Digging for Trouble: Conflict and Mining in Rural Colombia

There is very little that compares to the thrill of riding a motorcycle through the Colombian countryside. I was a bit apprehensive when our host, Juan Camilo, first invited me to hop onto his motorbike and give me a lift to the community assembly meeting I was attending that morning. But this was maybe the only opportunity I would ever have to ride a motorcycle through rural Colombia, so with a bit of trepidation, I climbed onto the seat behind him. As he sped off, we left my coworkers and my fears far behind us.

As we rumbled down the gravel rode, a majestic scene was laid out before us. Beneath a clear blue sky, emerald-colored mountains rose up all around us. Juan Camilo has probably made that journey a thousand times, but it was clear the view would never cease to amaze him. In the midst of all this beauty and tranquility it was hard to imagine we were in a country that has been locked in armed conflict for over half a century – a war that has left six million people internally displaced and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children dead.

A summer internship at the Bogotá-based Jesuit think tank, Centro de Educación y Investigación Popular (CINEP) was what originally led me to find myself whipping through the Colombian countryside on a motorcycle. My main project with CINEP entailed nominating the rural cooperative, La Red Social de las Familias Lorenceñas, “Las Gaviotas,” for the National Peace Prize, an award given annually to a public institution, private company, or social group/organization that works for the construction of peaceful coexistence in any area of society.

Las Gaviotas was founded in December of 1999 and grew out of a response to the persistent neglect of their community by the local and national governments. Consequently, they created a series of escuelas agroambientales, open spaces for debate and dialogue with members of the community on a variety of issues including sovereignty over food, water, and territory, human rights, gender equality, preservation of the environment, and more. Conservation and promotion of the campesino identity has also been one of the most important roles of the escuelas agroambientales. Today, this identity faces its greatest danger from multinational mining companies, which have the potential to convert the regional economy from one of agriculture to one geared exclusively towards large-scale mining.

Tension between local communities and the extractive industry threatens to discredit the peace accords the Colombian people now tentatively look forward to between the national government and the leftist guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC). The current peace negotiations have encouragingly progressed further than any previous peace talks, and there is now hope that the next six months may finally see the end of this devastating conflict. However, if issues between the mining sector and local communities are not resolved in a way that respects the human rights of those potentially negatively impacted by the extractive industry, then the peace accords signed in Havana will have no meaning beyond a ceasefire, and Colombia will not be able to enjoy full or sustainable peace.

Las Gaviotas is based in the municipality of San Lorenzo, located in the southwest department of Nariño. When I visited this area in July, I was pleasantly surprised to find a tranquil community, undisturbed by either illegal armed actors or multinational corporations. However, this wasn’t always the case, and by speaking with the leaders of Las Gaviotas, it became clear that the memory of those tumultuous times and fear that they may someday return are foremost in this community’s mind. Paramilitaries terrorized the area in the early 2000s. Then in January 2011, the Canadian-based gold and silver exploration, development, and production company, Gran Colombia Gold, installed a number of drilling platforms in small farming communities in San Lorenzo and the neighboring municipality of Arboleda. After tensions between the company and the local residents reached a boiling point in October 2011, Gran Colombia Gold pulled out of the area, although they still maintain a presence in other parts of Colombia.

During my interviews with them, I was extraordinarily impressed by the passion with which the men and women of Las Gaviotas spoke about preserving their natural environment and way of life.  For them, land is more than just grass, dirt, and stones. Rather it is something, which is intimately tied to their personal and communal identity.

In his inaugural address, President Juan Manuel Santos referred to the mining industry as one of the “locomotives” of the Colombian economy. As much as Las Gaviotas would like to halt it in its tracks, this train appears to be unstoppable, and everyone better get on board or be left behind at the station. First, although an extremely unequal distribution of land was one of the reasons why the FARC originally took up its crusade against the Colombian government over 50 years ago, land has increasingly become less central to the economic development of the country. Furthermore, the government has staunchly refused to discuss the country’s neoliberal economic model, including its dependence on the extraction of mineral resources, at the negotiating table in Havana. Colombia now finds itself in a difficult position. Mining is a key to Colombia’s integration into the global market, and has the potential to lead to strong economic growth; yet it leaves rural communities vulnerable to increased inequality, lasting poverty, and unequal land distribution – the original sources of violence.

Unfortunately, it seems that things will only get more and not less complicated once peace accords are signed.  I sincerely hope that in the post-conflict period, Colombia’s democratic institutions can find a way to make the structural changes necessary to striking a balance between economic growth and the rights of the campesinos, indigenous, and Afro-Colombians living in rural and mineral-rich areas of Colombia. I should hate to see those majestic green mountains of San Lorenzo destroyed, or worse, run red with the blood from the victims of Colombia’s next major violent conflict.

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