Colombia: What happens when Auntie AngloGold comes to stay?

Tolima protest
By Jacob Stringer

Have you ever wondered what happens when a big multinational mining company turns up in your small Colombian town with the intention of building a gold mine? A new report produced by a UK-based campaigning group records the experience of local people in Cajamarca, Tolima, as South African-based gold miner AngloGold Ashanti moved in.

The report, La Colosa: A Death Foretold, is about a mine that hasn’t yet been built. So it isn’t about mass pollution or large-scale environmental destruction, or not yet. The multinational gold-mining company has been in Cajamarca for almost ten years just preparing the ground for their mine. This is a tale of what happens before the mining even starts.

According to Anglogold Ashanti (AGA) “La Colosa is large, world-class gold resource and is getting bigger.” Researchers from Colombia Solidarity Campaign spent over two years on the ground in Cajamarca, Colombia, carefully documenting what happened as AGA prepared to build La Colosa, intended to be a truly vast gold mining operation in a previously quiet, agricultural area of Colombia.

Shhh! It’s all a secret

The first notable thing that may happen to you as a local resident when a  mining company moves in is that you may not even know about it for some time. Your own land could be concessioned without you even being notified. Anglogold Ashanti moved into Colombia under a variety of front names and bought concessions all over the country before most people has even heard of them. As of July 2012 they held 424 concessions covering 763,337 hectares, with applications on a further 625 concessions covering 865,649 hectares. While the scale and stage of the operations at Cajamarca means the residents have now known about AGA’s presence for some time, many Colombians remain unaware that the land all around them is under concession.

Watch out for your water, your land and their waste

Once the company starts serious exploratory work in the area you will immediately have to start worrying about water security. Gold mining needs a lot of water and even exploration work around Cajamarca has caused serious concerns about the effects on watercourses used by farmers. But in particular if you live anywhere within 100km of the proposed mine you will have to start worrying about where the water-hungry processing plant will go. The municipality of Piedras, some distance from Cajamarca, suddenly discovered AGA testing the suitability of their area – a primarily agricultural one – for a large gold processing plant. The implications for the integrity of agricultural land and water sources caused the people of Piedras to blockade their roads against AGA, then vote against them being allowed in. It is still not known whether the central government will be able to override this vote.

The question of where the waste from the mine will be stored will also hang over you. It is likely that the proposed La Colosa mine will produce enough waste rock – perhaps 100 million tonnes over the life of the mine – that it will mean filling in entire valleys, presenting a high risk of contamination of underground and surface water. The tailings dam – a storage facility for toxic residues from the mine – is planned to be one of the largest in the world.

While AGA like to claim that they are fully engaged in democratic processes and are informing people of the consequences of their presence, the truth is that the size of their planned mining operations in Tolima is still something of a mystery – they have talked of a wider Colosa Regional project but the sites of some of the other deposits they intend to mine are not yet known. Meanwhile land is being purchased all around the area and AGA is not making their acquisitions public. If a mine moves in to your town, you may have to wonder whether the land around you has already been bought, while the company assures you they are consulting you at every stage.

Meanwhile the company will begin to reveal its real environmental ethos. In Cajamarca the authorities have already had to stop exploration works: the company had been carrying out drilling without the required environmental permits. A part of the exploration area is also in a local Forest Reserve area, which the government has permitted despite the protests of its own officials. Former workers for the company have claimed that AGA is collecting water for their exploration work without permits, clearing forest without permission and disposing of toxic chemicals incorrectly.

The PR offensive

In the face of these worries the company may try to reassure you by offering tours of their sites. But if you are critical of the mine the offer may not apply to you. Critical journalists as well as community groups have been denied entry to sites by AGA.

If there is a certain amount of support in Cajamarca for the mining company it is largely because they provide jobs in an area where regular salaried work is still rare. However even this can be a mixed blessing. Most of the workers are employed on fixed-term contracts that usually last less than a year and they have no way of knowing whether their contracts will be extended or not. Many are employed through sub-contractors; staff employed in this way have reported abusive behaviour from managers. Reports from workers suggest they may not be protected sufficiently against toxic chemicals. Employees are in constant fear of losing their jobs and assistance for injured employees appears to be sporadic at best.

