Cajamarca votes NO to mining

The small Andean municipality of Cajamarca (Tolima) held a referendum (consulta popular) on mining projects in the municipality on March 26, resulting in a 98% majority against local mining projects and clearing the turnout quorum required for it to be legally binding. Despite its local nature, the vote attracted significant national attention because of its bigger implications with regards to the mining industry in Colombia, held up by some as a promising engine for economic growth but facing growing local resistance because of its nefarious environmental effects.

Mining in Colombia

Mining has been a major economic activity in Colombia since colonial times, although its overall influence and the minerals sought have varied over time. Gold was a sacred commodity for pre-Columbian peoples, particularly in the Muisca culture in the Andean highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, where the pregnant myth of El Dorado originated. The extraction of precious minerals, primarily gold, formed the basis of the colonial and early republican’s weak economy. However, because mining regions (many along the remote Pacific coast) were isolated from the rest of the country, mining – except perhaps in Antioquia – did not bring substantial benefits to the rest of the economy, in terms of agricultural production or infrastructure. Mining’s importance declined over the course of the late nineteenth century, ultimately overtaken by coffee.

Since the 1980s, oil and other minerals have replaced coffee as Colombia’s main exports. In 2014, before the decline in oil prices, crude and refined oil accounted for 50% of Colombian exports, followed by coal (13%), coffee (4.7%) and gold (3.1%). In 2015, oil dropped to 37% of exports. Colombia is the third largest oil exporter in Latin America, after Venezuela and Mexico. Colombia is the world’s largest emerald producer. It is, by far, the main coal producer in Latin America and the fourth gold producer in South America. The Colombian economy was buoyed by the commodities boom in the 2000s, and growth has slowed substantially with the fall in oil prices, although Colombia has escaped recession.

According to the DANE, mining and quarrying (including oil production) accounted for 6.4% of the national GDP in 2016, down from 7% in 2015. Because of a sharp 11% fall in the oil sector in 2016, the mining sector as a whole fell by 6.5% compared to 2015.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, governments – which were broadly interventionist with developmental aspirations – saw mining as a tool for industrialization and economic development, and legislated accordingly, with substantial state intervention and direct stakes through state-owned enterprises. In the 1990s, the ‘golden age’ of economic liberalization and the ‘Washington Consensus’ in Colombia and other countries, private mining companies and foreign investors pushed for a reform of Colombia’s mining law (adopted in 1988) to reduce state participation and intervention in the sector and facilitate private participation. A new mining code (Law 685) was adopted in 2001, significantly modifying the model of mining development, reducing the role of the state in the mining industry to oversight, promotion and inspection and greatly favouring local and foreign private investment. A 2013 report by the Comptroller General’s office stated that the mining code expressed a “model of accelerated extractivism” and that mining was conceived as a “generator of income for the state and companies” rather than as a means towards economic development.

Presidents Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and Juan Manuel Santos (2010-) have both heavily promoted the mining industry, adopting a variety of policies to favour investors, particularly multinational corporations. Mining companies benefit from a range of tax deductions, reductions and exemptions. For example, under Uribe’s administration, mining companies benefited from a 30% (later 40%) tax deduction for investments on fixed assets (scrapped in 2010, having been one of the biggest drains on state revenues), a tax deduction for payment of royalties (ruled unconstitutional), another deduction for amortization of investments and the abolition of a profit remittance tax in 2004 (on IMF recommendations). As a result of these and other tax benefits, even if Colombia has nominally high royalties and income tax rates, revenues from mining are among the lowest in Latin America and mining companies receive more in tax benefits than they pay in taxes. According to the Comptroller General’s office, for each dollar mining and oil contributes to the GDP, the state received just 16 cents in 2007-2011 – the lowest in Latin America along with Peru and Chile, compared to 34 cents in Venezuela, 42 cents in Bolivia, 77 cents in Mexico and 89 cents in Ecuador. The same report also concluded that for 100 pesos paid in taxes by mining companies, they received 200 pesos in tax benefits.

Furthermore, government ministries and regulatory agencies are weak and often fail to adequately perform their legal duties – regulation, control, oversight – leading to the delivery of concessions and contracts without due scrutiny and the complete lack of oversight over the thousands of mining titles granted. The aforecited report blamed these and other problems on the current mining code, which gave to the free market some power which “ultimately only favoured the particular interests of large mining companies” and allowed said companies to “take advantage of a globalized market and the high commodity prices.”

The number of mining titles conceded by the state increased exponentially under Álvaro Uribe. President Juan Manuel Santos’ first development plan (2010-2014) identified the mining-energy sector as one of key five ‘locomotives’ for economic growth. Besides further supporting domestic and foreign investment, however, his government has done little to address some of the main problems in the mining industry. Since 2014, Santos’ locomotora minera seems to be derailing: fall in commodity prices, fall in foreign investment in mining, substantial local opposition and growing national environmental consciousness challenging the ‘extractivist’ model of mining development which has been the norm under the 2001 mining code.

