In Defence of Life: the story of Cajamarca, Colombia

Deep in the embrace of the Colombian Andes Mountains Earth defenders from Cajamarca have stopped a vast gold mine, re-valued the ‘true treasures’ in their territory and begun to develop regenerative alternatives to mining ‘development’. Mariana Gomez Soto and Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello explore Cajamarca’s story of resistance and revival.


Originally published by REDWeb, this story in the second in a YLNM-REDWeb series exploring grassroots transitions to post-extractivism.

The history of large-scale mining in Colombia is inseparable from the violence of European colonialism in the Americas. Prior to the Spanish invasion nearly five centuries ago, gold was extracted on a relatively small-scale and it was valued primarily as an ornamental and sacred metal. The original colonial ‘discoveries’ of mineral wealth in Colombia were made based on the knowledge of indigenous peoples who were dispossessed of their land and resources in a centuries-long genocide. The forced labour of these indigenous peoples, alongside enslaved Africans, was exploited for the mass extraction of mineral wealth to Europe, where that wealth accumulated.

Today, Colombia continues to attract companies searching for metals and minerals. And in the past 30 years, corruption and collusion between state officials, corporate actors and even armed groups, has helped bring about policies that facilitate the capture of minerals, metals and fossil fuels in Colombia by multinational corporations. Successive Colombian administrations have argued that mining is, and can be, “an engine for development and economic growth” in Colombia. They have framed it as a sector of national interest and, as set out in the Colombian National Mining Code established a decade ago (UPME 2009), taken steps to maximise mining production.

Yet, as can be observed in many resource-rich nations in the Global South, the benefits of mining in Colombia are overstated, even on the Government’s own terms, while significant impacts and costs are ignored and shifted onto communities and nature. In response, Colombia has experienced an inspiring resurgence of social activism to defend territories from mining. This represents a continuation of the centuries-long history of resistance and resilience of indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities who have, and continue to, risk everything to defend water, life and territory.

Upland paramo ecosystem threatened by contamination and acidification of waters and soils by mine waste.

One of the most emblematic examples of emerging grassroots resistance and revival in recent times started in the Tolima region of Colombia’s central Andes, with the municipalities of Piedras and Cajamarca at its heart, and has given birth to what has become known as Colombia’s ‘popular consultation boom’.

Cajamarca: Mountains, Volcanoes and Arracacheros

The town of Cajamarca is carved into the Andes, framed by the snowy peaks of the Nevado del Tolima and the Cerro Machin Volcano. Cajamarca’s municipal territory spans part of the Chilí-Barragán páramos (a high-altitude wetland ecosystem unique to the Northern Andes). These páramos, which give birth to several rivers, are the source of freshwater for more than three million people. Wax palms thrive in fog-filled forests and this land is the home of hundreds of species of birds and butterflies as well as endangered species such as the tapir, the puma and the spectacled bear.

More than half of Cajamarca’s 20,000 inhabitants live off the land as peasant farmers. Their municipality is the world’s number one producer of arracacha, an Andean parsnip that is of particular importance to Cajamarcans. The common arracacha paliverde, a variety of this region, is most commonly planted due to its robustness, intense flavor, yellow-violet color and the soft texture of its bulbous root. Farmers say a sweet arracachuno smell surrounds these crops. This, they say, is Cajamarca’s ‘true gold’.

Farmers pull up arracacha on the hillsides of Cajamarca. Photo – Federico Pardo

The Colossus: A Mining Corporation Arrives

In 2017, South African-based multinational, AngloGold Ashanti S.A. announced the discovery of a massive gold deposit in Cajamarca. They named the deposit ‘La Colosa’ (‘The Colossus’), estimating it to hold around 30 million ounces of gold – the largest gold discovery in Colombia at the time. Extracting the gold locked up in La Colosa’s reserves would involve blasting more than 1 billion tons of rock, require more than 500 million tons of explosives and hundreds of thousand tons of cyanide in order to separate the gold from other minerals like pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’. These processes result in two types of waste: waste rock and tailings. Both have the potential to severely pollute water bodies.