As for how much local support the mining company really has when it arrives in your town, it will be difficult to tell. In 2012 AGA organised a local march to celebrate the anniversary of its arrival in Cajamarca, in which three thousand people participated. But afterwards employees reported they had been paid for that day and told to turn up well dressed and accompanied by their families.

The picture will be further confused by a full-spectrum communications campaign by the company. The company will be present on the local television channels, the local radio stations and in Cajamarca produce their own magazine for local people. AGA even has its own mining theme park, where local people can go to be told about the benefits of mining. The company also give many talks to children in schools with the clear objective of presenting their point of view and discrediting opponents of the mine such as local environmentalists.

Anglogold Ashanti’s attempts to sell the benefits of large scale mining to residents of Cajamarca only partly works. As one farmer put it: “If Anglogold does things so well, if mining is as good as they say, if it generates so much well-being, if they have so much support from people, then why do they spend so much money on their propaganda?”

If the word ‘propaganda’ seems strong then it is worth noting that the company not only buys commercial space on local radio channels but also funds adverts integrated within news programs, described as ‘positive news about Tolima’. Meanwhile many local journalists get paid by AGA for the magazine the company produces or for other projects that depict the company in a good light and are offered perks such as football match tickets. The appearance of a large mining company in your area may well spell the end of independent journalism.

As for what the company will communicate with all its resources: it will not necessarily be the information you might expect, such as the size or type of mine to be built. AGA say they don’t know all the details of the mine yet, but it appears likely their investors know more about the future mine than the people of Cajamarca. It seems likely that the mine will be open-cast and probable that investors know this but the company is claiming to still be considering underground mining.

Benefits with a sting

To reinforce a positive image the company will fund various social projects. These are claimed to be a way of offering the benefits of mining to everyone in the area, yet in reality you may discover the community divided by them, some being happy to accept the company coin, others seeing it as a way of buying off local people. It is possible many of the projects will not be sustainable, and of course since there is no accountability to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects, it is within the power of the company to shut off funding whenever they wish.

As the mining company increases its economic penetration in your town, you may have to start worrying about the independence of your elected representatives. More than half the current Cajamarca council members now have direct or indirect links to the company, such as relatives working for the company or their contractors. In 2012 AGA also financed the TV broadcasting of council meetings and the publishing of the minutes. The council has chosen to see no potential conflict of interest in taking this money.

The economic dominance of the company might also push up rents in your area. A variety of megaprojects in the Cajamarca area have led to rent rises so high that 2013 saw an attempted land occupation by local people unable to afford the rents any longer. As the company moves more workers into the area it seems likely the rents will only rise further.

Resistance can be lethal

What can also be expected when big mining moves in is that some people will put up resistance on environmental, economic or social grounds. If you live in Colombia this can be a dangerous business. Campesino leaders who have led protests against AGA have been named as guerrillas in army leaflets distributed in the area, though the army claimed it was coincidence that real people had the same names as guerrilla aliases. Police have arbitrarily detained young people at meetings called in opposition to mining in the area.

On 2 November 2013 César García, a campesino community leader actively campaigning against the La Colosa mining project, was shot dead by an unknown gunman in the presence of his young daughter. No culprit has yet been identified and there is no sign of a thorough police investigation.  While no link has been directly made to the company, there is a history in Colombia of violent campaigns against those who threaten significant economic interests. This was one of two deaths of campaigners against big mining in Colombia in 2013.

Perhaps by now you are beginning to hope that gold is never found under your town. But if all this seems like a high impact for a mine to have, remember, not one ounce of gold has yet been commercially extracted in Cajamarca by Anglogold Ashanti. The mine is not yet built – this is just the beginning.

This blog first appeared on the Latin America Bureau website at http://lab.org.uk/colombia-what-happens-when-auntie-anglogold-comes-to-stay.

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