Mining titles – granted and requested in red, 2010 (source: geoactivismo)

Oil and mining has brought billions of dollars in royalties to different levels of government, which has been used to fund various projects. However, the government and mining companies’ argument that mining projects help local economic development is hardly borne out by the realities. La Guajira, the second biggest coal producing department (after neighbouring Cesar) and Chocó, the second biggest gold producing department (after Antioquia) are the two poorest departments in the country. La Guajira, which is home to the Cerrejón coal mines (33 million tonnes of coal in 2013, 4% of the global coal market), suffers from a massive humanitarian (malnutrition) crisis which killed a new record of 89 children in 2016 while millions of dollars in mining royalties have been looted by criminals moonlighting as politicians (of four governors elected since 2011, three are currently in jail). Chocó remains the tragic epitome of poverty, state abandonment, state capture by criminal networks, corruption and widespread violence.

According to the National Mining Agency, in 2014 there were 10,061 mining titles (over 5 million ha.), 74% of which belong to Colombian companies and 10% to multinationals. In 2016, there were 8,866 valid titles covering 4.377 million hectares. In 2016, Colombia produced 90.5 million tonnes of coal and 1.98 troy ounces of gold.

Illegal mining in Colombia: conflict minerals?

Mining titles, however, tell only half (or less than half) the story. Mining has been inextricably tied to the armed conflict, and, like in Africa, ‘conflict minerals’ – primarily emeralds and gold – have been one of the main sources of financing for illegal armed groups in recent years. The emerald business has been closely tied to various mafias, including Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, since the 1960s. Víctor Carranza, the ’emerald czar’ until his death in 2013, supported various paramilitary and ‘narco-para’ groups and was behind the rapid expansion of paramilitarism in the eastern plains (Meta, Casanare). The emerald industry, concentrated in Boyacá, has been wracked by repeated conflicts between emerald dealers and their mafias, the ‘green wars’.

Alluvial gold mining in Colombia

82% of gold mining in Colombia comes from alluvial gold, predominantly concentrated in the Chocó (46% of alluvial gold exploitation), the Bajo Cauca and Nordeste regions of Antioquia (33%) and southern Bolívar (9%). A 2016 report by the UNODC and the Colombian justice ministry reported that 78,939 ha. were affected by alluvial gold exploitation.

Illegal mining has become, particularly in the past 20-25 years, one of the major sources of financing for illegal groups like the FARC or criminal organizations (Bacrim). Similar to what happens with coca cultivation, a guerrilla front may charge a ‘fee’ to illegal mining operations in exchange for security or may operate the mines themselves. It is no surprise that the Chocó, northeastern Antioquia and southern Bolívar are all regions with a heavy FARC, ELN and/or Bacrim presence – and regions where the guerrilla resisted the state’s offensive under Uribe’s democratic security.

The use of machinery on land or on water (dredging, backhoes, bulldozers) and use of chemicals (mercury, cyanide) has horrifying impacts on the environment including deforestation (it is the main driver of deforestation, particularly in the Chocó, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet) and water contamination (mercury poisoning).

The impacts of alluvial gold mining can be seen easily even with Google Maps satellite imagery around the Nechí and Cauca rivers in Antioquia or the veins of the Quito river in the Chocó (where gold mining has increased astronomically since 2001).

The 2010-2011 mining census by the Ministry of Mines (MinMinas) reported that 60% of the country’s 14,357 mining production units, including 86% of gold mines, lacked a mining title, a percentage which rises to 79% in Antioquia and 99% in the Chocó. Smaller mines – which make up the vast majority of mining operations – lack titles, do not pay royalties, lack mine safety or occupational health standards, lack environmental licenses and employ the poorest and least qualified employees.

Cajamarca’s golden future?

500px-colombia_-_tolima_-_cajamarca-svgCajamarca is a mountainous municipality in the department of Tolima with a population of 19,626 (2017 est.). It is located in the Central Cordillera of the Andes and its topography is entirely mountainous, with altitudes ranging from 1,800 to 3,500 metres. The municipal seat, Cajamarca (pop. 10,000), is located in a narrow valley where the Bermellón and Anaime rivers meet. The rest of the population lives dispersed in small veredas mostly located in lower-lying valleys along the Anaime or Bermellón rivers. 79% of the municipality is part of the central Andean forest reserve.

