Why is large-scale mining a human rights issue in Colombia?

Date of publication: 
17 October 2013

Foreigners and citizens often think of Colombia as a land of paradoxes. Though the country is filled with natural resources and biodiversity, it was recently ranked third most unequal in the region.

Colombians in the streets commonly wonder: “why are we so poor if our land is so rich?”

During the past four Colombian administrations, mining gold, coal and other minerals in high-demand seems to have been the solution to this paradox. In fact, these governments have decided to go deep into the land to extract that richness and turn it into wealth so as to compensate for what is missing on the surface.

By the end of 2012, mineral extraction took over 1,8% of the Colombian national territory1, while 35% of the total landmass was promised as a potential mining site. That is, over a third of the country could host what governmental reports call “strategic investment areas.”

However, the magnitude of the policy is scarily large for an industry that has yet to demonstrate its environmental impacts will not irremediably harm the land in the long term.

Thus, the question of whether mining can solve the rich-land-poor-country paradox is: will depleting the underground resources ameliorate the lives of already poor people living on the surface? Most importantly, is it worth a shot?

The official rhetoric on mining

Large-scale mining brings Colombia multiple benefits and it is crucial for its economic development, say its promoters, who also often characterize the situation using the parable of the starving hen sitting on a golden egg. The proverbial hen, which needs money to buy food and survive, holds underneath a golden egg that it could exchange for food or other goods. Similarly, for some policymakers, Colombia is literally sitting on giant golden egg, which could be sold to the world market and rip off the benefits of the mineral’s increasingly high prices. This income can later return to the country as revenue and finance social and economic development projects.

Large-scale mining, however, isn’t so much like the hen sitting on a golden egg parable. On the one hand, Colombia is not just a hen, but a complex network of politicians and investors who make decisions about how much of that revenue will remain in their hands and which techniques will be used to mine that gold—having poisonous cyanide and water contamination in their technical repertoire. The proverbial hen neither captures the fact that some Colombians experience the harmful secondary effects of extracting gold and other minerals in their home territories. On the other hand, the golden egg does not equal Colombia’s gold reserves; for the hen’s life, its well-being and future subsistence do not depend on the egg. Contrarily, Colombians’ future prospects and current livelihoods depend on the earth beneath them.

Moving past this economic development discourse is important because it exposes large-scale mining not only as a policy matter but also as a human rights issue that is politically contested in Colombia. This is because the mining industry poses serious threats to the civil and environmental safeguards needed for real human development. These safeguards range from fundamental ones, such as protection measures to the right to life, to more nitty-gritty debates, such as how much should foreign companies pay for extracting the minerals and how much will local communities be compensated for giving up their right to the land. Here are a few examples of these threats and how they take place in specific contexts, drawing from a more extensive report on the issue.

The right to life and to protest
Its founding charter and its international commitments bind constitutional democracies like Colombia to protect all human rights, primarily the right to life. Yet, private security forces tasked with protecting large-scale mining companies throughout Colombia could become potential violators of this right. The military itself, which is tasked with protecting all citizens, has already been involved in killings of activists and local residents who oppose mining in their regions2.

Two men involved in campaigns against transnational mining in their region were killed in 2006 by local batallions in the Souther region of the Bolivar department. The army justified these killings claiming the victims’ had been promoting an insurgent agenda in collaboration with the ELN –National Liberation Army. Both cases were later acknowledged to have been extrajudicial killings (i.e. false positives), and served as warning signs of further repression and violence in mining areas.

In these cases the right to life was related to the right to protest. The decades-long armed conflict in the country has made it easy for the government and local authorities to stigmatize legitimate protests by calling them guerilla infiltrations. In the face of upcoming large-scale mining activities in Colombia, increasing militarization of mineral-rich areas is likely. This prospect threatens the communities nearby, since the local army and police may throw a blind eye to human rights violations, allowing extrajudicial killings and suppressing social protest, as they respond to the pressure of protecting the area from opposition to mining activities.

