diocese of Apartadó and Quibdó, in the Chocó department of North-Western Colombia;
  • Mining already has a direct impact on these communities, and in many cases has become inter-twined with the armed conflict. Illegal mining operations are affecting many communities across Colombia, and large-scale ventures are going ahead without fulfilling the internationally recognised right of the affected communities to Free Prior and Informed Consent. Communities with collective land titles are finding out that their land has already been given away to national and international mining companies: This is the case for the afro-Colombian organisation COCOMOPOCA. Of the 73,000 hectares granted to COCOMOPOCA as part of their collective territory in 2011, over 50,000 hectares has already been given in concession to the multinational mining company (MNC) AngloGold Ashanti (registered on the London Stock Exchange). COCOMOPOCA already has to deal with the presence of illegal armed actors and illegal mining operations within their territory, and must now deal with the imminent presence of a heavyweight MNC;

In the build-up to a series of conferences to be held in the UK in November to launch ABColombia’s new report “Giving it Away: the Dire Consequences of an Unsustainable Mining Policy in Colombia”, I will be visiting SCIAF’s partner organisations in Colombia. I will spend time with some of the communities affected by the armed conflict and mining interventions in the Chocó department, to see first-hand how this is affecting their quality of life and wellbeing. Watch this space for reports over the coming weeks.

*Mark Camburn is SCIAF Programme Officer for Latin America

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