The highest altitudes (like above 3,500 metres) are páramos, an alpine tundra ecosystem which is of vital importance to Colombia, which includes half of the world’s páramos. Roughly 70% of Colombia’s freshwater supply comes from the páramos and their soils rich in water. Even if they may seem to be desolate mountainous tundra, over 4,700 plant species grow in the páramos – 17% of the floral diversity of Colombia, on páramos which account for 3% of the national territory. In recent years, mining titles have encroached on the páramos (even if they are legally protected areas), especially in the Central Cordillera’s páramos around Cajamarca. An article of the 2014-2018 national development plan allowed mining in the páramos, which had been prohibited since 2010. In February 2016, the Constitutional Court struck down this paragraph, therefore banning mining in the páramos.

Cajamarca borders the departmental capital, Ibagué, and is located 35km (1 hour) from the city. National road 40, which connects Buenaventura (and, indirectly, Cali) to Bogotá, passes through Cajamarca as a treacherous, winding and narrow mountain road – the departmental border between Quindío and Tolima is at nearly 3,500 metres above sea level (Alto de la Línea). Traffic on the mountain pass is often congested and it may take up to 2 hours to drive the 45km distance between Calarcá (Quindío) and Cajamarca. The road is of vital importance for commerce and regional trade, connecting Bogotá (the road also continues towards the eastern plains) to Buenaventura, the busiest seaport in the country and Cali, the third largest city. To significantly reduce travel times, an 8.6 km-long tunnel across the mountains between Calarcá and Cajamarca is under construction since 2008 – when completed, the La Línea tunnel will be the longest in South America. Completion of the tunnel has been repeatedly delayed, the new date is sometime in 2018.

Cajamarca is a predominantly agricultural municipality known as the despensa agricola de Colombia (agricultural reserve/pantry of Colombia) and is relatively prosperous: in 2005, ‘only’ 28% of households had basic needs unsatisfied.

As it so happens, Cajamarca may be sitting on one of the biggest gold reserves in South America. South Africa mining giant AngloGold Ashanti has been in the exploration phase since 2006 in Cajamarca. AngloGold Ashanti has mining operations in 11 countries in Australia, Africa and South America (Brazil and Argentina). It arrived in Colombia in 1999, although it basically operated secretly under the name of a shell company (registered in the British Virgin Islands) until 2007. In addition to the main AngloGold Ashanti subsidiary in Colombia, the company has two smaller joint ventures, five ‘unofficial’ subsidiary corporate groups (shared board members) and ties with 16 Colombian-related subsidiaries registered in tax havens. These shell companies and subsidiaries help the mining giant keep a low profile in exploratory phases, avoid environmental liabilities and avoid tax payments in Colombia. According to the left-wing British NGO Colombia Solidarity Network, “there seems to be an oligopoly of large-scale gold mining in Colombia, gravitating around AGA.” Despite AngloGold Ashanti’s flowery talk of corporate social responsibility, it has been accused of financing paramilitary groups in the DR Congo, contaminating drinking water in Ghana and faces lawsuits in South Africa.

AngloGold Ashanti has estimated that the La Colosa mining project has inferred resources of 26.8 million troy ounces, which would make it one of the 10 largest mining projects in the world and a flagship operation for AngloGold Ashanti (eclipsing the companies’ two largest operations in South Africa). The mining company is exploring alternatives, but an open-pit mine or a combination of an open-pit and underground mine have been signaled as the most likely possibilities.

The project would also entail construction of a waste rock dump, a tailings dam (storage facility for the highly toxic residues of the leaching process) and a processing plant. A waste rock dump could take the form a filled-in valley, like in West Virginia, while AngloGold Ashanti has been exploring other sites to establish a processing plant and tailings dam (which would be one of the biggest in the world), notably the municipality of Piedras in the upper Magdalena river valley. The mining company purposely underplays the toxicity of mining residue and potential risks of tailings dam. According to Semana, the concentration of gold in Cajamarca is about 0.8 grams per tonne of rock, so that a single gram of gold would generate 1.2 tonnes of waste rock which would be mixed with high quantities of cyanide to be stored in a tailings dam. Tailings dam carry major risks and have a rather high failure rate. Colombians are well aware of the Bento Rodrigues/Mariana tailings dam failure in Brazil in 2015, which caused catastrophic floods, 17 deaths and contamination of the Rio Doce and Atlantic Ocean with 60 million cubic metres of toxic waste. The disaster was described as the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.

Gold mining requires large quantities of water. In the exploration phase, AngloGold Ashanti is using 1.7 litres of water per second and it estimates that in the production phase, it would be using 300 litres of water per second, although it claims that 60-80% of it would be recirculated and that this represents less than 1% of the flow of the Coello river. A 2016 study found that drilling during the exploration phase had already caused a deterioration in the surrounding area’s water quality because of the release of certain toxic elements. AngloGold Ashanti also allegedly used unauthorized amounts of water, drawn from local water sources.