The cumulative effects of lost agricultural land from the mining activity itself, combined with the reduced access to freshwater sources, the fragmentation of key ecosystems such as the páramos, and the threat of contamination and acidification of waters and soils by mine waste, would jeopardise the livelihoods of thousands and the identity of Cajamarca as a whole.

A Decade of Resistance

As soon as the project was announced, people in Cajamarca and neighbouring community Anaime began organising in opposition to La Colosa. Associations of peasant farmers, young people and environmentalists (such as the Comité Ambiental en Defense de la Vida (CADV) and Colectivo Socio-ambiental Juvenil de Cajamarca (COSAJUCA)) began to proliferate throughout Cajamarca and Anaime’s veredas (villages) as well as in the departmental capital, Ibagué, to organise this resistance. Despite threats, violence and killings perpetrated by pro-mining paramilitaries, the people of Cajamarca, and Tolima more widely, have sustained their resistance for over a decade and succeeded, for now, in stopping the mine.

Crowds gather in Cajamarca for a demonstration. Photo-Viviana Sanchez

In the end, the decisive factor in Cajamarca, and the wider Tolima region’s resistance to La Colosa was the use of a little-known legal mechanism called a ‘popular consultation’.  Enshrined in Colombia’s 1991 Constitution, legislation has defined the scope of popular consultations as follows (1994 Law 136, article 33):

“When the development of tourist, mining or projects of another nature threatens to create a significant change in the use of land, which results in a transformation in the traditional activities of a municipality, a popular consultation shall be held in accordance with the Law. The responsibility of these consultations will be the responsibility of the respective municipality.”

Importantly, unlike most other mechanisms for participation or consultation elsewhere in the world, Colombia’s popular consultation is binding, rather than advisory, in nature, meaning that the government is bound to respect the decision taken by the people.

In March 2017, following years of tireless organising by grassroots groups in Cajamarca and their close allies in Ibagué, the first popular consultation called by citizens themselves was held in Cajamarca (an earlier consultation in Piedras was called by the municipal government and was the first regarding a mining project).

Mobilised by social movements in the region, 6,241 voters took to the polls on the day of the vote. Of those people, only 76 voted in favour of mining, while 6,165 voted against- a landslide victory of 98%. This resounding landslide victory dealt a major blow to La Colosa and AGA’s plans in the region. The company has since suspended its operations in Cajamarca, citing ‘force majeure’.

Revival: Existing livelihoods, new alternatives

“We want to build multiple life scenarios that respect the rights of people and the rights of nature.”Renzo Garcia, CADV

Since the success of Cajamarca’s popular consultation, and indeed long before, the organisations that came together to resist La Colosa began promoting non-extractive livelihoods rooted in Cajamarca’s agrarian identity, shaping a new development narrative.

“We have a critique of the term ‘alternative’, Cajamarca doesn’t need to find an alternative, rather to follow its roots. We already have a non-extractive livelihood and everything we need, what we want is a more just, agroecological system of food production, a circular economy which doesn’t damage the territory”, says Robinson Mejia of Cajamarcan youth collective COSAJUCA.

Cajamarca has countered the typical response towards communities who resist mining from government and corporations who say that they are anti-development. A number of initiatives are underway that seek to strengthen traditional livelihoods and pioneer new economic activities while respecting the rights of local people and the ecosystems they rely upon.

“People in Cajamarca and Colombia more widely are calling for a new paradigm and a new development model that includes alternatives that are rooted in and serve the well-being of the planet and the people. We cannot and should not base our development pathways on the expansion of the extractive industries”, says Mariana Gomez.

Cajamarcan farmers. Photo – Federico Pardo

Agroecology

Given Cajamarca’s deep agricultural roots, food and farming have taken centre stage, as non-extractive livelihoods are being promoted and enhanced with the momentum of the popular consultation victory.

