Colombia's resistance to corporate mining excess has lessons for the world

Date of publication: 
14 May 2012

Voluntary guidelines are not enough. We must ensure our critical gaze on exploitative mining firms does not waver

I was recently sent a new film by an old friend, Hollman Morris. Morris was once the bete noire of the Colombian political class. His searing and powerful attacks on the role of the state in violence and displacement prompted the country’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, to describe him as a “publicist for terrorism”. Today, Morris is the boss of Bogota’s regional TV channel, Canal Capital.

His latest film, produced with Minority Rights Group International, is about a community of small-scale gold miners in the Cauca department of Colombia and their resistance against a mining company’s attempts to dig on their land. The community has worked the mud and rivers of their territory for decades, even centuries, eking a living from the small finds they make. They have engaged in a successful campaign to defend their way of life, which is as important to them for its culture as its steady (if minimal) income.

The film, which tells a story I have seen and heard so many times, prompted reflection on how much has actually changed in the world of mining after decades of work by civil society and UN representatives to force mining companies to behave better. For all the talk of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and new ways of doing business, can we be any more confident that large-scale mining activities will benefit the communities they almost always displace?

This is not just a Colombian story – although the link between multinationals and paramilitary violence is a well-known phenomenon that makes the Colombian experience particularly gruelling – but a global one. Colombia aside, I have visited mines as far apart as Peru and the Philippines, and the story of community upheaval is invariably the same. The promise of progress is bound up with provisos, but the threat to wellbeing is real and brutal, prompting communities to resist.

In Morris’s moving film, one woman compares the community’s treatment by those seeking to exploit their land to the experience of her ancestors arriving in slave ships from Africa. “They don’t believe we have souls or hearts,” she says. In many ways she is right – the job of a mining company, following the inexorable logic of the market and seeking to drive down costs, is to remove obstacles from the picture as quickly as possible. The international norm of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which demands that communities give their assent to any proposed exploration, is honoured only in its flagrant abuse.

I was chatting to a very senior member of the Colombian government last week, who said his administration would ensure that communities get a good deal from the arrival of mining companies. If it manages that, it will be the first government in history to do so. Precedent does not bode well – the promise of revenue from foreign firms usually outweighs concerns for the people on the frontline. That’s why national legal processes are seldom sufficient to protect communities.

So what can be done? Have the voluntary guidelines so beloved of mining executives and the CSR lobby made any difference? Doubtful. The environmental harm done by mining has reduced over the years, but that is down to the imposition of hard-nosed legal sanctions and technological advances that mitigate the most heinously destructive impacts.

But the social harm continues unabated. If voluntary action works, we would expect to see a whole host of examples where FPIC has been respected and/or communities have benefited from the encroachment of mining without a) law being applied and b) lengthy struggles for justice by the communities in question with the support of national and international civil society and the media.

But there are none, only endless accounts of communities losing everything. If you are aware of any, please let me know. Mining company annual reports don’t count.

The era of voluntary guidelines has not only been ineffective, it has been worse than useless. Although they may have led to incremental improvements in some areas, their real purpose has been to undermine attempts to develop effective legal sanction, both national and international, which is the only thing that will ultimately keep the destructive instincts of mega-wealthy companies at bay.

So with mining companies behaving as vilely as ever – and until the long campaign to develop meaningful international law bears fruit – the work done by civil society and media in conjunction with affected communities remains critical. Without the spotlight of scrutiny, there is not a chance that mining companies will deliver anything approaching a decent deal for communities.


It’s Canada’s duty to help save Colombia’s indigenous peoples

By Alex Neve, The Ottawa Citizen – 15, 2012

15 May 2012

When will Canada address the emergency for indigenous peoples at risk of extinction in Colombia?

Chilling testimony recently heard by one of the highest human rights bodies in our hemisphere captured little attention in Canada. It should have, given the humanitarian catastrophe it revealed.

At a special hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March, Angélica Ortiz appealed for the very survival of her people, the Wayu Indigenous Nation in Colombia’s Guajira peninsula. The appeal came during a special hearing to investigate the human rights impacts of mining. Large-scale coal mining has had disastrous impacts on indigenous communities in La Guajira, testified the Wayu leader, who described environmental contamination, the loss of valued plants and food crops, as well as an increase in cancer and other diseases.

Equally devastating, Ortiz testified, is the militarization that has come with mining development, the escalation of armed conflict and grave human rights abuses, including killings and sexual violence against indigenous women. “Many people have felt compelled to flee but displacement is a huge threat to our survival,” says Ortiz. “We fear the Wayu will become completely extinct.”

This is no empty rhetoric. In 2009, the Constitutional Court of Colombia determined 34 indigenous nations — including the Wayu — to be in imminent danger of physical or cultural extermination due to the impact of armed conflict and forced displacement. The court called the situation “an emergency which is as serious as it is invisible.”

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people concurs. In his 2010 report on Colombia, he called for a visit to Colombia by the UN special adviser on prevention of genocide.

It goes without saying that the extinction of indigenous peoples in any part of the world — and with them their culture, spirituality, language, ancestral knowledge and traditional practices — should be cause for concern and action by citizens everywhere.

But there are urgent imperatives why the emergency situation facing indigenous peoples in Colombia belongs squarely on Canada’s political agenda, not the least of which is a free-trade agreement with Colombia and vigorous promotion by the government of Canada of investment in resource extraction projects on Colombian soil.

Colombia remains a country in the midst of a vicious armed conflict between insurgent groups, government forces and army-backed paramilitaries. The conflict has been marked by human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by all of the warring parties, with civilians by far the principal victims. The conflict has also frequently been used as a cover for acquiring control over land of strategic value or mineral wealth, including land inhabited by and crucial to the survival of indigenous peoples.

In a 2010 report, Amnesty International documented an intensification of threats and attacks on indigenous communities and their leaders. Amid widespread denial of the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent about development projects that will affect them, those who raise their voices in opposition to such projects continue to be targeted with threats and killings.

The terror generated can prompt mass forced displacement. Between 2002 and 2009 alone, at least 70,000 indigenous inhabitants were forced to flee their territories, according to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, and the number keeps climbing.

It is obvious that engaging in resource development in a context in which people are violently driven from their lands inevitably carries a high risk of inadvertently fuelling and contributing to these grave human rights violations.

In 2001, Embera Katío indigenous leader Kimy Pernía Domicó was “disappeared” after he came to Canada to speak out about the impacts on his people of a hydroelectric project partially financed by a Canadian Crown corporation. Today, the Embera Katío are on the Constitutional Court’s list of 34 indigenous nations on the brink of physical or cultural extinction.

May 15 is the deadline for a report by the Canadian government on the human rights impacts of the free-trade agreement, a report required by law but which has been prepared in secrecy and without opportunities for input.

No matter what the report includes, the time is well overdue to lift the veil of silence around the emergency situation facing indigenous peoples in Colombia and ensure that Canada is part of the solution, not the problem.

Alex Neve is secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.