There are major concerns about La Colosa’s impact on the surrounding Andean cloud forests and páramos. AngloGold Ashanti initially denied that any of its concession was located in a páramo, but a 2013 report by the London-based NGO Colombia Solidarity Network reported that 50 ha. of AGA’s 515 ha. concession overlapped with the protected Los Nevados páramo. Since 2008, AGA has run into trouble with the Ministry of the Environment for carrying out exploration activities without permission in the forest reserve, but this same ministry had decreed several ‘exclusions’ from the forest reserve.

Local opposition

La Colosa has generated widespread local opposition in Cajamarca and other municipalities in Tolima since at least 2009. Opposition has come at the base from local campesinos (small farmers), university students, environmentalists and some journalists with support or sympathy from certain local politicians and congressmen and government institutions (the Comptroller General’s office, local ombudsmen and the regional environmental authority Cortolima).

Opposition has not been solely concentrated in Cajamarca. Many other nearby municipalities in Tolima have opposed AngloGold Ashanti’s mining project, most notably Piedras and Ibagué (the departmental capital). In 2012, AGA announced that it was considering the possibility of installing infrastructure like the tailings dam or the processing plant in the village of Doima in the municipality of Piedras. Piedras, located 85 km (2 hours) from Cajamarca in the plains of Tolima, is a predominantly agricultural community with a unique ecosystem that is home to a species of freshwater oyster. The local community, only superficially consulted by AGA, had organized protest marches, road blockades and filed thousands of documents with Cortolima against the mining company (a Cortolima resolution forced AGA to withdraw their equipment). However, complaining that they were not being heard or taken into account by either the government or AGA, a group of citizens – supported by the local mayor – gathered signatures seeking a local referendum (consulta popular) which was approved by the town council and held in July 2013. The long question was clearly inclined towards the anti-mining option (No): voters were asked if they agreed that various mining-related activities can be carried out in Piedras, including the use of materials “harmful to health and the environment are stored or used” and water “that may affect and/or limit the supply of potable water for human consumption, and for agriculture, the traditional productive vocation of our municipality”. With strong turnout (58.7%), 99% voted against (2,971) and only 24 voted in favour of mining. The vote was legally binding, but the government – President Juan Manuel Santos and the mines ministers – quickly claimed that the vote was illegal as the issue (mining) was not within municipalities’ jurisdiction. The Inspector General’s office (Procuraduría), then led by the arch-conservative Alejandro Ordóñez, threatened disciplinary investigations and possible sanctions against other municipal governments who might have been tempted to imitate Piedras. La Silla Vacía produced a short 13-minute documentary on the Piedras case, with English subtitles. In the documentary, an AGA representative’s mea culpa is that the company did not consult with local residents enough and inform them of the mining project.

Mining was an important issue in the 2014 congressional elections and 2015 local elections in Tolima. In 2014, various national and local congressional candidates campaigned with explicitly anti-La Colosa slogans (like left-wing senator Ivan Cépeda).

In Cajamarca, local citizens also gathered sufficient signatures to present a request to organize a consulta popular to the municipal council in February 2015. Before the council was due to vote, AGA sent a letter to councillors which ‘reminded’ them of the social investments made by the mining giant in the municipality (in infrastructure, development etc.), warned of the ‘uncertainty’ a referendum would cause and threatened job losses. In private, the Procuraduría told councillors that a referendum would be illegal, threatening disciplinary investigations against them if they vote for it. The Cajamarca council voted against the organization of a referendum 10 to 1.

In 2016, a series of Constitutional Court decisions weakened mining companies and strengthened local governments. One of the underlying disputes in the Piedras and Cajamarca referendums had been whether or not local governments, within their powers over land use and territorial planning, have the right to decide over the use of the subsoil in their municipalities. In February 2016, in a series of rulings over the government’s national development plan, the Court said that while ‘strategic mining zones’ were constitutional, decisions needed to be concerted with local governments in respect to their constitutional powers over local land use. The Court also struck down an article which centralized the power to grant environmental licenses for ‘strategic projects in the national interest’ in a single central agency rather than with the regional environmental authorities. In May, the Court struck down an article of the mining code which had barred local governments from banning mining within their territory (restricting local governments’ powers over land use requires an organic law). In June, in a major blow to the ‘mining locomotive’, the Court overturned the government’s 2012 decrees which had declared over 20% of the country’s land area (mostly in Amazonia and the Chocó) to be ‘strategic mining zones’ for failing to consult local communities beforehand (consulta previa). In July, the Court decided that the mining authority, before granting a mining title, must verify compliance with labour rights and environmental standards as well as establish procedures for ‘citizen participation’ (even for non-ethnic minorities). This decision modified the legal principle of “first in time, first in right”, established by the mining code in 2001, by requiring the state to proactively verify if mining companies meet some basic labour and environmental standards (as is already the case with oil concessions).

