Meet the people building alternatives to mining in Colombia

Hannibal Rhoades and Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello interview local activists and business people determined to kick the mining industry out of their town.

April 19, 2018
10 min read

On the 26th March 2017, citizens from the mountainous municipality of Cajamarca, Colombia, voted, with a 98% majority, to ban South African miner AngloGold Ashanti’s vast La Colosa gold mining project, in a ‘popular consultation’ led by grassroots youth activists and small-scale farmers.

One year on, and Cajamarca’s victory has helped inspire a much wider movement of citizens and municipalities exercising their democratic right to participation. 9 other municipalities have held consultations, each rejecting planned mining, gas and oil projects with majorities above 90%. More than 70 others have indicated their intention to do the same.

Springing up across the nation, the popular consultations reflect a growing rejection of the extractive industries, with their track record of social conflict and ecological destruction in Colombia and across Latin America, as an answer to local development needs.

Despite being portrayed as a ghost town by pro-mining media, in Cajamarca new alliances of small-scale farmers, land defenders and businesses are showing that it’s possible to build peace, prosperity and development without mining as Colombia enters a post-conflict era.

This March, Colombian activist Mariana Gomez Soto, ethnobotanist Ricardo de la Pava, and business leader Felipe Macia travelled to the UK to share Cajamarca’s story. Here they describe the importance of Cajamarca’s example as Colombia prepares to elect its first President since peace was officially established in 2016.

Mariana Gomez Soto, Latin American Coordinator of the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network, has been involved in organising popular consultations in her home-town, Piedras, in Cajamarca, and across Colombia.

Mariana tells us about the trajectory, impact and significance of the popular consultations, the challenges they face, and their crucial importance for peace in Colombia.

“Cajamarca proves it’s possible to fight the giant and to win. Since Cajamarca’s popular consultation victory, social movements in the region are confident that they are on the right track and can go out to share their experience with other municipalities that are in the same position.

“The positive impacts have been felt across Colombia, too, triggering a boom in the consultations. There have been other successes, and yet more consultations have been blocked by the Government, which is stopping funding for them to go ahead. Over 70 municipalities have expressed their intention to hold popular consultations, widening the message that people are not just asking for an end to mining.

“By saying ‘No’ to mining, communities are not saying no to development. They’re saying we need to transition to new forms of development that are not based on exploiting non-renewable resources.

“People in Colombia 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.

“This message is vital as Colombia finds its way through the peace process. Many communities and environmentalists in Colombia are very worried that one of the Government’s strategies for its implementation is the promotion of extractive industries as a way of securing foreign investment.

“Cajamarca tells us the peace process needs to create sustainable possibilities for the communities and areas most affected by the conflict. This message has become a topic of national discussion. In January four of our presidential candidates came together for a debate on topics relating to the environment. The first question they were asked was about popular consultations and mining. This is a success of the social movements- they’ve elevated the discussion and politicians are having to take a position.

“This approach shows great political maturity. People are not blocking roads or setting things on fire. People are participating, really exercising democracy. The international community should be aware of and support this process and the people who are re-defining development peacefully, rooted in the true treasures of their territories.

“This is why it’s important not to stop telling the story when a mine is stopped, but to raise up the livelihoods and ways of life that resonate with the decision the community has taken, to create new connections within and between sectors like food and eco-tourism which have the potential to build on this alternative vision.

Felipe Macia is Director of Sustainability at Crepes & Waffles, one of Colombia’s biggest family restaurant businesses, which supported Cajamarca’s popular consultation and is starting new relationships with food growers in the region.

Felipe shares with us how Crepes and Waffles, came to play an unlikely role in supporting the community of Cajamarca before and after the popular consultation.

“We first heard about what was happening in Cajamarca through our friend and activist Mariana Gomez. Before this we didn’t know where Cajamarca was. We didn’t know what a popular consultation was. And we were not aware of the threats of open cast gold mining. For instance, to get one gram of gold you have to extract two tonnes of rock and use a lot of chemicals to separate them.