The spread of mining corporations’ private security can exacerbate this phenomenon. In Guajira, private security agents of a coal-mining corporation known as Cerrejón plus the government’s anti-riots police have already been accused of beating up women and children who protest the company’s expansion in the region.

The right to your rights and truthful information

Ethnic minorities in Colombia are also protected by human rights legislation, yet the government has been negligent in protecting these populations’ rights because doing so conflicts with mineral extraction. Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians have been historically harmed by colonization and slavery and continue to face large indexes of marginalization. These minority groups experience high poverty and political disenfranchisement, which translates into little ability to influence public policy, such as mining. Moreover, these populations face constant military repression promoted by a Bogota-biased cabinet.

In the midst of such adversity, Indigenous and Afro-Colombians have seen their government pay little attention to their internationally recognized human right to Free-Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). An instrument that would otherwise bind the government to conduct an appropriate and timely negotiation with ethnic groups about the details of mineral extraction has been used to perform buy-and-sell transactions that are insulting to the spirit of the FPIC law.

Last year, instead of setting up a rigorous FPIC process, government officials were caught signing agreements with the Wayúu in Guajira. In the contract, the community was agreeing to trade the indigenous group’s local river for goats and construction materials, despite the fact that many of them did not know how to read and write. The government was taking advantage of indigenous peoples’ poverty and illiteracy to trick them into selling the water body they depend on, without a process sensitive to their cultural demands and material needs. Knowing the real cost of giving up your highly valued river, would you exchange it for a goat?

The right to a sustainable future and a healthy environment

The Comptroller’s Office, the Colombian agency in charge of overseeing governmental administration and public funds management, released a study earlier this year that heavily criticized unregulated large-scale mining. Regarding the environment, the independent analysts hired for the study concluded that market mechanisms are incapable of compensating the “negative externalities” that large-scale mining activities produce, making the extractive industry unsustainable by definition. In other words, the unintended effects of massively extracting gold, coal and other minerals from the land promise to have harmful long-term effects in the economy and the population.

Long-term harm may happen due to the poisonous impact that the extraction techniques have on the ecosystem, or due to the health impacts on surrounding populations. In fact, NGOs have for a few years reported skin rushes and respiratory problems in the communities living near large-scale mining sites. If these effects have risen when only 1,8% of the land is used for mining, what would happen if a third of the land follows this path?

The analysts also advised that large-scale mining has global and inter-generational implications because it contributes to the unrecoverable loss of biodiversity and reduces future generations’ ability to enjoy a balanced global ecosystem. In other words, massively extracting minerals in high demand will diminish our children and grandchildren’s enjoyment of a healthy and biodiverse country.

In the process of extracting the golden egg, the large-scale mining boom could irremediably extinct plant and animal species, which would not only be a Colombian loss but also the whole of humanity’s. Is it worth to cash the golden egg and renounce a balanced ecosystem and a sustainable future? So far local communities and development experts think it’s not. What prevents policymakers from believing so as well? Is it, precisely, that proverbial golden egg?

Large-scale mining in Colombia is a human rights issue because it targets the land on which the most politically marginalized depend: it disproportionately harms ethnic minorities and threatens the safety of people who may (legitimately) oppose the activity in their hometowns. Large-scale mining is also very likely to bring up devastating environmental impacts, making the issue a human rights concern in the most encompassing sense, as it threatens humanity’s right to a healthy ecosystem.

If the most dangerous forms of large-scale mining take place, such as open-pit or mountaintop removal, the policy is likely to solve the rich-land-poor-country paradox. Though the solution will worsen the situation, turning the paradox into a prefect correlation of an empty land and a poor country.

[1] Mining In Colombia: Fundamentos Para Supercar El Modelo Extractivista. (Colombia’s Comptroller Office / May 2013)
[2] Large-Scale Mining In Colombia: Human Rights Violations Past, Present And Future. (U.S. Office on Colombia / May 2013)