The mining industry was the most displeased by the Court’s rulings. They claimed that the decisions weakened legal security for the industry, created greater uncertainty about mining rights and inadvertently could lead illegal groups (who disregard legal requirements and norms) to step in where legal mining companies can’t because of ‘onerous’ requirements.

Besides Cajamarca, opposition to AGA has also been strong in neighbouring Ibagué. The city’s mayor, Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, a left-winger who worked with former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro (2012-2015), proposed the organization of a local referendum on mining – specifically mining which implies “contamination of the soil, loss or contamination of water, or affecting the agricultural vocation of the municipality”. In February 2016, the city council voted in favour of organizing a consulta popular, despite pressure from AGA representatives, various lawyers and the Procuraduría. Opponents criticized the loaded wording of the question, saying that it would induce voters to vote No. In July, the administrative tribunal of Tolima gave the green light to the consulta, scheduled for October 2 and later delayed to October 30. However, on October 12, the Council of State accepted to hear an appeal of the administrative tribunal’s decision and temporarily suspended the consulta until it issued a ruling. The lower court’s decision had been appealed by the mining association of the department. In December, the Council of State did approve the consulta but ordered that the question be changed, proposing a ‘neutral’ wording of its own (do you approve that mining projects and activities be carried out in Ibagué?). Jaramillo disagreed with the proposed wording of the new question, complaining that it was too broad when he is only opposed to certain types of mining. In February 2017, the Council of State clarified its decision, saying that it was up to the administrative tribunal to decide if there was to be a referendum or if the question needed to be changed. In March 2017, Jaramillo withdrew the question under consideration by the administrative tribunal and has said that he will submit a new one which makes clear what type of mining he wants to limit or ban.

Cajamarca’s referendum

Following the failure of the first attempt at a consulta in Cajamarca in February 2015, local citizens tried again. Colombian law (Law 1757 of 2015) allows a local consulta popular to be requested by either the head of the local executive (mayor or governor) or by petition of 10% of registered voters in the respective territory (municipality or department). After signatures are certified by the electoral body, the local council must approve the organization of the consulta and the local administrative tribunal must declare it constitutional.

In August 2016, after 3,400 signatures were certified, Cajamarca’s municipal council voted 8-3 to approve the organization of a local referendum on mining projects. Between February 2015 and August 2016, local elections had been held in October 2015 – and mining was one of the major issues at stake. All mayoral candidates at the time supported a consulta and expressed varying degrees of skepticism with regards to La Colosa. The mayor (elected in 2015), William Poveda of the Partido de la U, was critical of the consulta and accused opponents of mining of opportunistically playing politics with an important economic issue and questioned their political priorities. Nevertheless, the council elected in 2015 – with three seats for the left-wing and adamantly anti-Colosa Polo Democrático Alternativo, three for the relatively anti-Colosa Liberals and one from the smaller left-wing MAIS – had an ‘anti-mining’ majority which returned the 8-3 majority in favour of the consulta, the negative votes coming from the mayor’s party (Partido de la U) and the single councillor of the small miscellaneous AICO. The question approved by the council was:

¿Está usted de acuerdo, Sí o No, con que en el municipio de Cajamarca se ejecuten actividades que impliquen contaminación del suelo, pérdida o contaminación de las aguas, o afectación de la vocación tradicional agropecuaria del municipio con motivos de proyectos de naturaleza minera?

Rough non-literal translation: Do you agree, yes or no, that mining projects/activities which imply contamination of the soil, loss or contamination of the waters or affect the traditional agricultural vocation of the municipality are carried out in the municipality of Cajamarca?

In November 2016, the administrative tribunal of Tolima approved the referendum with the above question, ruling that the question was not suggestive because it “laid out the scenario” in which mining is present. AngloGold Ashanti, in a communiqué, claimed that the question approved did not concern them as it only referred to illegal mining – which is a pretty weird interpretation to make. AGA later filed an acción de tutela (type of injunction/ampara to protect fundamental rights) before the Council of State.

With the question and vote approved, on November 22 mayor William Poveda announced that the vote would be held on November 27 – leaving less than seven days to organize the logistics of the referendum, register campaign committees and actually campaign. The rushed vote was criticized by the promoters of the referendum. Given the logistical impossibilities, on recommendation of the electoral body (Registraduría) the vote was delayed until January 2017.

In December 2016, the question was invalidated by the Council of State, which found that it was loaded and suggestive, and threw the ball back to the administrative tribunal. Finally, in January 2017, the administrative tribunal declared the loaded part of the question (water and soil contamination etc.) was unconstitutional and suggested a new ‘neutral’ wording. However, since the referendum had otherwise met with all legal requirements, it could go ahead with a new question. In late February, the caretaker mayor – Poveda died in December 2016 – the vote was set for March 26 with a new question:

¿Está usted de acuerdo SÍ o NO que en el municipio de Cajamarca se ejecuten proyectos y actividades mineras?