“We were very surprised that a little municipality in Colombia was using democracy to voice their views in a country where we have been used to using violence to solve our differences.

“Initially we decided to get involved as individuals, not as a company, helping raise resources for the promoters of the popular consultation. Then, after the result on the 26th March, we decided to visit Cajamarca.

“We found a community that loves its land, traditions and food production profoundly and realised we needed to start working on economic alternatives that were aligned with what the people of Cajamarca had decided through the popular consultation.

“Talking to people there, they said they wanted to keep producing food, but wanted better markets to avoid the middle-man who does not pay enough. We started working with farmers to co-construct a commercial relationship.

“We both worked for several months getting to know each other, setting the conditions for this new market and telling Cajamarca’s powerful story through an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogota. The exhibition got over four thousand visitors and we launched the new dish for our menu based on a very important local crop, arracacha, an Andean carrot.

“Since October 2017 we have been buying two tonnes of Arracacha a month directly from the Arracacha Growers’ Association at double the market price. We’ve sold more than ten thousand arracacha dishes and are launching some other new products; a lemonade made from a lemon grown in Cajamarca, and raw sugar.

“We have also been working to encourage other businesses to follow our example. We see ourselves as a pioneer species and we hope to close this year with four Colombian food businesses buying directly from Cajamarca

“There are also a number of businesses who want to help finance roads, bridges and schools for Cajamarca. These projects, which are already within Cajamarca’s development plan, can be funded through a new law that allows businesses to invest fifty percent of their income tax directly in municipalities that have suffered the worst from the armed conflict.

“We are building a case in Cajamarca, not just of how a community can practice democracy to express their view on mining, but to make Cajamarca an example of development.”

Ricardo de la Pava, ethno-botanical expert and Sustainability Coordinator at Crepes & Waffles, is supporting peasant food growers to strengthen their agricultural livelihoods using agroecological practices.

Ricardo tells us more about the rich ecosystems, biodiversity and agricultural traditions that form the basis of Cajamarca’s true wealth, and how these are evolving.

“As a municipality Cajamarca is spread over a big range of altitudes, from 1,400 metres to 3,600 metres above sea level. At those lower altitudes the climate is pretty warm, but in the higher levels its cold. This makes Cajamarca very rich for farming.

“In the warmer altitudes, they grow coffee, lemons, oranges and passion fruit. In the middle of those altitudes there is a lot of arracacha growing, beans and lots of fruit trees. At the highest altitudes there are cows that produce a lot of milk, there are trout in the rivers and people grow blackberries and potatoes. The soil is very fertile as a result of volcanic activity. In some places it’s up to a metre deep, which is huge in a mountain area.

“The region is the main municipality in Colombia for growing arracacha, so when we decided to build relationships with the producers associations directly, we started with the Arracacha Growers Association.

“This was very practical work, identifying what kinds of arracacha could be transported easily, in what quantities, and making sure this works for and represents significant trade for the association.

“We’ve been working with the head of the arracacha growers association, Bernain Vargas, whose story is very important. He’s leading the way in the association by not using glyphosate or herbicides on his crops and instead using agroecological practices that maintain high biodiversity. He’s using biological methods to control pests and to fertilise the soil and also has started terracing, maintaining good conditions for the arracacha.

“Working with local agronomists and COSAJUCA (Cajamarca’s environmental youth collective), who are committed to agroecological principles, we’re building the examples that will demonstrate for other producers why using agroecological practices is better in the long run.

“These practices can be very effective on small areas of land, keeping them highly productive. They can make sure the agricultural economy strengthens in the right way, because conventional agriculture could have very negative impacts on the region’s cloud forests. We are committed to encouraging zero-deforestation and no-glyphosate agriculture through our buying.

“Our ambition is to work together with many producers who still maintain their cultures and a close relationship with the land, growing a diversity of crops, selling significant quantities and becoming more invested in conservation. This doesn’t happen with extractivism where you have one monocultural crop grown intensively for export.”

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