Some of our most interesting meetings are with the staff and executives of Gran Colombia Gold. We meet with them on two occasions: once in Bogotá and once in Marmato. In Bogotá, we meet with CEO María Consuelo Araújo, who served as Colombia’s Foreign Affairs minister from 2006 to 2007. Araújo resigned from cabinet in the midst of a scandal linking several of her family members to paramilitaries, the right-winged armed actors responsible for many of the political killings and human rights violations in Colombia. María Consuelo Araújo’s brother, former senator Alvaro Araújo Castro, was sentenced to 9.5 years of jail for conspiring with illegal paramilitary groups to intimidate voters with violence in the lead up to the 2002 elections. Her cousin Hernando Molina Araújo, former governor of the province of Cesar, was sentenced to 7.5 years of prison for his involvement with paramilitary groups, who allegedly financed his election campaign and threatened his principle opponent. The Araújo family is an excellent example of the connections that too often exist between the state, the corporate sector and illegal armed actors in Colombia.
In Marmato, we meet with Gran Colombia Gold’s environmental manager and its director of sustainability. They strongly emphasize the fact that many small-scale miners in Marmato are operating without titles and are therefore “illegal”. Our conversations with the small scale-miners, however, suggest that the situation is far more complex. In 2001, CIDA-sponsored changes to the Colombian mining code eliminated the differences between small-scale and large-scale mining. This forced artisanal miners and multinationals to compete for titles under the same conditions, despite their different environmental impacts, economic benefits, levels of state protection and tax exemptions. Small-scale miners, who had less knowledge, experience and money than multinationals, were naturally hampered by this process. Many failed to secure the titles they needed to continue working in the mines that had sustained them for generations. Recent estimates suggest that 70% of small-scale miners who applied for titles did not receive them, while 90% of mining areas have been granted to multinationals. There therefore seems to be an important gap between the legal dimension and the moral dimension of this question. One small-scale miner from Marmato sums it up nicely: “We may be now be “illegal”, but we are legitimate. We are doing the same thing that we have been doing for generations. The only thing that has changed is that unjust laws, laws that were designed to benefit multinationals, have been put in place”.
These laws seem all the more unjust when one considers that they not always work both ways. According to the mining code, if a mine is abandoned for more than 6 months, the owner loses the right to the title. As Gran Colombia Gold acquired mines in Marmato, it closed them down to focus its efforts on exploration and the acquisition of further mines. These mines have been sitting empty for months - sometimes years – but the state has not stripped the company of its titles. Nor did it prevent police and company security guards from evicting the small-scale miners when they entered the mines after 6 months, incensed that they were jobless while their former mines – the ones they had lost the legal right to work in - sat empty.
Another legal and moral challenge is the debate surrounding the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples in Colombia. This right is is enshrined in the country's constitution, as well as in the ILO’s Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (which Colombia has ratified) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which Colombia supports). More than 50% of Marmato’s population is afro-Colombian and 17% is indigenous. However these groups must be formally organized and self-governed for the right to FPIC to be recognized. The afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in Marmato are not: they live among the rest of the population and are therefore not legally protected by the right to FPIC. I find myself reflecting on the ostensible goal of this right. Presumably, it serves to protect people’s prior right to their lands and resources, and to enhance their ability to control their own development in a context of growing inequality and vulnerability. Why, then, should the people of Marmato – indigenous or not, self-governed or not – not have the right to consent to changes on the land they have lived and worked on for hundreds of years?
The geological situation in Marmato is also complex. Gran Colombia Gold and the Colombian government claim that Marmato’s historical center is susceptible to landslides and that its residents should move for their own safety. It is true that the hillside is crumbling and that there is loose mining debris in many places. The people of Marmato acknowledge that the situation isn’t perfect but think it’s ironic that nobody was concerned about their “safety” until a powerful multinational wanted to move the town to build an open-pit mine. They feel the same way about recent attacks on their environmental record. If the government was so concerned about their environmental practices, they ask, why didn’t it ever say anything or provide them with training and support? Small-scale miners take issue with claims that Gran Colombia Gold, with its technical expertise and sophisticated practices, will do less environmental damage than artisanal miners. They believe that large-scale mining will necessarily have large-scale impacts, especially when analyzed from a sustainability point of view. The proposed open-pit mine project would last 20 years. After this time had elapsed, there would be no gold left for small-scale mining and there would be a large hole in an otherwise pristine landscape. Artisanal miners feel that it would be better, from both an environmental and human sustainability point of view, for them to continue mining at their current pace – something that could sustain them for another 200 years.
Whether they have legal arguments, moral arguments, or both, one thing that the small-scale miners in Marmato do not have is power. At odds with the company and feeling abandoned by their own government, the people of Marmato see international solidarity as a last bastion of hope. They want Canadian investors to learn about, and begin to question, Gran Colombia Gold’s behaviour in Marmato - since companies are first and foremost accountable to their shareholders and likely to be most responsive to this type of pressure. International solidarity through the presence of a delegation succeeded in drawing media attention (see article in La Patria and interviews on LPTV) and allowed small-scale miners to engage in direct dialogue with government officials and company executives (these meetings are usually difficult for them to secure on their own, given the power differentials between them and the upper spheres of society).
So what can we, as interested Canadians, do to support people like the small-scale miners in Marmato – knowing that we are sometimes their best hope? First, we can become more responsible and informed investors and shareholders. Second, we can support urgent action and public awareness campaigns (for more information about these strategies, contact Brittany Lambert). Third, we can analyze these situations within the broader context of Canadian foreign policy, and call for change. For example, Canada and Colombia recently signed a free trade agreement and there is concern that it will protect and promote foreign investment at the expense of many ordinary Colombians. There is no doubt that trade and foreign investment can drive growth in the right circumstances. However, in a country characterized by complex historical relationships between the state, the corporate sector and illegal armed forces, and in which the right to unionize is severely constricted, free trade may have unintended negative consequences. Canada and Colombia have signed a treaty requiring both governments to report annually on the human rights impacts of the free trade agreement. The first reports will be released in May 2012. We, as interested Canadians, must ensure that these reports are not just public relations exercises. We must hold our elected officials accountable for ensuring that negative findings have real consequence, and are not just shelved in a library.
If you are interested in seeing pictures of Marmato and of the delegation, please explore our Flickr album.
This blog post was written by Brittany Lambert, coordinator of CCIC's Americas Policy Group (APG).
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC, APG or their members.