Do you agree, YES or NO, that mining projects and activities are carried out in the municipality of Cajamarca?

Cajamarca voted in a mayoral by-election two weeks prior to the referendum, on March 12. La Colosa, once again, was the main issue between the candidates. Julio Roberto Vargas, supported by the left-wing Polo, the Greens and the Liberals, explicitly and adamantly opposes La Colosa. His opponent, Pedro Pablo Marín Cruz, supported by the Partido de la U and the Conservatives, made sure not to explicitly support La Colosa and keep his views about the upcoming consulta sufficiently vague but AGA later recognized that they have an affinity with him. Pedro Marín won by 305 votes, or 50.7% to 47.5%. Turnout was 57.5%.

To be legally binding, a consulta popular requires that at least a third of registered voters turn out to vote. With 16,312 registered voters in Cajamarca, this meant that the No campaign needed at least 5,438 votes to win. As in other referendums with a turnout quorum, like in Italy, it is in the interests of those who oppose the referendum and its promoters (in this case, those who are pro or at least not anti-mining) to call for abstention. In Cajamarca, there was no Yes campaign – those who could have voted Yes to support mining were instead told not to turn out.

The No campaign was focused on the risks the La Colosa mining projects entails for the municipality and the broader region’s water, natural environment and agricultural production. As explained above, gold mining requires massive amounts of water, and despite AGA’s repeated reassurances that they would recirculate most of the water and that their water usage would be extremely minimal compared to local river flows, the local population – at least the No and its supporters – did not buy it, given claims that AGA had used local water without authorization. The No campaign also emphasized the threats posed by mining to the natural environment – the Andean cloud forests, the páramos, the nearby Los Nevados volcanoes, the stunning Valle de Cocora (Salento, Quindío – also attracting mining companies’ interest) – and Cajamarca’s traditional agricultural production. Many campesinos have been in the forefront of opposition to La Colosa, fearing for their economic livelihoods and water. The No campaign argued that Cajamarca does not need mining – besides continued agricultural production, it has potential to develop ecotourism. The No lamented that its opponents didn’t want to be ‘measured at the polls’, preventing a real debate around mining by opting for the easy option of calling on people not to vote.

The No campaign received the support of groups of university students both from Tolima and other departments, including Pereira (Risaralda) and Florencia (Caquetá). Groups of students participated in GOTV efforts on the day of the referendum, organizing transportation for campesinos from the veredas to vote. The No campaign was supported by some national politicians, most notably left-wing Polo senator Jorge Robledo and Green senator Claudia López, both incidentally 2018 presidential hopefuls. Various environmental groups, both local and national, and NGOs like Dejusticia were also active in the Cajamarca campaign and, more broadly, in the upsurge of ‘environmental activism’ in Colombia countering the ‘mining locomotive’.

The abstention campaign had less of a public face, but its main argument was that the consulta popular unnecessarily polarized people and that a No victory would have catastrophic effects on the local economy (if mining was to go). They claimed that there was insufficient information (which isn’t quite true) to decide, and besides, they weren’t the ones who could say if La Colosa is good or bad. Instead of a consulta, the abstention campaign called on more public meetings, where everybody, including the experts, could be heard; they claimed that past meetings had been sabotaged by leftist radicals. The abstention people complained of the politicization of the No campaign and its ‘romantic’ slogans (water is worth more than gold); they also disliked national politicians coming to support the No – Jorge Robledo and Claudia López.

In the post-Trump world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, both sides complained that the other side was manipulating voters with misinformation, half-truths, lies and backhanded dirty tricks. The abstention campaign claimed that the No was manipulating voters with its simplistic arguments and romantic slogans. The No claimed that the abstention campaign, or at least murky elements opposed to the No, were using backhanded dirty tricks to prevent people from voting. Locals claimed that the mayor and/or AGA were inviting locals on a trip to the famous basilica in Buga (Valle) and had 50 buses to bring 2,000 people; others claimed that the trip was organized by the Church, which itself denied that there was any trip planned (AGA also denied). There was another unproven claim that somebody was offering people 200,000-300,000 pesos (US$69-104) to hand over their ID cards on the Saturday before the vote. There were anonymous pamphlets circulating claiming that voting No was supporting the ‘communists’ Jorge Robledo and Julio Roberto Vargas (Polo mayoral candidate in the by-election) or that voting No was supporting the FARC. On election day, text messages were being sent falsely claiming that the referendum was cancelled because of the rain. The No campaign also complained that the Registraduría decreased the number of voting locations from 35 (in the by-election) to 18, claiming that there was a deliberate plan to limit turnout or at least cause long lineups which would discourage voters. The Registraduría said that it reduced the number of voting locations because of its expectation, from past experience, that the consulta would draw lower turnout than the by-election, and that in any case they had contingency plans for high turnout.