The economic viability of non-extractive, agroecological livelihoods has been bolstered by a partnership formed between socially and ecologically conscious Colombian restaurant chain Crepes & Waffles and a Cajamarcan association of arracacha producers (Asociación de Productores de Semillas Andinas/ASPROSAN). ASPROSAN has in recent years been able to shift practices towards more biodiverse, less chemical intensive and more regenerative methods of production. Crepes and Waffles has supported this process by offering a stable, fair market.

COSAJUCA has also supported the development of 18 productive projects to sustain and strengthen non-extractive livelihoods in Cajamarca. These projects are mostly run by women, they are ecologically beneficial and designed to be economically viable after an initial period of support. They include a glass recycling centre, an eco-tourism project, organic greenhouses, and a number of other agro-ecological enterprises.

Community Water Management

Formed in 2014 as part of a conservation strategy, the Red de Acueductos Comunitarios de Cajamarca (The Network of Community Aqueducts of Cajamarca) has grown into an alliance of communities managing their access to freshwater, a key strategy to defend Cajamarca from future mining threats.

“If the peasant farmers and the communities formalise their water access rights and obtain the freshwater concessions, then if AGA tries to solicit water access in the future they won’t get it. [The right to water] is a right that can’t be violated”, Says Robinson Mejía.

Gender equality and care

Observing how mining often impacts women far worse than men, during their resistance to La Colosa, women in Cajamarca formed the Peasant Women’s Alliance of Cajamarca. Made up of women from all of the veredas (villages), the Alliance fosters exchange between women, creating a space for them to share their knowledge and skills, and to support each other in processes of collective healing. They have just recently opened a space to feature artisanal, medicinal and agroecological products that members of the Alliance produce.

A celebration of arracacha and the women who grow Cajamarca’s true gold.
Photo COSAJUCA.jpg

Changing the Narrative

Celebration, art and storytelling have played a constant role in Cajamarca’s story of resistance and revival. Every year for 10 years, people in Tolima have organised a ‘Marcha Carnaval en Defensa de la Vida’ (Carnival March in Defence of Life), in the regional capital, Ibague.

In 2009 we marched in the carnival of Ibagué for the first time and people became interested and wanted to join in the struggle, this is where the idea of the Marcha Carnaval was born. It’s positive and colourful, it’s a way not just of saying no to the mine but also saying yes to life,” says Valentina Camacho of CADV.

The Marcha Carnaval has become an emblematic space for organising the broader movement of resistance to La Colosa and indeed extractive threats throughout Tolima. It is an artistic, theatrical and cultural demonstration in defence of life that has grown year on year, and now draws hundreds of thousands to the streets of Ibague.

Looking to the future

Cajamarca’s victory and subsequent revival has become emblematic, and popular consultations have experienced a ‘boom’ in Colombia. Ten more municipalities have voted down extractive projects through popular consultations and more than 70 other municipalities have expressed their interest in holding popular consultations regarding extractive projects. This rapid expansion of effective territorial defence is a result of direct community-to-community exchange. In late 2017, a national movement, the Movimiento Nacional Ambiental (MNA), was formed to bring together communities organising popular consultations throughout Colombia, offering mutual support and solidarity through a series of exchanges. The MNA was further consolidated in 2018 at a national exchange, supported by the global Yes to Life, No to Mining solidarity network.

In an attempt to stop this growing movement, the national Government has introduced administrative obstacles and challenged popular consultations on legal grounds at Colombia’s Constitutional Court, catalysing an ongoing struggle to preserve Colombian citizens’ fundamental rights to political participation in the form of popular consultations. Meanwhile, following Cajamarca’s emblematic victory, Colombian municipalities like those of Fusagasuga and San Bernardo continue to assert their right to say no to mining and yes to life, by holding popular consultations regardless of state recognition. La lucha continua.


Gaia has been accompanying the people of Cajamarca in their struggle since 2013, fostering international support and solidarity for their cause alongside other UK organisations like the London Mining Network.