Another major argument made by opponents of the referendum was that Cajamarca needs public works, not public votes. AngloGold Ashanti has invested millions of dollars ($370 million) in Cajamarca since it began exploratory work – not only in its actual mining-related work, but also to support the community, fund public works and so forth. A 2013 presentation by AGA said that they had invested millions of dollars in 2012 alone, created 1000 jobs per year and supported local producers. They paid to remodel the local sports stadium, which in 2015 welcomed the first local football match with a professional club – something which AGA claimed credit for. They remodeled the ER at the local hospital and paid half the price for a X-ray machine so that locals no longer need to travel to Ibagué for an x-ray. They also donated the municipality’s first ambulance, rebuilt the local marketplace, invested in a genetic improvement project for livestock, backed avocado cultivation and exports and created a program to support young farmers. Nevertheless, AGA has otherwise kept a low profile in Cajamarca since 2006, reticent to speak with the media or the general public. Instead, they have focused their comms efforts with local politicians or community/neighbourhood leaders, inviting them to visit La Colosa and try to ‘break myths’ about mining and La Colosa. AGA too has complained about misinformation, for example saying that locals associated mining with environmental destruction and disappearance of all water resources.

Before the vote, it was unclear which side would prevail – the No to mining, or abstention in the consulta which effectively meant an implicit Yes to mining. The No needed at least 5,438 votes to prevail; they aimed to get 7,000. In the mayoral by-election two weeks prior, the anti-mining Polo/Green/Liberal candidate had polled 4,451 votes, 27% of registered voters and therefore less than what the No needed to win. However, the victor of the by-election was not explicitly pro-mining and some of his 4,756 voters could therefore be anti-mining.

Cajamarca votes NO to mining

Despite some concerns by the No campaign, the vote went ahead smoothly with reports of ‘solid’ turnout despite the rain throughout the day. The Registraduría reported full results within 53 minutes of poll closings at 4pm.

Registered voters: 16,312
Turnout: 6,296 (38.6%) > over the threshold (5,438), vote validated

NO 6,165 (97.92%)
SÍ (YES) 76 (1.21%)
Unmarked 41 (0.65%)
Invalid 14 (0.22%)

With 6,165 votes for the No out of 6,296 votes cast, Cajamarca voted NO to mining – and the vote is legally binding, as Colombian law explicitly states. It was not quite the ‘resounding’ triumph some environmentalists made it out to be – turnout was still only 38.6%, much lower than the 57.5% turnout two weeks prior in the mayoral by-election. But turnout is low in Colombia, except in municipal elections, and is especially low in referendums when the political machines which operate at full throttle during local elections tend to stay silent in referendums in which they have nothing to gain. Still, only about 38% of registered voters voted No to mining, which isn’t a massive mandate and may be use by the referendum’s opponents to diminish its legitimacy.

However, of the 61% of voters who did not turn out, it’s impossible to say how many of them deliberately decided not to vote (following the abstention campaign) versus how many of them didn’t vote because they simply don’t vote for whatever reasons. It’s noteworthy to point out that, in the October 2016 peace plebiscite, turnout in Cajamarca was 37.3% – lower than in the local mining referendum (69%, or 4,084, voted No to the peace agreement). In the 2014 presidential election, turnout was 45.9% and 51.9% in the first and second rounds respectively; in the congressional election turnout was 41.9%. In the 2015 local elections, turnout was 63% – 10,143 votes were cast then. Therefore, at its lowest ebb, abstention in Cajamarca was still 37%, or about 6,000 voters who never vote (of course, studies of abstention of Colombia tell us that abstention is differential – it’s probably not the same 6,000 throughout any elections). If you accept the proposition that, in the 2014-2016 electoral cycle in Cajamarca, an estimated 6,000 people never voted, of the 10,016 who didn’t vote in the mining referendum, we may be left with at most 4,016 voters ‘unaccounted’ for who may (very tentative) have deliberately decided not to vote. Therefore, of the politically engaged local population, it seems very reasonable to claim that a substantial majority opposes mining projects, having La Colosa in mind specifically.

The No campaign, as shown in the videos above, jubilated at the results – with crowds in Cajamarca shouting queremos agua, queremos vivir, AngloGold Ashanti fuera del país – “we want water, we want to live, AGA out of the country” or, more simply, sí se pudo – “yes we could” (basically past tense of ‘yes we can’). The leaders of the No campaign argue that, as the referendum is legally binding, the municipal council now has the legal obligation to amend the municipality’s territorial planning plan (POT) to prohibit mining and the revoke AGA’s and others’ mining concessions. In sum: the municipality has voted against mining, and the will of the people must therefore be obeyed and translated into municipal by-laws.

AGA’s mea culpa was that, despite spending millions to spread its good name, it didn’t engage with the actual community enough and the government didn’t engage with the community enough either. As AGA and the abstention campaign recognized, La Colosa hasn’t resulted in enough senior jobs for locals: engineers, geographers, topographers etc. were not locally hired, because of a lack of qualified candidates in Cajamarca. I was struck by how AGA’s mea culpa post-Cajamarca was very similar to its mea culpa post-Piedras: we got the process backwards and didn’t engage the public enough. It seems as if they didn’t learn their lesson from Piedras 2013. Neither did the government. The government seems to have woefully underestimated the potency of local environmental activism and general environmental conscience. It also has, as the Constitutional Court made clear in 2016, not consulted communities enough – it has tended to impose its national master plan on all regions, without asking for questions or comments.

The reaction from the consulta‘s opponents – the most prominent of which are AGA and the Colombian government (through the Ministry of Mines and Energy) – was quite different. AGA claims that the result isn’t retroactive and does not affect existing mining concessions, a legal argument it says is supported by the Council of State’s rulings on Ibagué’s attempted mining referendum. Dejusticia disagrees, saying AGA’s concessions are mere expectations rather than acquired rights. The Minister of Mines and Energy, Germán Arce, a Conservative technocrat close to finance minister Mauricio Cárdenas, has a similar argument: the referendum means the municipal council must amend its POT to include something about the ‘popular will’ opposing mining, but that the referendum is not retroactive and “does not have the capacity to change the law”. Arce’s comments – particularly that the referendum couldn’t change the law – provoked a firestorm among the No and its sympathizers in the country, with a trending Twitter hashtag calling him out for not respecting the referendum’s outcome.

Arce’s comment was fairly disingenuous – particularly another comment about “6,000 people can’t change the law”; no, but less than 267 congressman certainly can! Less flippantly, Arce – and the government’s – reaction belies the main underlying conflict here: a battle between municipal autonomy and popular will on the one hand and the central government and its laws on the other hand. In short, can a municipality, through popular vote, decide to ban mining? If so, should a municipality be allowed to ban mining? The answer isn’t a straight yes or no – opponents of mining have made clear that they’re not dogmatically anti-mining, although some may be. Supporters of mining, like mining companies’ associations in Colombia, have reiterated the importance of concerting with local communities and increasing general public awareness of mining and its consequences (opponents of mining would also agree about raising awareness). Arce’s reaction symbolized a fairly widespread instinctive dislike of popular participation by the Bogotá political elites – referendums are fine, though it’s preferable that they remain as flowery language in the 1991 constitution and the law, and they’re very inconvenient whenever they give the “wrong answer”.


The hope (for some) and fear (for others) is that Cajamarca will have a snowball effect, giving momentum to anti-mining or environmental movements in other municipalities to launch their own consultas. The mining referendum in neighbouring Ibagué is pending, and the city’s mayor celebrated Cajamarca’s result. The Court has order a prior consultation (consulta previa) with the community over gold mining in Marmato (Caldas). The mayor of Cumaral (Meta) has just scheduled a local referendum about oil for June 4. There is local resistance with potential referendums on the horizons over oil in Caquetá (Paujil, El Doncello, Valparaíso) and Puerto Asís (Putumayo), fracking in San Martín (Cesar) and other AGA explorations in Jericó (Antioquia) and San Roque (Antioquia). The mechanism of consultas may also gain popularity for other issues – like hydroelectricity or urban development. In Bogotá, far-right municipal councillor Marco Fidel Ramírez, who is usually more focused about Emma Watson and Disney movies promoting the ‘gay agenda’, proposed holding a referendum about mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s controversial plan for urban development in an environmentally protected zone of the city.

The mining sector and the government fear the generalization of anti-resource extraction referendums throughout the country. This recent article from Semana, which has a pro-mining slant, expresses some of their fears. The main one is the spread of legal uncertainty and insecurity, growing since the 2016 Court decisions and reinforced by Cajamarca and the potential snowball effect. Obviously, if mining multinationals and other foreign investors lack confidence and legal security, they will not invest in Colombia, debilitating the main thrust of the Uribe-Santos ‘mining locomotive’ (for Uribe, ‘investor confidence’ is one of his three cherished huevitos) – which would mean less royalties. This climate of legal insecurity may favour illegal mining, who can step in – and do much greater environmental damage – where legal, ‘responsible’ mining is forced out. In Cajamarca, this fear is unrealistic because an open-pit or underground mine is required, and that requires technology which the illegals lack. In other places, it is a more realistic fear.

Time will tell if Cajamarca is the point where the ‘mining locomotive’ completely derailed, or a mere local event which had no major repercussions. Yet, Cajamarca’s referendum brought to the fore one of the major issues in Colombia’s economic development.

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